Big ideas about the web.

Tips for successful e-mail

Whether you’re sending e-mails for business or pleasure, communicating with a client or a friend, to someone you know well or someone you’ve never met in person, there are a few guidelines you might want to follow. This has little to do with the degree of formality of your message: you can be very friendly and informal and still write messages that are not painful for your recipient to read.

Some of these are style requirements, some are personal pet peeves that I think will make your e-mails more pleasant even if your recipients are less picky than I am.

Measure your content

One of my favorite rules about web content is “Give enough information and no more than that.” If anything, keep your reader wanting more—not wanting out. This applies to e-mail too. Of course the measure of how much is appropriate changes depending on whom you’re writing to. Business e-mails that contain anticipations or recaps of meetings will naturally tend to be richer in content than, say, a message to make dinner plans with friends.

(N)etiquette changes accordingly, and e-mail can be as formal as you require it to be.

One content-related corollary: no chain letters. Ever. Seriously. If I need to explain this, maybe you shouldn’t even be using e-mail at all.

Use a meaningful subject

One piece of content your e-mail should always have is the subject. And it should make sense. Using “Hey” as the subject for a business e-mail is not a proper subject. If your reader is anything like me, that e-mail will probably be ignored or neglected for a long time.

Of course, if all you need to say is “Hey,” maybe to nudge a friend you haven’t talked to in a while (I mean weeks, not years), then I guess it’s okay to use that as a subject.

On the other hand, be considerate of how many words you use in your subject. The subject line is not really made to host complete sentences, and definitely not more than one.

To sum it up, use the subject with judgment, but use it.

Use proper language

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use swear words via e-mail. (It’s up to you, really.) It means don’t butcher the language, and also:

  1. separate paragraphs
  2. watch your punctuation
  3. capitalize words where appropriate, but avoid all capitals
  4. don’t use abbreviations.

I’m not even going to explain numbers 1 and 3.

About number 2, one thing that drives me bonkers is the misuse/overuse/abuse of suspension and exclamation points. Neither should be used to end regular sentences. True, the number and spacing of suspension points is different among languages, but one thing I know for sure is that there shouldn’t be more than three (or four) at a time. More than that and I must assume your carpal tunnel is acting up. Also, suspension points make your message sound insecure and tentative—while that may be okay in personal communications, it’s a definite no-no when it comes to business. It’s always better to sound bolder than you feel than to sound duller than you actually are.

Excess exclamation points, on the other hand, make people sound like lunatics. If you want to express excitement (or outrage), then go for it! But stick to one mark where appropriate. Ending all sentences (including questions) with one or more exclamations is equivalent to shouting everything into your reader’s inner ear.

Use question marks at the end of questions. Of course there are languages, like English, in which properly formulated questions are still understandable as such even without a question mark. Conventional as it may be, it’s a courtesy you’re paying your reader to let him know at a glance where questions are asked. One question mark will suffice. If your question is a rhetorical one that requires extra strength, you can add an exclamation point. How cool is that?! (But see, even that sounded a bit too excited.)

When you have a full keyboard in front of you, using SMS-style abbreviations is idiotic. (Modern cellphones make it idiotic to use them on texts too, in my opinion.) An example from the Italian language: it makes no sense to abbreviate the word “non” as “nn” when you have a full keyboard, as some do. I maintain it takes more effort to lift your finger to type that double N than to do a smooth index-ring-index move to type the full word. Oh, and it’s not a matter of age: it’s still idiotic even if you’re fifteen.

No style is good style

No matter how cool you thought it made your e-mails look in 2000 (hey, I did too!), formatting e-mail messages is an ugly beast. Also, some people don’t have the first clue about typography, and they end up typing in all-capitals, eighteen-point, yellow Comic Sans over gold background.

Instead of doing that, imagine your e-mail application is an old Lettera 32 with a kick. Using simple text as your default will make your messages lighter and a lot of people happier.

Now, the pet peeves

First, if your recipient has more than one e-mail address, don’t send your message to all of them. It may increase the chances for your message to be read, sure, but it also makes it a viable candidate for being considered spam. So, unless you’re really uncertain about which address is the correct one (an easy-to-repair uncertainty), just go for the one your recipient usually responds from.

Second, don’t ask questions that were already answered in your recipient’s previous message. You know why you’re asking those questions? Probably because the first thing you did after hitting “Reply” was erase all previous messages from the body of the e-mail. (Or maybe it’s because you didn’t read the previous message, but that’s a different issue.) So, don’t erase the message history from the body, especially not the latest message: it’s there for a reason.

Third, no vowel elongation. Like with exclamation marks, use the number of vowels required by each syllable. Like I said, it’s a pet peeve.