Writing Great Emails: Top 10 Tips

Do you remember when email first hit the scene? My first exposure to email was around 1988 when the publishing company I was working for installed internal email on our IBM 286 PCs. (Google this old PC and look at the pictures for a real stroll down memory lane!)

I remember wasting lots of time using this amazing new communication tool to chat with coworkers about anything and everything, most of it having little if anything to do with our jobs. And this was just internal email within the company — sending emails outside the company was still a year or so away.

Bedrock Communication Tool

Fast forward nearly 30 years and email is now an integral part of practical everyone’s life. Sure, we have text, instant messaging and countless social media platforms we can use for electronic communication. But good old-fashioned email is still the bedrock tool used by most people for communicating electronically, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

Given this, I often wonder: Why are most of the emails I receive so bad? I mean, we’ve got nearly three decades of experience using email. Most of us have used it practically our whole lives to communicate with friends, relatives, co-workers, clients, etc.

But I still see the same crappy emails all the time that violate the basic rules for email writing and email etiquette. This is true with both personal and business emails, by the way. So I thought I’d recap some of the most common violations of email writing and etiquette that I consistently see, including a few of my biggest email pet peeves.

Top 10 Email Tips

There’s probably nothing here you haven’t read somewhere else or don’t instinctively know. But based on my observations, there’s a big difference between knowing something and doing it. So here are my Top 10 tips for writing great emails — and not ticking off your email recipients:

1. Use the proper style, tone and level of professionalism for the type of communication. If it’s a work- or business-related email, use a professional style and tone. Write as grammatically correct as possible (within reason — I know everybody’s not a grammar geek like me) and don’t misspell any words. If it’s a personal email, you can be more casual and informal, but I still recommend keeping it pretty clean from a grammatical and spelling standpoint.

2. Respect your recipients’ time and attention span. This means writing a useful subject line that tells recipients what the email is about and keeping the content as brief and concise as possible. Follow the journalism inverted pyramid style of writing in which the most important information is in your lead paragraph and the rest of the email includes supporting and less-vital details of diminishing importance.

3. Use “reply to all” selectively and judiciously. OK, this is my first big email pet peeve: People hitting “reply to all” when it isn’t necessary. Before using reply to all, think about whether or not every recipient really needs to see your reply. If not, just hit “reply.”

4. Use “BCC” when sending an email to a large group of people. This will protect the privacy of everyone who is being emailed by concealing their names and email addresses. Otherwise, everyone who receives the message can see the name and address of everybody else who receives it.

5. Always follow the “overnight” rule when writing and sending an emotional or angry email. Raise your hand if you’ve ever sent an email while you were emotional or angry — and then immediately wished you hadn’t. I learned this lesson the hard way a long time ago and try to never forget it: Always sit on these emails overnight and read them fresh again in the morning. You’ll probably rewrite it, or just delete it.

6. Clean up long email strings before forwarding them. Emails that get forwarded or replied to all multiple times end up with long strings of signatures, disclaimers and other junk. It’s a courtesy to delete all of this before forwarding it on again yourself.

7. Don’t overdo it with your email signature. This is another one of my pet peeves. Logos and other graphics that are included with signatures often come through to recipients as attachments. Then you have to wade through all these useless attachments to find the real attachment you actually need.

I believe that simpler is better with an email sig: Include your vital contact info and a link to your website and maybe a social media page or two. You can bold or colorize type if you want something to stand out, but skip the fancy graphics and formatting.

8. Don’t send very large attachments. Super big attachments — larger than 5 MBs or 10 MBs at the most — can clog up or even jam your recipient’s inbox. I spent almost an hour once getting my email unjammed because of some super-sized video attachments somebody tried to send me. Use Dropbox to share attachments that are any bigger than this.

9. Use “high priority” sparingly. If you flag too many emails as “high priority,” people will start to ignore it. As for “low priority,” well, I’m not sure why you’d ever use this. It’s hard enough to ensure your email gets prompt attention without telling recipients it’s not really that important!

10. Know when to pick up the phone. Have you ever had email conversations that just go on and on without answering the question or resolving the problem? When you feel this is happening, stop emailing and call the other person or go track him or her down to talk face to face. I’ve wasted so much time before on these frustrating back-and-forths that could have been halted with a simple five-minute (or less) phone call.

7 thoughts on “Writing Great Emails: Top 10 Tips

  1. Caroly Gardiner

    I couldn’t agree with you more on all 10 points.
    One other that bothers me is when people use an old message and reply to it on a completely different topic and they don’t change the subject line.

    Reply
    1. don Post author

      Yep, that’s a good one too, Carolyn! I have to admit I’m guilty of that. Old messages sit in my inbox or client folder and we just end up extending them with new conversations. Sometimes I do remember to change the subject — or just start a new email string.

      Reply
  2. Brad David

    Hey Don,

    Great article. Here’s a tip I always share with colleagues and subordinates alike. It’s saved me on many occasions.

    When you get behind in your emails (we all do), answer the newest ones first. If may sound counter intuitive, but if you start with the oldest ones, you will lose the benefit of other responses in the string and you run the risk of contradicting another’s directive and creating confusion. You’ll also expose yourself for being so far behind.

    Reply
    1. don Post author

      Thanks for chiming in, Brad. Yes, that does sound counter-intuitive, but I can see why it makes sense.

      Reply
    2. Aarron Pina

      Brad –
      This is a crucial point that many people can overlook. 10 years ago, I was buried in over 4,500 unread items and what you just said was one of 3 key points that helped me dig out of the mess.

      Lately, when I teach how to overcome inbox overload, it’s one point that I can sometimes gloss over. But, if you don’t follow a thread to its latest update, you do run the risk of contradicting someone else and having to back paddle or spending a bunch of time solving an issue that was solved later in the thread.

      Don, solid list and thanks, for posting. There’s so much about email that we assume people ought to know, yet don’t. Just goes to show “there’s nothing common about common sense”.

      Best,

      AP

      Reply
  3. TOMMY SADLER

    Nice article Donald. I would put this into practice more if I (your brother) had a computer at home. I’ll still be able to use the information when I do write/respond to an e-mail.

    Reply

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