Writing effective emails

Office workers spend thirteen hours reading and writing email each week.

This is mind-boggling on two levels. Firstly, it’s a horrific waste of time. Email batching lets you easily handle email in one hour a day. The average worker could gain eight hours per week by adopting that technique.

But more importantly, it’s mind-boggling that no-one tries to get better at writing emails. In the rest of your career, you will send tens of thousands of emails. Mastering this overlooked meta-skill will pay off for years to come.

Email gets a bad rap in productivity circles. Many articles (like mine above) teach you how to minimise the time spent on it. Despite this, email is a productive form of communication. It’s asynchronous, which means the sender and receiver don’t need to be available at the same time. Compare this to a Zoom call, where everyone needs to agree on a convenient time to exchange information.

In this article, I will cover the dos and don’ts for writing effective emails.

Be obnoxious

Office workers send and receive over 120 emails per day. Your email must sparkle if you want it to be noticed.

This is essential if you’re assigning actions. You need to be obnoxious with formatting to draw attention to key facts, like action owners and dates.

Don’t be afraid to use bold text and colour to hammer this home. It’s ugly, but it works. Remember this article is about effective email, not beautiful email.

Use bullets or tables to make actions stand out from the surrounding text. Don’t hide them in paragraphs. Group them and attract the eye with layout and colour.

Get to the point, fast

Don’t make your readers wade through introductory material. It’s an email, not a novel. Start with the main ask. Use the rest of the email for supporting info.

If you’re not sure what your main ask is, write the email first, then figure it out. Once you know the main point, move it to the top and work on a great subject line to match.

Attention spans are plummeting. Don’t make people work harder than they need to.

Subject lines matter

Subject lines are the kerb-side appeal for your email. Getting them right ensures people read your email instead of skipping it. Remember, the least productive email is the one that doesn’t get read.

The biggest mistake is treating subject lines as a topic description. For example, “Next week’s meeting” is a topic. It doesn’t tell the reader anything, except the email is related to the meeting. A good subject line summarises the main point of the email. “Agenda for meeting (review by COB tomorrow)” is more likely to get a timely response.

Here are some more examples:

Topic StyleSummary Style
Annual reviewsPlease complete review prep by Thursday
Quick chat?Can we discuss last week’s sales numbers?
Sales number updateSales have increased by 35% (see attached report)

You should feel free to overwrite any terrible subject lines you receive. If someone sends you “RE: AW: RE: One more thing”, you’re entitled to respond with “RE: Your feedback on client meeting”.

Keep it short

Long emails are boring. If you need ten paragraphs to get your point across, your thoughts probably aren’t clear. Or you’re tackling a complex topic that deserves verbal discussion.

Writing a long email is wasteful on two fronts. Not only does it take time to write and edit it, but each of your recipients needs to read it. If you email 1,000 words to a dozen people, you’ve just spent a business hour for your company.

You can’t predict business success, but you can predict business failure: someone who writes lengthy and frequent emails.

– Nassim Taleb

Shorter emails pack more punch. Recipients are more likely to read them. Plus, condensing an email forces you to clarify your thoughts.

A fun rule is to send emails with no more than five sentences. Try it next time you process your inbox.

Keep it professional

Write every email as though your worst enemy will read it. Keep the contents professional and courteous, just in case it ends up in the wrong inbox.

Sending an email is like losing your virginity. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.

We’ve all been forwarded a long email chain with some juicy comments buried deep within. People are careless with email – they don’t read the whole thread before they add six other people. Before you know it, Bob from Accounting knows exactly what you think of his department.

If you have something feisty to say, pick up the phone. Or sleep on it.

Keep the TO list as short as possible

When you send an email, you can choose who to put in the TO list and the CC list.

Reserve the TO list for people who need to act on your email. The number of people who can act on an email is usually small, two or three at most. Everyone else belongs in the CC list.

I see two benefits for minimising the TO list:

Edit, edit, edit

A good writer is a sculptor. Their first draft is like a lump of coarse marble. The real work comes as they peel away unnecessary words to reveal the shape of their thoughts.

Approach email like any form of writing. Get your thoughts on the screen, then craft them into something people enjoy reading. Spend as long editing the email as writing the first draft.

Here are some quick fixes:

Cross train

My emails blossomed when I started blogging. I put this down to getting better at editing. It became second nature to scan my email and tighten the wording.

When I began to use Twitter, I discovered brevity. After 1000+ tweets I got better at making my point in fewer words. Not only does this benefit my emails, it also helps me create impactful presentations.

If you want to sharpen your email writing, sharpen your writing.

Send fewer emails

The problem with email is it encourages you to get involved.

When someone blasts ten people with an email, there’s no sign anyone else is replying. You feel obligated to save the day. This results in wasted effort, as people write overlapping emails.

There’s a simple answer: don’t be the one that replies. Let others do the work. Only reply if it’s impossible anyone else knows the answer.

Remember, the most productive email is the one you don’t send.