A major theme of this blog is that productivity is not simply about making ourselves more productive, but making others more productive as well. Writing better emails is a big way that we can make other people’s lives a little simpler and a little better. And it will save us time as well.
Writing good emails means writing them in a way that makes it possible to understand your point right away. It means writing your email to have high impact with minimal time investment on your reader’s part.
The most influential resource on my thinking on this area is a book with the unfortunate title, The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You. Here are 3 principles for writing better emails from this book and some other resources I’ve read.
1. Make the Subject Line Specific
Make the subject line descriptive so the person knows right away what the email is about. Don’t use a headline such as “Interesting,” “Good Article,” or even just “Proposal,” because they don’t provide anything specific about the content.
Instead, a good subject line would be something like: “Proposal for New Hires in 2009.”
2. State the Required Action, or Other Purpose, First
The very first thing should be a brief greeting, such as “Hi, Fred. Good job in the meeting today.”
But then move right to your point. State your point, as specifically as possible, in 1-3 sentences. If you have ideas that you want Fred to consider, for example, say that you have ideas for him to consider and state specifically (and briefly) what your main idea is.
Don’t just say “Fred, I have some ideas for you to consider,” and then spend 3 paragraphs getting to your main idea. Instead, state specifically what your idea is. For example, say: “I think we should consider hiring an additional widget manager next year because of the planned 23% increase in production. I am wondering what your thoughts are.”
3. Give the Background Second
After you’ve stated your main point, then provide the details.
This is key, so I’ll say it again: Give your main point, and then provide the background.
This is different from a detective story, or a novel, or any other type of writing where the discovery is part of the fun. With email, there isn’t time for this. And especially when doing work email, there is a business purpose to your email. You need to save the other person’s time by telling them your point right away, and then only after that providing the details in the event that they need to see things fleshed out more.
4. Keep Your Paragraphs Short
When providing the background, keep your paragraphs short. Wall of words are hard to read. Be short and to the point. And keep it relevant. Use bullet points when possible.
4. Close by Clarifying the Next Steps
If the background section gets longer than a few paragraphs, it is a good idea to close by summarizing the action step(s) again.
5. Don’t Forward Emails Without Summarizing the Point at the Top
Last of all, a word on forwarding: If you need someone’s opinion on something, don’t simply forward them a long email thread and say “what do you think?” Instead, summarize the main action you need from them right at the top, and then summarize the main point of the email thread.
Try to make it so that all the thread is needed for is to provide the details, if the reader feels that they are necessary.