What does the perfect business email look like? For some go-getters, it might be the 21st century of War and Peace: it’s long, it leaves no stone unturned, and it contains enough detail that anyone who reads it will be impressed by your work ethic and flowery language.
This is wrong.
A good email is less art than it is science. It’s a means to an end, with a clear objective: get someone else to understand something that you already understand. Whether that means a project just finished or you have a new proposal, a well-crafted email should be clear, efficient, and engaging—without demanding too much from the reader.
We spend some 1/3rd of our office time checking and managing our email. It only makes sense to get it right.
Here’s how to construct one without constantly editing yourself:
The Basic Rules of Email
Before you optimize the efficiency of every email you send, let’s get rid of some of the simple mistakes that are only making your written communication worse.
First, double-check that you’re sending it to the right people. In one famous mistake, Aviva Investors sent an email meant to fire one person…to a list of 1,300 people.
Before you hit “Reply All,” take a few seconds to consider what “All” includes. Here’s an example of a faux pas you can avoid if you were to double-check the email recipients every time:
“OK, so I was online dating a lot,” Shirley Goldberg remembered. After each date, she liked to send a summary to her girlfriend. “On the day I hit ‘Reply to All,’ I had four emails open, one of them directed to the entire staff of my school. Somehow I got the emails mixed up.”
This can be even more damaging in the professional environment. That’s why you should aim to keep each email as professional as possible. After all, email still counts as written communication. If you don’t want yourself on record as having said something, don’t email it. In company-wide email threads, it’s possible that even if you don’t send the email to the wrong person, what you wrote can still end up in someone else’s text.
Unsure if your writing is grammatically correct? Consider adding an app like Grammarly to your browser if you’re using web-based email.
Focus on Clarity
The ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian once said:
We should not speak so that it is possible for the audience to understand us, but so that it is impossible for them to misunderstand us.
Before you do anything else, make sure that your email is clear. That usually means the shorter it is, the better—there will be fewer opportunities for misinterpretation in a 100-word email than a 1,000-word email.
- Write short sentences. Turn to HemingwayApp for help here. It will point out where you’re over-stuffing your sentences and making too many demands on the reader.
- Use active voice rather than passive. “I finished the project” is clearer than “the project was finished by me.” It’s also more efficient.
- Organize your email paragraphs by topic. Similar to the way you’d structure a high school essay, keep your organization simple: one topic per paragraph.
- Don’t “bury the lead.” Burying the lead happens when you hide an important nugget of information somewhere within the content. This leads to less emphasis on the important point. If you’ve ever wondered how you can write someone an email and they forgot about its most important message, it sometimes comes from buying the lead.
- Read before sending. If you keep the email simple, you won’t have a problem reviewing it quickly before sending off. Don’t make more work for the recipient by asking them to read your mind. Make sure the email, as Quintilian recommends, is “impossible to misunderstand” from the outset.
Don’t Waste Time
You’ll enhance clarity when you stick to this rule: don’t waste time.
If you’re sending an email proposal to someone you don’t know, there’s a temptation to spend two paragraphs apologizing or explaining yourself. Don’t! Just include a brief sentence that mentions how you found their email and move on. If their time is valuable, thank them for sparing some. Then proceed to stop wasting it.
One brief sentence at the top of an email is usually enough to let someone know that you’re aware when an email might be out of the blue, or coming in some sort of strange context. If you’re networking, include a sentence that describes a mutual contact, for example. While you should focus on clarity, you’ll still want to display some social acuity when you’re emailing someone new for the first time.
When Scripts are Available (and Make Sense), Use Scripts
If you’re sick of staring at a blinking cursor and want to make some progress, you can always lean on email scripts to get you started.
The key here isn’t to copy and paste everything you write, but to remember the human touch. But once you’ve determined that you’ll do that, you can use some email scripts as reference points:
- Groove supplies 17 email scripts, including influencer outreach scripts and guest post pitches.
- Ramit Sethi’s networking scripts aren’t only useful, but the article explains how to avoid many of the same pitfalls as other networkers.
- The Muse offers 27 templates for difficult workplace emails as well. You might want to use these only as a reference, however, and avoid direct copy-and-pasting when it comes to the most sensitive emails.
Practice Makes Perfect
You might not write perfectly effective emails every time. But as you get used to the work environment and routinely send out similar emails, you’ll get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Pay attention to the questions people tend to ask in their replies and you’ll soon learn that you can answer them ahead of time. Over time, you’ll settle on a natural rhythm to your emails to help you avoid long email chains, back-and-forth question sessions, and even the occasional faux pas.