The 10 Commandments of Email Writing

An article about the bits needed to write an email? Puh-lease. But hold that thought. Dear reader, consider that if you are ‘average’, then you probably spend between two and three hours a day managing your inbox. If you can be a few percent more effective in your emails, that’s an hour a week to do something other than email writing. Maybe leave work an hour early…

Also, consider whether you’ve received a message in the last few days that didn’t make sense or left you frustrated. The sender will have hit ‘send’ thinking it was good to go, so why did it miss the mark for you? Are you doing the same thing – hitting ‘send’ thinking all is good and that you’re a first-class communicator, only to cause chaos and upset your reader?

How big is the problem?

With 12.4 billion emails sent every hour, sadly they aren’t all going to hit the sweet spot. It’s just possible yours are falling down your reader’s list because of blind spot or two in your email writing. Here are the Top 10 areas to make sure you get right:

#1 Get the subject line sorted

There are whole businesses built on optimising subject lines because it’s the first point of contact with your reader. If your reader doesn’t open your message, whatever is in it, no matter how brilliant, you’ve wasted your time writing it.

You might think that because you don’t work in Sales or Marketing, the subject line isn’t something you need to care about. Wrong! Most emails are not hard sells to cold contacts, but you should still use a few words to summarise your reason for getting in touch. It’s not rocket science. Very few people can send a mail with no subject line or just ‘Hi’ and expect it to be opened just because of who they are!

#2 Use the right greeting

A simple ‘Hi Alice,’ will work in most circumstances, but adjust your style to that of the person you want to talk to. For example, if you are communicating with someone who appreciates formalities, you will be better off with ‘Dear Alice,’.

Equally, if you receive emails from a person who uses no salutation to you, do the same with them. It can be hard to make this adjustment if you are wired to be super polite but consider your reader. They will appreciate you getting straight to your message as that’s speaking in their language. Going to the trouble of accommodating your reader? That’s demonstrating politeness in your email writing.

A note of caution. If you have a corporate policy to follow, for example, if you work in Customer Services, make sure you understand and apply it. If you aren’t allowed to exercise your discretion in the greeting, stick to what’s allowed in the policy.

#3 Stick to one topic – and keep it short

Email works best when a conversation thread stays on topic. If you have multiple subjects to contact the same person or group about, make sure these are addressed in different emails.

In some cases, multiple topics can be really detrimental. For example, don’t be tempted to close an email asking a customer for a purchase order with a question relating to their previous purchase. The last thing you want to do is distract a prospective sale from committing a fresh order.

Also, don’t be tempted to introduce a new topic into an existing thread. This will not win you friends.

#4 Be conscious of your tone

Generally speaking, a more upbeat tone is best even with bad news. Elon Musk’s email to all staff announcing job cuts at Tesla is a good example of how difficult news can still be framed positively.

It can be hard to get tone right when email writing as your reader can’t see the emotion you’re projecting. In person, this is more straight-forward with eye contact, hand gestures, intonation and a host of other, non-verbal information helping to make your point.

Emojis can be fun but aren’t (yet) established as a professional norm to convey tone. In fact, the wider your audience, the more likely you are to come across in the wrong way by using emojis, unless you stick to a simple 😊.

#5 Think of your audience

This is CRUCIAL. Make sure your message can be understood by your reader. You need to make your point in your reader’s language. Not in a way that makes you feel good when you hit send because you used a lot of big words or jargon.

This area can become complicated, but an easy place to start is to understand the role and pressures of the person you are writing to. Once this is clear, you can tailor your message to fit their perspective.

Also, avoid terminology that doesn’t travel. Stay clear of local slang/idioms/adages if your audience isn’t coming from the same place. This isn’t confined to geography and includes business areas, technical backgrounds etc. At best, this kind of terminology doesn’t add much to a message, but at worst can be confusing and frustrating.

For example, use the acronym NLP with a salesperson and it will mean one thing, but to a computational linguist something totally different. In a group email that touches both parties, which definition is being referred to?

