Understand why you’re writing
Before you type anything into a new message, have explicit answers for two questions:
- Why am I writing this?
- What exactly do I want the result of this message to be?
If you can’t succinctly state these answers, you might want to hold off on sending your message until you can. People get dozens, hundreds, even thousands of emails each day, so it’s only natural for them to gravitate toward the messages that are well thought-out and that clearly respect their time and attention. Careless emails do not invite careful responses.
Think through your email from the recipient’s point of view, and make sure you’ve done everything you can to try and help yourself before contacting someone else. If it’s a valuable message, treat it that way, and put in the time to making your words count.
Q: I noticed that the subject line of e-mails from Japanese always begin with the word "about," for example, an e-mail from a colleagues in my lab, "about meeting and cleaning." I think it's because Japanese used to write "について" when writing an e-mail in Japanese. However, the Kaplan tells us the best rule of thumb of writing a subject line is to be specific. My question is: is the word "about" in the example redundant, making the subject line not specific? Would it become better if he wrote "meeting and cleaning?"
A: I am not qualified to advise you on writing Japanese emails. As for English, I like the following answer:
A: Use a detailed subject line. Business executives often complain that email with subject lines that are vague or empty land in their junk mail folder. Avoid getting ignored by including a straightforward but thorough subject.
A: You can make it even easier for your recipient to immediately understand why you’ve sent them an email and to quickly determine what kind of response or action it requires. Compose a great “Subject:” line that hits the high points or summarizes the thrust of the message. Avoid “Hi,” “One more thing…,” or “FYI,” in favor of typing a short summary of the most important points in the message:
Lunch resched to Friday @ 1pm
Reminder: Monday is "St. Bono’s Day"–no classes
REQ: Resend Larry Tate zip ﬁle?
HELP: Can you set up my printer?
In fact, if you’re relating just a single fact or asking one question in your email, consider using just the subject line to relate your message. In some organizations, such emails are identiﬁed by adding (EOM)—for end of message—at the end of the Subject line. This lets recipients see that the whole message is right there in the subject without clicking to the view the (non-existent) body. This is highly appreciated by people who receive a large volume of mail, since it lets them do a quick triage on your message without needing to conduct a full examination.
Sadly, good email subjects have become something of a lost art. It’s a pity, because you’re far more likely to get a favorable response from a busy person when they can quickly understand your message.
Q: While addressing the recipient, is it better to use Sir/Madam instead of Mr./Ms./Dr. followed by the name of the recipient?
Q: How should I write the title (Mr., Ms.) of recipients if I do not know his or her sex? Many non-English names are difficult to distinguish their gender just by their names.
Q: How can I write to a foreign company without knowing who is in charge of a certain section? In the Kaplan chapter 3, there is a part saying we should follow their customs of reading while writing for international audiences. But in general, which style should we follow when we are not sure whether the person we are writing to is a foreigner?
A: Say hello. Business email has become so informal that some people do not even begin with a salutation. Avoid this habit. Properly address the person you are writing and use a colon, rather than a comma. For example, "Dear Mr. Smith:" is a correct business opening. You can switch to a comma once back-and-forth correspondence is established.
- Dear Sir or Madam: (use if you don't know who you are writing to)
- Dear Personnel Director: (use if you only know someone's title but not his or her name)
- Dear Dr, Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms Smith: (use if you know who you are writing to, and have a formal relationship with - VERY IMPORTANT use Ms for women unless asked to use Mrs or Miss)
- Dear Frank: (use if the person is a close business contact or friend)
Q: How should I do my self introduction in emails or letters?
- With reference to your advertisement in the Times...
- With reference to your letter of 23rd March...
- With reference to your phone call today...
- Thank you for your letter of March 5th.
Q: What form is the proper way to self introduce myself to you in this email for making questions concerning the contents of the class last week?
A: I am listing various ways students contacted me in order of preference (best first; try to avoid the last two)
- Dear Professor Ricci
- Dear Mr. Ricci
- Dear Mr. Vince Ricci
- Dear Ricci sensei
- Dear Mr. Vince
- Dear Sir
The Reason for Writing
Q: How should I state the purpose of my contact?
- I am writing to inquire about
- I am writing to apologize for
- I am writing to confirm
Q: How do I ask for what I need in a polite way?
- Could you possibly...?
- I would be grateful if you could...
Get what you need
Although the possible topics and content of messages are theoretically endless, I’d propose that there are really just three basic types of business email.
- Providing information - “Larry Tate will be in the ofﬁce Monday at 10.”
- Requesting information - “Where did you put the ‘Larry Tate’ ﬁle?”
- Requesting action - “Will you call Larry Tate’s admin to conﬁrm our meeting on Monday?”
It should be clear to your recipient which type of email yours is; don’t bury the lede. Get the details and context packed into that ﬁrst sentence or two whenever you can. Don’t be afraid to write an actual “topic sentence” that clariﬁes a) what this is about, and b) what response or action you require of the recipient.
Since the Larry Tate meeting on Monday has been moved from the Whale Room, could you please make sure the Fishbowl has been reserved and that the caterer has been notiﬁed of the location change? Please IM me today by 5pm Paciﬁc Time to verify.
Assume that no one will ever read more than the ﬁrst sentence of anything you write. Making that ﬁrst sentence strong and clear is easily the best way to interest your recipient in the second sentence and beyond.
What’s the action here?
If your message includes any kind of request—whether for a meeting, a progress update, or what have you—put that request near the top of the message and clearly state when you will need it. Do not, under any circumstances, assume that your overwhelmed recipient will take the time to sift through your purple prose for clues about what they’re supposed to be doing for you.
Depending on the style of your team and the volume of mail they create, you might even consider adding functional text headers to the top of the body outlining the exact nature of the message.
This email is:
[ ] actionable
[ ] fyi
[ ] social
[ ] yes
[ ] up to you
[ ] no
[ ] immediate
[ ] soon
[ ] none
Remove the guesswork from your messages by thinking of them like friendly work orders; you must not be afraid to ask for what you want, especially if you have any desire to actually have the recipient give it to you.
Giving Bad News
Q: How should I manage expectations of readers to understand that something bad has happened?
- I am afraid that...
Q: How do I reference attachments?
A: Most people prefer that documents be sent as attachments, rather than copied and pasted into the body of the email.
- I am attaching...
- Please find attached...
- Attached you will find...
Q: How do I close my letter in a direct but polite way?
- Thank you for your help. Please contact us again if we can help in any way.
- Thank you for your help. Please contact us again if there are any problems.
- Thank you for your help. Please contact us again if you have any questions.
Compiled from various online sources including
http://esl.about.com/cs/onthejobenglish/a/a_basbletter.htm; accessed 1/2011
http://www.ehow.com/print/how_2075198_write-business-email.html; accessed 1/2011
http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/19/writing-sensible-email-messages; accessed 1/2011