How to Properly Write an E-Mail in 2020
Now I know what you must be thinking. "David, I know how to write an e-mail, so why am I here? And what does the year 2020 have to do with it?"
E-mail has been around since around 1973, but it's been in regular use for at least the last couple of decades. The problem is, people still don't know how to properly write an e-mail. In the year 2020, people should be able to write a coherent e-mail which gets the point across without any fluff. To this day, I still receive e-mails that I deem unprofessional in the workplace, or, too relaxed in a personal setting. So I had to write this article in the hopes someone will improve their e-mail writing skills.
E-Mail Horror Story
I want to share an e-mail horror story that I had in the workplace quite a few years ago. In the end it didn't turn out bad, but it easily could have turned out poorly. It's a great story that has an important point behind it.
At the time I was supervising two units, as I was transferring from one unit to another. While I was in a training with a co-worker and my supervisor from the unit I was leaving, I was checking my work e-mail. One of the lower level supervisors had sent an e-mail to staff asking for them to sign up for some overtime for another individual. If someone wanted time off, they usually had to find someone to work for them. We frequently referred to the shifts that had to be filled as "slots." In this e-mail, the supervisor told everyone, "We need some people to volunteer to get this slut covered." It should be obvious what the error is in that sentence.
Luckily for me I am on top of my e-mails, so immediately reached out to the supervisor to direct them to retract the e-mail (which was allowed at the time through the system we had). However, I showed it to my boss at the time, who started to laugh so much she had to walk out of the training to regain her composure.
Funny story, to be sure, but it demonstrates that having a poor understanding of how to write an e-mail can really be detrimental and even disastrous.
Have you ever sent an e-mail you later regretted sending?
What to Put in the Subject Line of an E-Mail
The subject line is the most important line of the e-mail. For most people it's the first thing they see. That subject line determines if they will open the e-mail immediately, later, or never.
- Make sure to put a subject in. Believe it not, people sometimes leave the subject line blank. So either the e-mail comes with a blank subject line, meaning someone may not look at it or delete it, or, the e-mail comes in with the body of the e-mail filling up the subject line. Either case is not good.
- Keep it short. The subject line needs to be informative, but as short as possible. Choose the overall theme of what the e-mail is about and make that your subject. I frequently use one word as my subject line, because sometimes that's all that is needed.
- Keep it ambiguous. To me, each e-mail should be treated like a mystery. You want the reader to open and read it. The subject should reference the topic being discussed, but not give away all of the details either, so that the reader is forced to open it.
- Maintain proper grammar and punctuation. Don't treat the subject line as a sentence, so no need to put a period at the end. But capitalization, commas, and other required punctuation should be applied. Since it is a subject line, most words should be capitalized.
Basically, keep the subject line short, to the point, but not so specific you give away what is being described in the body of the e-mail. Make sure to check the subject line for spelling or grammatical errors. Get the readers attention so they have no choice but to check your e-mail.
What to Put in the Body of an E-Mail
Obviously the body of the e-mail will contain what you want to talk about, so that's something you have to figure out on your own. However, to get that point across, the body of the e-mail needs to look good.
- Avoid conversational speaking. Some people treat an e-mail like a back and forth conversation. It isn't. So avoid "Hello, how are you?" type lines. Now there are exceptions to this, such as if it is a personal contact and that level of friendliness is acceptable.
- Maintain proper grammar and punctuation. Notice a trend? Grammar and punctuation are just as important in the body of an e-mail as they are in the subject line. I once had an employee type e-mails in all capital letters. It seemed like the employee was yelling in every e-mail they sent.
- Break up paragraphs. Make sure to put a space between paragraphs to break up each idea. This will allow the reader to break up each section of the e-mail in their minds, allowing them to understand the entirety of the e-mail. If there is just one long block of text, ideas will be jumbled together.
- Avoid emojis. This can happen in personal e-mails, which is fine, but professional e-mails should be devoid of emojis of any kind. I may have used them on one or two occasions in the last 20 plus years I have been sending e-mails.
- No backgrounds. This is one of the biggest offenders I see when it comes to e-mails. An image or pattern set in the background. It may look okay when it's sent, but it really isn't. Worse off, it's the one component in an e-mail that can look different from client to client, so it makes reading an e-mail difficult. Lastly, it can cause issues for those who want to reply to the e-mail, as it may load improperly or muddle the look of text more while they type out a response.
