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The Elements of E-Mail Style


October 1, 2001

WHEN SOMEONE RECEIVES an e-mail from you they don't just jump, they ask for a specific altitude. You've never had to send a message twice or pester someone by phone because they haven't responded to you electronically.

This column is not for you.

The compendium of advice that follows is for people whose e-mails sometimes don't get the attention they deserve. Heed it, and you'll be writing more effective messages that get better results—faster. Ignore it, and your e-mail will continue to fade into the background of recipients' inboxes, along with the offers to "Make Big $$$ Working from Your Linen Closet!!!"


Brevity Rules
If you aim for your e-mail to be read in its entirety, it should be no more than one screen long. That translates into about 25 lines of text or 230 words. Don't write e-mails that consist of one long, blocky paragraph crammed with lots of ideas. Short paragraphs with spaces in between will imbue your e-mail with energy and urgency. Fax and snail mail are two great options for longer missives, and they tend to get more attention than e-mail.


Subliminal Messages
If you are writing an e-mail with the intention of getting someone to do something, bring it up in the second sentence. Otherwise, you can't be certain they'll get your drift. For example:

It was great to share a cab with you last week at the annual meeting in Las Vegas. I wanted to follow up on our conversation by asking if you'd review the technical specs for our new human resources system. Let me know if you have any suggestions for changes.

It's also not a bad idea to end your message by reiterating what you're asking for and mentioning any impending deadlines.


Pick a Subject, (Almost) Any Subject
Some people leave the subject lines of their e-mails blank. This is baffling to me; perhaps they're hoping that my sense of curiosity will compel me to open their messages. Crafting a relevant subject line will prompt people to open your e-mails and act on them quickly. E-mails with subject lines that say "Important!" or "Read Me Immediately" will do the trick only once—maybe twice—before your colleagues wise up.

Give the recipient a sense of what's inside. Here are some subject lines that would convince me to read them ASAP: "Must Reschedule Toronto Trip," "Dinner Invitation for You" or "Seeking Ideas for Dec. Sales Meeting."

The terms urgent or FYI are sometimes appropriate for subject lines—for example, "FYI: New Phone # for Cleveland Office"—but use them sparingly.


A Hail of Bullets
If you are recapping things that have happened in the past, such as topics covered at a meeting, or discussing things that need to get done, consider using bullets or numbers. For example:

Before next month's trade show, we need to:

1. Spruce up the booth structure (Andres)

2. Decide on and order giveaways: rubberduckies or Groucho glasses (Suzi)

3. See if one of the interns is willing towear the gorilla outfit (Jeff)



you are not e.e. cummings
When I get e-mails that employ only lowercase letters and skimp on the punctuation, I tend to assume that the sender is either 4 years old or is using one of his hands to type and the other to excavate his aural canal.

Capital letters and appropriate punctuation are just as important in e-mails as in old-fashioned letters; they encourage people to take you seriously. It's also smart to run your outgoing messages through a spellchecker and to proofread them quickly for grammatical mistakes and fuzzy writing before you send them.


Usable URLs
When you refer people to a website, include the complete address on a line of its own. For example:

If you have some time to kill, visit this website:

http://www.modernhumorist.com


Don't put any punctuation before or after the URL. If you do, it will prevent your recipients from simply clicking on the URL and having the webpage open in their browser window.


Cut Attachments Loose
Sending out unsolicited attachments can quickly turn you into an e-mail outcast. Don't attach documents, pictures or spreadsheets to your messages unless you're certain the recipient wants or needs to see them. Sometimes, when you have the urge to distribute a document or a set of documents to a large group of people, it may prove more convenient for everyone if you simply post the documents to an easily accessible intranet site and send an e-mail with a pointer to their location.

If you're sending out a fusillade of attachments—say, three or more—you may want to send each as a separate message, using the subject line to alert the recipient to the contents of the file you're attaching. It's much easier for the recipient to receive a message titled "2002 Budget Spreadsheet" with an attachment called 2002bud.xls, rather than to receive the attachment as part of a long list of other attachments at the bottom of a message.


Weaving a Reply
I keep my e-mail software set to automatically quote the original message when I reply. This way, if I fire off a quick yes or no response to the sender, he can see what I'm talking about, since his original message appears at the bottom of the e-mail.

Sometimes I weave my response into the text of the original message, like this:

My thoughts on your last message appear below:

>>What do you think about the new packaging?

Colors are great. Will the plastic window increase

production costs at all?

>>Do you think we need to rewrite the text on

the back of the box, or should we just keep last

season's copy?

Let's rewrite it. I'll assign it to Jane. Let her know

what your deadline is.


But if I am asking the recipient to take some kind of immediate, important action, I make that request at the top of the message rather than at the bottom or somewhere in the middle.


Lost in Time
Make sure your computer—and your company's e-mail server—is set to the right date and time. Messages with an incorrect date or time can show up in the wrong place in a recipient's e-mail inbox, causing them to be overlooked.


Signing Off
Your outgoing e-mail should automatically include a signature file. This feature is built in to most e-mail software. It appends some text—usually your name and contact information—to the bottom of every e-mail you send. Resist the urge to include a quote from your favorite song or episode of The Simpsons as part of your signature file.


Privacy Is an Illusion
Finally, don't assume that the only person who will read your e-mail is the person to whom it is addressed. Few e-mail systems are completely secure, and no e-mail user is immune to pesky subpoenas. If you need to say something that stays truly private, say it in person, preferably while walking briskly down a noisy street.

If you have other tips on writing effective e-mails, I'd love to hear them.



Scott Kirsner is a Boston-based writer who counts Elements of Style coauthor E.B. White among his personal heroes. He can be reached at kirsner@att.net. Send column feedback to ecosystem@darwinmag.com.

Source: http://www.darwinmag.com/read/100101/ecosystem.html

by Scott Kirsner, Copyright © 2001 CXO Media Inc.


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