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7 Ways to Write Better Email Messages

Are you writing more email? We highlight seven common mistakes and ways to avoid them.

By
Joel Schwartzberg, writing for
4-minute read
Episode #763
little email graphics coming out of a computer
The Quick And Dirty

Seven mistakes to avoid:

  1. Bad subject lines.
  2. No clear point.
  3. No greeting.
  4. Hollow thanks.
  5. Too many words.
  6. Grammar and spelling errors.
  7. Criticism without suggestions.

 

If you had to deliver a speech, would you knowingly choose the wrong title, bury your point, or say things that would get yourself in trouble with your colleagues and bosses? Of course not. But many of us unconsciously do these things while writing work emails all the time. That's not just sloppy, though — these common errors can dilute and even destroy the impact you're hoping to achieve as well as sabotage your credibility. Here are seven of the most destructive email mistakes and how you can avoid them.

Mistake #1: A subject line that the thread has outgrown 

Few things are more misleading than a new thought living under an old subject line. When your subject line is “Re: Re: Re: Tuesday?” your recipient isn’t going to know that you’ve hit upon breakthrough marketing ideas since you initially scheduled a routine meeting for Tuesday.

How to fix it: Easy! Amend the subject line to reflect the new topic. Don’t be afraid to change a thread’s subject line if it’s become obsolete or if you’re taking it in a new direction. For instance: “New Idea to Engage Millennials” is more likely to get read than “Re: Re: Re: Tuesday?” What’s more, your colleagues are likely to take you far more seriously overall if you aren’t unintentionally misleading them.

Mistake #2: Your emails don't have a clear point 

Why send a pointless message that wastes both your time and your recipient’s time? You may not even realize that your email doesn’t have a clear point, confusing that with a theme or topic. Here’s a quick test: Can you express your point aloud in one sentence? If not, then you’re simply sending a bunch of ideas organized under a general umbrella and expecting your reader to do the hard work for you. Don’t be that person — what you want instead is a reputation as someone who can get straight to what really matters.

How to fix it: Decide what you want your reader to learn before you hit “send.” Take what you think is your point and add the words, “I believe . . .” to the front of it. If it’s not grammatically correct, you probably don’t have a real point. Once your point passes that test, make sure it appears within your first three sentences, and try to close with another way of saying it. Imagine you’re a bicycle messenger, and think of your point as the package you’re delivering.

Mistake #3: Skipping a greeting

In emails, people often skip the “Hi, [so-and-so],” but there’s value in this friendly gesture even when you’re ditching other formalities. It creates an instant connection that makes the recipient immediately feel comfortable and welcomed, even if only subconsciously. And in order for you to be listened to and considered, you need to establish that connection right off the bat.

How to fix it: Always start with a quick greeting. If you’re writing to multiple people, consider writing, “Hi, team,” or “Hi, everyone.”

Mistake #4: Your thanks ring hollow

The word “thanks” on its own won’t get you far. All it really says is “You did something, and I saw it . . . maybe.” It’s not thoughtful. For the comment to have meaning for your recipients — and to bolster your reputation as someone who takes the time to read and listen — you need to tell them why the thing they did was valuable.

How to fix it: Say what you’re thanking them for. Always include the “why” when you show appreciation, give credit, and include details — the more, the better. Taking the time to be explicit in how you express appreciation in your emails demonstrates your commitment to the team and helps win their trust.

Instead of just saying “Thanks!” or even “Thanks for organizing the meeting,” try something like “Thanks for organizing the meeting. The way you sent out regular updates and especially the way you handled the last-minute changes really helped everyone know what they were getting into and feel prepared.” 

Mistake #5: Too many words

Your point and the words you use to deliver it are two different things. Your goal is to use as few words as possible so they help deliver your point. Too many emails contain huge blocks of text that bury the point, and might even give the impression that you’ve got something to hide.

How to fix it: Just follow these three rules:

  • Cut all but the most necessary words, especially useless adverbs like “very” and “really,” before you hit “send.”
  • Break paragraphs more than you think you need to, with no more than 2–3 sentences in each.
  • Use bullets when you have groups of three ideas or more. This will spotlight those ideas and cut out more unnecessary words.

Mistake #6: Grammar and spelling errors

Even though you graduated from school many moons ago, spelling still counts. Spelling, grammar, and accuracy mistakes can be a huge distraction for a reader and can easily hurt your credibility.

How to fix it: Scan for typos before sending, and always use spellcheck. For an even better review, read your email aloud (quietly). This can illuminate errors and redundancies you might otherwise miss. The time you invest in revising your email now can magnify its impact later.

Mistake #7: Slams without suggestions

A wise former boss of mine instituted a rule for staff meetings: No criticism without suggestions for correction. That rule made an enormous difference in both the morale and productivity of our meetings. The same is true for email. The best-received points are constructive, not destructive. And the people who give constructive feedback ultimately wield the most influence.

How to fix it: The next time you send an email criticizing an idea, include suggestions for improving it immediately after you lay out your critique. This shows not only that you’re a problem solver but that you possess leadership skills, too. You’re more likely to develop strong, long-term working relationships with your recipients this way. No one likes a hit-and-run naysayer in real life, so don’t think you can get away with it by email either.

A version of this article originally appeared on Fast Company.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Joel Schwartzberg, writing for Grammar Girl

Joel Schwartzbergis the senior director of Strategic and Executive Communications for the ASPCA, a professional communications trainer, and the author of "Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter."

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