We’ve all opened an important email only to see a long, rambling message with a lot of detail and several questions to address. It's too much to deal with right now, so we save it for later and move on to the next message. More than likely, that email languishes in the inbox, getting buried deeper and deeper.
By writing clear, concise, and professional emails, you can improve the chances that this won't happen to your email messages—and that you'll promptly get the response you’re looking for.
We’ll cover when to write an email (and when not to), and how to get the response or action you want.
Email when you don’t need an immediate response. The nature of email means your message may not be read for several hours or days. A voice call or text message is much more likely to get a prompt response than an email. Once read, your message still may not be a priority for the recipient but it helps to specify the timeframe in which you're looking for a response. A well-crafted email might include: “I’m looking forward to your feedback. Will you please send me your comments by Tuesday, November 2?” This request works if you’re giving the reader one or two weeks advance notice.
Email to communicate with several people at once. Email effectively shares information with multiple people quickly. One email keeps everyone in the group on the same page about progress toward mutual goals and streamlines group communication. Emails are a good form of communication for sending on digital documents, like a dissertation chapter or an article you want to bring to a colleague’s attention.
Email to document key conversations. For example, if you’ve met with your advisor and discussed the next steps for your research, send a follow-up email to summarize what you talked about and what decisions were made. Writing it out in this way helps you to take action by taking an abstract idea of what needs to happen and making it a concrete task. In addition, you may have misunderstood something that was discussed, and it's easy for your advisor to clarify. In any case, an email like this provides both of you with a record of the meeting to reference later.
Know when to NOT email. There are much better communication methods if (1) you need a quick response, (2) your message needs to remain confidential (most email servers are not encrypted, and email can be forwarded), or (3) you find yourself struggling to write with a positive and professional tone. Instead of email make a phone call or try to speak in person. After your conversation you can send an email, if appropriate, to thank the person you called (and to document the conversation).
Write telegraphic, search-friendly subject lines. The subject line is your first line of communication with your reader. Using general words like “Hi” or “appointment” aren’t helpful; instead, write subject lines that hint at the content or the response you’re looking for): “Follow-up from Virology conference in NY” or “Let's schedule some time to edit our article” are clear, concise subject lines.
Be concise. Provide your reader with enough information so he or she can take action on your requests. Don't provide unnecessary background information or address tangential matters. It never hurts to outline your thoughts before you write, and read your message through before sending. If you have several issues to discuss, sending two or three emails may be better than one long email that goes on and on. Single-topic emails help your reader focus and take action, and makes it easy to file and refer to later.
Have a clear call to action. In the first sentence, clearly state your purpose for writing and your expected response. If your email is informational, simply state that you’re providing information: For your information, here are the four points we discussed last Thursday. If you are looking for their input, make that clear as well: Would you prefer the document as a Word document or a PDF? Let me know by Friday.
Use formatting to emphasize key words and sentences. This goes hand in hand with clearly communicating the response you’d like from your reader. Draw your reader’s attention by judiciously using bold or italics. Never use underlining except for hyperlinks, and reserve capital letters for acronyms or abbreviations. White space in your email is a powerful way to focus your reader’s attention to key points. A one-sentence paragraph or a bulleted list draws your reader’s eye to the most important points.
Use simple, clear prose. It’s tempting to use big words and impress your reader with your intelligence and vocabulary, but that only obscures your meaning. Simple words communicate your meaning quickly and clearly. For example, the word "use" is preferable to “utilize” and sentences with 15 words are usually clearer than those with 30.
Use a conversational tone, but be professional. Feel free to use contractions ("We'll need to meet next Thursday…") but never use text message abbreviations ("hey thot u should know abt mtg tonite"). Greeting your reader with a "Hello” is fine but calling them by name is even better ("Hi, Dr. Johnson."). Close your email on a friendly note with “Best regards” or “Thanks.”
Edit for clarity and tone. After you draft an email always read through what you've written, keeping in mind your reader and your purpose. Remove unnecessary words and shorten paragraphs where you can. Check for tone, too. If it sounds overly assertive or whiny, rewrite the offending sentence. “I want my fellowship application materials submitted by November 20” comes across as demanding. “I'll be submitting my materials on November 20,” however, politely informs the reader what you expect from them.