Three ways to write better email
The world, by many accounts, is drowning in email. Entrepreneurs are engaged in the search for an “email killer”, some next-stage product that can replace this incredible, ubiquitous technical protocol that has enabled international communication on a scale never seen before in human history.
I’m one of the people who doesn’t want it replaced (and definitely not with some new walled garden). I just want people to start writing better emails.
There are lots of ways to manage heavy inbox traffic. I always practice Inbox Zero via aggressive use of filters. But I believe if everyone just wrote better emails, there would be less email in total.
When you’re learning another language, you can think of any conversation like a tennis rally. Your first priority is to get the ball over the net - by being understood. Then the other person in the conversation (or rally) has a chance to return something themselves. If you don’t make yourself understood, you hit the net, and the conversation faces a jarring restart.
If you write bad emails, your email conversations will resemble trying to talk in a new foreign language. People will ask you to repeat what you said, they’ll bring other people into the conversation to help improve the conversation, and people will leave with a sense of frustration.
I’ve noticed that developers are particularly bad at writing email. I’m a developer, and I think I’m pretty good at writing email. So I’d like to explain a couple of the principles I use to create clear and concise email.
‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ - Ernest Hemingway
This is the main thing. Always edit your emails. Don’t just bang out a stream-of-consciousness rant and hit send. Bang out the stream-of-consciousness rant, read it, rewrite some parts of it, move some parts of it around.
Edit it until you have boiled out the unnecessary cruft and repetition that you had in there the first time.
Generally speaking, work emails should be written in simple, direct language. Think of yourself as a digital Orwell or Hemingway.
Keep things as simple as possible. Cut out anything that doesn’t need to be in there.
Think about the purpose of the message. Most emails have one of two goals: inform or discover.
Which category does your email fall into? Given that goal, how can you craft the email in such a way that the ensuing discussion will be as quick and efficient as possible?
2. Consider the recipients carefully
Make use of all the fields the founding fathers of email have passed down to us. CC is there for a reason, so is BCC.
A lot of the time, managers want to be “in the loop” on absolutely every discussion that takes places on a project. I’m sure we can all think back to email threads about a small technical topic, that morphed into giant, unrelated discussions with a recipient list way longer than it should have been.
Now, I’m not saying that you should intentionally keep your manager uninformed when they do need to be informed. But often, you can save a lot of time by carefully selecting who will receive your email.
If you think it’s going to be a purely technical conversation, keep it to purely technical recipients. If anything comes out of the conversation that other stakeholders will need to know about (sprint scope affected etc), you can make a separate thread (or tell them in person).
Carefully selecting your audience like this can allow you to write simpler email. If I’ve hit a major roadblock and I need guidance from someone else, the way I explain the roadblock depends on my audience.
3. Bullet points
Bullet. Points. If I could choose one thing for all people to start doing in emails of over 250 words, it would be this. (Perhaps I should write a Gmail plugin that does this…)
It’s true. That’s why most clickbait articles are in list form. Lists are easy and satisfying to read.
The main objective is to avoid delivering a huge text wall. If you don’t think bulletpoints are appropriate, break things up into small paragraphs. It’s totally acceptable to give single sentences their own paragraph.
Use the other formatting tools at your disposal as well: italics, bold, colours. But do so sparingly. You don’t want it to look like a chain email from the 90s.
In my opinion, most bad email stems from a lack of effort. It’s a bit like turning up late for a meeting. It’s not an intentional show of disrespect, but if you think about it, it’s a little bit disrespectful.
A bad email is someone saying: “Here are a jumbled collection of thoughts that I just vomited into an email. Please organize and translate them for me while I get on with more important tasks”.
If you’re emailing just one person, this may be acceptable. If you’re emailing 10, it’s definitely not.
Do the work for your recipients. Boil down the main points that you wish to convey. Read the email. Think about questions people might have after reading it. Put all the information they need to answer their questions in that original email.
If you’re not sure whether to go to a new paragraph, go to a new paragraph. If things are getting really complicated, throw a diagram in there.
Put in a bit of effort before you hit send. Your efforts may go unnoticed, but you’ll be saving everyone’s time.