A powerful further step is when you factor in your individual reader’s preferences. For example, try to invite Dave to an ‘idea shower’, he will take his time berating you for using meaningless business jargon and not help. But, simply asking him for his ideas on the topic, letting him know that you’ll be meeting a few others at 1600, then Dave will be there and you get his suggestions. It can take a long time to build this knowledge of your colleagues and customers but being able to communicate with someone on their wavelength is worth every second.

#6 Attachments and links

Use them! The right attachment or link will help your audience understand your message faster and will keep your email writing brief.

If you can, use a link to a great infographic that will get your reader on the same wavelength faster than your words ever will. Plus, someone else has done the hard work making an image or article, and you don’t have to!

Attachments can be pretty much any file format, but a good trick is using them when you have an audience with diverse reading styles. If half your audience likes short, bullet point emails and the other very detailed, nuanced messages, attachments let you bridge the gap. Write a short, bullet point email to please the former and attach a report for further reading, that contains all the supporting information for the latter.

#7 ‘To, CC or BCC’

That is the question. Think about this when deciding:

To = Do. This is the person or group you need to ‘Do’ something for you. Perform a task, understand a message etc.

CC = See. This person or group needs to ‘See’ that you have communicated the message to the ‘To’ group. By including them as CC’s, you are sending the message they are not required to respond, but you have included them in case they want to step in or just that they know you have made a request. Commonly used to include Managers on a conversation.

BCC = Be Careful. The ‘B’ stands for ‘Blind’, so no-one else on the mail knows BCC’s even exist. If a BCC chooses to ‘reply all’ it is obvious they weren’t openly included in the first place and that can have a negative impact. There are some occasions BCC is a good thing but most of the time you should be using CC.

#8 Take a deep breath before typing

Whatever the content of your message, stick to the facts. In times when you are angry about something, it is OK to say so, just don’t fall into the trap of making inflammatory or personal remarks.

Emails can persist for a long time and you don’t want to suffer ‘sender’s regret’. If you are prone to this, take more than a deep breath and if you can, sleep on it. Or, ask a friend/colleague outside of the situation to help you frame it appropriately.

Also, avoid swear words, they are an email writing no-no. Even the ones you think you get away with because you use *.

#9 Include the right sign off

This is a combination of personal sign off, e.g. ‘Kind regards,’ and your contact details. The personal sign off will form part of how your reader interprets the tone of your message, so you can vary this depending on how you want to come across.

Some readers will see a difference between ‘Regards’ and ‘Warm regards’, others won’t. See if you can pick up your reader’s preferences if you have already corresponded with them.

Contact details can be very useful indeed. The first mail in a chain you might want to be fulsome and list your title, phone number, website, Skype etc, but for replies that might be a bit much.

Try to always include your phone number. If someone needs to get hold of you quickly and doesn’t have your number, they will check your emails to see if it’s there. Some people may not want to add contact info. That’s fair enough, but if you work a support rota and you’re communicating with a customer, consider including a link to your ticketing system or 24/7 support line.

If your company has just won an award or one of your products has a great new feature, add a link to the news article or social media post. This will be interesting for some readers and even if they don’t interact with it, they are still seeing ‘award-winning’, ‘new feature’ etc., which builds their perception of your organisation.

#10 Proofread

This is less to pick up spelling and grammar errors and more to make sure the meaning of your message is clear. The longer you spend email writing, the more likely it is you risk missing your point.

Correct spelling and grammar will help make sure your message is credible, but most of the time, automated tools won’t pick up when a word is spelt correctly but is actually the wrong one to use.

Read the whole mail, from nose to tail – start with the To: box and end with your signature. If this seems like overkill for every message, use your discretion and maybe only do this for emails to clients and your boss! You’d be surprised what simple mistakes you pick up by spending 60 seconds in review, like ‘How did I spell my reader’s first name wrong?!’ It happens.


Can you tick off all 10 with your last few emails? If so, well done you! If not, don’t worry, just take these points on board and you’ll be on your way to more effective email writing. And that hour back each week!

By |2019-02-04T09:51:05+00:00February 1st, 2019|Top writing tips|