I appreciate reading well-written emails—they save me time. Good emails are clear and informative, so responding to them is quick and easy. Poorly written emails, on the other hand, are not clear or informative. Replying to them is labor-intensive because I usually have to write back, often multiple times, for more information.
I try to write good emails. Learning how to write effectively has taken time and practice. It's a skill—just like learning to refactor code. If you want someone to reply to your emails, take the time to write a good one. I've found that writing an effective email is straightforward if you follow some simple tips.
Keep things short
The golden rule of a good email is brevity. Succinct emails are easy to understand, quick to read, and reduce miscommunication. Instead of writing a long message, schedule a meeting. Emails aren't an efficient medium for discussions.
Compose meaningful subject lines
A subject line should communicate the email's purpose. Can you tell what the following emails are about just from their subject lines? Trick question—you can't.
- Quick question
- Let's meet
- Please review
These subject lines are meaningless.
I think people brush off putting effort into subject lines because they feel redundant. They assume the body is the most important part of an email. Wrong. The subject line is the most important part, and I'll tell you why: A busy person might skim or skip your email, but they will read the subject line. It's worth taking the time to make them good. Here's how you can improve the ones listed above:
- Why aren't we using TypeScript on the new marketing site?
- Monday's standup meeting is canceled
- Let's meet on Tuesday to discuss the home page's new design
- Important - the contact us page's deadline was extended to Friday
- Please review my pull request #103
Another useful tip: Highlight what you want the reader to do in the subject line. This signals that you need something from them, and they will hopefully prioritize reading it.
- Please approve or disapprove: forecasted Amazon Web Services budget for Q1
- Additional wireframes needed: the client wants three different designs
- Requesting additional time: critical bugs found during QA testing
Write in a congenial and professional tone
Sometimes concise emails feel austere. Here are a few examples:
In certain contexts, someone might perceive these terse emails as passive-aggressive or even hostile. To avoid this, people write longer emails that are more personable to put the reader at ease.
Some people might read the first email and find nothing wrong with it. Others might read the second email and find it superficial or even inconvenient; now, they have to write a longer email detailing their weekend plans as well as their status report. This spectrum of preference is what makes writing professional and personable emails challenging. Everyone is different. Some prefer a professional tone, and others a more personal one.
While I prefer short emails, I still think it's important to be personable; I don't want my emails to be misinterpreted as angry or hostile. Instead of talking about things like my weekend plans, I've found showing appreciation is a genuine way to be friendly. For example, I might start an email by recognizing a person's efforts:
I also end my emails with a friendly sign-off. The classic Sincerely or Kind Regards feel too formal to me when paired with a short email. Here are my favorite alternatives:
- Have a great weekend
- Looking forward to Tuesday's meeting
- Thanks again for all your great work
- Happy to help
Itemize requests and questions
Sometimes I need to send an email with multiple questions. Instead of writing them throughout an email, I like to condense my questions into a single list:
- What's the project's budget?
- When would you like the website completed?
- Have you prepared the layout designs and copy?
- How many people do you expect to visit the site in a month?
- What are some sites that you'd like to model?
Lists make an email easier to read. They also increase the chance that your reader will respond to each question.
Always mention deadlines
If I'm working under a deadline, I always mention it. Communicating deadlines gives the reader a timeline for when they should reply. For example, I like to mention deadlines after making requests:
When I mention a deadline, I usually get a prompt reply, but not always. Sometimes I don't get one at all. Everyone has a client or co-worker who never replies to emails. This can be a real roadblock if you need the person's approval or guidance before progressing. In these situations, I let them know that I'll be deciding for them if they don't reply.
Of course, I always send one or two emails before resorting to a last-ditch effort like this. It would be inappropriate to send this kind of email initially.
Offer solutions to problems
I run into problems all the time. It's part of being a programmer. Sometimes I'll hit one that's out of my depth. In these situations, it would be easy for me to pass the problem off to a co-worker:
This is a lazy email.
First, it doesn't offer an in-depth explanation of the problem. If I want a high-quality answer, I need to preface my question with high-quality information. To better understand the issue, Mike has to either reach out to me for clarification or look at the code causing the problem. Second, I've dumped the problem onto Mike; it's his responsibility to develop a solution now.
In my experience, lazy emails like this have long response times (if they get a response at all). Lazy emails ask the reader to do a lot of work, so people put off replying to them. To avoid this, I offer solutions and maintain ownership of the problem when I ask for help:
Now Mike has enough information to grasp the problem and several solutions to consider. If you want faster replies from co-workers, avoid sending open-ended emails. Instead, structure the email so that it works toward building a solution.
Forming a new habit
Reading this blog post is just the beginning of forming a new habit. The next step is to practice. The next time you're writing a subject line, ask yourself, Is this message meaningful? Or, when you're sending an email with multiple questions, remember to condense them into a list. Good emails are considerate; they show your clients and co-workers that you appreciate their time. They're also efficient, reducing tedious follow-up emails and miscommunication. So, the next time you're writing an email try put these tips to use. See if you can write a good one.