Writing Wrongs: A Guide to Crafting Respectable E-mail

Many people bemoan the cultural slackening that introduced Casual Fridays into the workplace, the devil-may-care dress code of the Internet start-up, and the banishment of the neck tie from all but the highest levels of business. The wisest among us balance the demands of a more relaxed attitude with the realization that what we choose to wear says a lot about us. In other words, we want our clothes to say something like, Hey, I am easy to get along with, but you still need to take me and my ideas seriously.

This casualization has unfortunately spread from our wardrobes to our inboxes. Far too often we receive (or, egads, send) an e-mail that reads like this:

when can we get together. theres alot we need to talk about. the new price quotes some billing issues and this months numbers. mondays are good but not after 2 call me.

What’s wrong with that, you ask. Certainly the goals of communication have been met. The recipient can easily understand the message, and information has successfully been transmitted from one human being to another. Unfortunately, other information has also been transmitted. Namely, the author of this note is kind of an idiot.  What follows are some basic guidelines for making sure that your correspondence isn’t inadvertently outing you as a moron to your boss, colleagues, and/or employees.

Parts of a Letter
The main thing people seem to forget when writing e-mail is that e-mail, while it can be conversational, is not a conversation. The same rules that you learned in high school about writing a letter apply.

Writing a letter the old fashioned way, on paper that is, you began with a header—the date, your address, and the recipient’s address—at the top of the page. This was followed by a greeting, the body of the letter, and a closing signature. The heading has largely been eliminated by e-mail, since the pertinent information is all added to the message when you hit send. Extra information, however—like a physical address, website, or phone number—can be tacked on as part of your automatic signature.

The greeting is one of the most common casualties of the digital age. If you are shooting messages back and forth with someone you know well, there’s no need to begin each response with a Dear So-and-So. That said, a one-off e-mail, even one written to a friend, should address the recipient by name. People like their name, so why not grab their attention right from the start?

Of course, the body of the e-mail is why we have electronic communications in the first place. You want to say something. This is also where people commit the biggest crimes against language and grammar. More on that below.

Finally, you close out your messages with a signature, even if it’s just your name. Most of us have an automatic signature that pops up when we begin a new message. This is the place for your personal or business information. Don’t have the system tack Sincerely, Me above the info section of your automatic signature. How you sign off can affect the tone of a message, and there’s no generic closing that fits every situation.

As mentioned above, the body of a message is where the rubber meets the road. Your reader can happily ignore your greeting and your signature and still get the point. Let’s go over a couple rules-of-thumb that will help you look like a master communicator.

Keep ‘Em Separated
There are very good reasons that writing involves the use of sentences and paragraphs. These breaks help organize our thoughts, and they allow a reader to follow our thinking.

The sentence is an easy one, but not everyone has mastered it. (You would think that anyone who manages people would, at least, be able to write in sentences. This is not always the case.) Capitalize your sentences, end them with punctuation, keep them simple. Also, never use two spaces after a sentence. Two says “I learned how to type on an IBM Selectric.” One space doesn’t say anything, which is good because it’s your words that should do all the talking.

Paragraphs are harder to implement, and there can be some wiggle room. At the very least, use paragraphs whenever you change the subject. If your message only has one subject but there are several points you want to make about it, use paragraph breaks for that too. Whatever you do, don’t subject someone to 250+ words without giving them a break.

Remember these three rules about punctuation.

  • You must end every sentence with a period or a question mark. (Exclamation marks can be used sparingly, but there’s never call to use two in a row!!)
  • If a sentence has a conjunction (and or but) in the middle, and there are independent clauses (subject and predicate) on either side of it, you need to separate them out with a comma.
  • If you have two independent clauses without a conjunction (and or but) in the middle, use the semicolon. (e.g. I like the park on overcast days; it’s very peaceful.)

There are a lot of grammatical sins that will never be noticed by the average reader, and people tend to be somewhat forgiving with e-mail. Spell correct will save you from some errors, but there are a few words that spell correct will miss that need to be used/spelled correctly all the time.

its               The house is losing its paint.

it’s              Grab your umbrella. It’s raining outside.

a lot           This is a two-word phrase, but a lot of people spell it as one.

there         Your coat is over there on the hook.

their          Jill and Bob told us about their vacation.

they’re     They think they’re good story-tellers, but they’re not. (That was a two-fer.)

Now these rules will not make you a Hemingway—I rather imagine Ernest would be more of a texter, anyway—but they will help you write e-mail that commands the respect of your peers. I have one caveat to all of this. Do you remember that bit of advice found in every book on sales, that bit about mimicking the body language of the person you’re talking to? You can apply that to e-mail as well. If your boss never uses a greeting, maybe you follow his or her lead. If a client insists on using a greeting and formal signature with every note; best to follow that as well.

Hopefully, while your correspondents are cursing the quantity of e-mail in their inbox, your efforts at least will improve the quality.



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