- Avoid non-standard fonts and colors. Don't download a font and use it because it looks neat, as it may not look neat on the reader's end. Same with colors. Font colors should only change when it's necessary to do so.
- Keep font size consistent. Newsletters and other types of e-mails can have different font sizes, but, most e-mails should utilize the same font size throughout the body.
The body is where the meat and potatoes of the e-mail will live. It needs to not only read well, but look good as well.
What to Put in the Signature of an E-Mail
The signature line is just as important as the other components of your e-mail. That doesn't mean you can go overboard on it either. It needs to stay in the realm of who you are, but doesn't share your entire life story.
- Have multiple signatures. Tailor them to what you need them for. One for professional e-mails, one for family members, etc.
- Don't include everything. Even with personal signatures, I'd recommend including no more than five lines. You don't need to list your kid's names, pet's names, the make and model of your car, etc. if it's not relevant to what the reader should know.
- Graphics are acceptable. If it's a logo for a company, then that is something to include in a signature. A picture of your pets may not be as appropriate.
- Don't include quotes. Quotes is just something else to read and are unnecessary in a signature. The first time someone may like it, but the tenth time they see it they may not like it at all.
- Include standard company language. Language about privacy and confidentiality is acceptable language to include if it's what your organization requires.
If your signature is typically longer than the body of the e-mail, then there could be a problem. Cut it down and provide relevant information the reader will need.
Other E-mail Tips
- Check your senders. Always check who you are sending an e-mail to. If you need to blind copy someone, make sure their e-mail address is in the right field.
- Check your e-mail address. Make sure you are sending the e-mail from the right e-mail address. You may not want a professional e-mail going from a personal e-mail address. Also check the name used on the e-mail address to ensure it's appropriate.
- Use proper salutations. Just like in-person communications, address someone appropriately. Use someone's tile, such as "Mr." or "Dr." if it's a first time communication. If it's of a more casual nature, then you can use the first name.
- Proofread. Obviously, proofread your e-mail from the subject line to the signature of the e-mail to make sure everything is accurate.
- Sit on it. Don't send the e-mail right away. Sit on it and return later. Read it again and change something if it doesn't seem right. The great thing about e-mails is that you don't have to send them right away.
- Priority flags. Don't flag every e-mail as important. If you do that, then the reader will just treat your e-mails like business as usual, or worse yet, ignore them completely. Only flag an e-mail as important when it really is important.
- Send files properly. If you have to send a bunch of files or large files, zip them or store them on the cloud. Don't send ten files and expect the reader to manage all ten of those files, unless they asked for them directly and know they are coming.
- Don't forward chain e-mails. Spam e-mails, chain e-mails, cute e-mails, and anything in between don't need to be forwarded on. Break the chain of those e-mails so people are not overloaded with spam.
We can improve the utility of email by maneuvering its use in a constructive manner.— Shiva Ayyadurai
How to Properly Reply to an E-Mail
- Read the e-mail. I don't know how many times someone has read one of my e-mails but neglected to respond to everything in the e-mail. Before you reply to an e-mail, read it again.
- Add or remove e-mail addresses. Maybe a reply is meant for one person, so remove those individuals. Or, you want to include others, so add them. I had one co-worker who would purposely remove management out of an e-mail as to avoid getting in trouble, so I would have to constantly add them back in.
- Don't reply with just "Thank you." This is just another e-mail that floods someone's mailbox. You can include a gratitude if it's at the end of the e-mail you are writing, but it shouldn't be the entirety of an e-mail.
- Determine how you want to respond. There could be multiple points in an e-mail you want to address. You can do so in the new body of the reply, or, go to their body of the e-mail and respond in a different font color (red or blue) for each point, then reference in your body of the e-mail for them to look below for your response.
- If required, always respond. You can acknowledge the e-mail and state you will respond later, but, always provide some sort of response so the person knows you acknowledged their request. Then, respond in the future. One of the biggest problems with e-mails is that people sometimes ignore them.
If you have a question on how to respond to an e-mail, then please ask below and I'd be happy to help!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 David Livermore