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From Harvard Business Review: Best Practices to Write E-mails That Impress

This blog post is the first in a series adapted from the resources of Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Better Business Writing. As I make my way through this guide, I will post the tips and suggestions I find the most helpful. If you have tips of your own to add, I welcome your additions in the comments section.

“Don’t let your writing hold you back.” – Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Better Business Writing

In 3rd grade, I remember the many lessons we had about how to write a business letter. We were quizzed on how to format the address, how to properly greet our recipient, and how to sign our name. Today, business letters are still sent, but the most common way to talk to your boss, co-workers and clients is most likely through e-mail. However, it is unlikely that someone sat you down and taught you how to properly write one. I know I never was. Many of you reading this probably spend a good part of your day writing e-mails. Many of you also form impressions and make judgments based on the e-mails you receive. Clearly, we all can benefit from a lesson on e-mail.

The Harvard Business Review agreed and devoted a special section of their HBR Guide to Better Business Writing to e-mail writing. I have collected my favorite tips from the guide and listed them here:

1. Save long introductions for literature

It may be natural to begin an in-person or phone conversation with small talk before making a request or responding to a query. In e-mails, however, getting to the point within the first three sentences is critical. Make sure key deadlines and details are the first items your recipient reads. If you want a lead-in, include a brief compliment such as “Great presentation yesterday” before getting to the point.

2. Less is more

Keep the content of your e-mail to one screen. People will skim if they must scroll down.

3. Subject lines matter

An e-mail with the subject “Re: FWD: FWD: Meeting” may easily be pushed aside. A subject line should be specific enough so that you know exactly what the e-mail is discussing. If you are asking for an action to be taken, include “request” in the subject line. Make it easy for your colleagues to prioritize your message.

4. Abbreviations are okay, poor grammar is not

Because e-mails should be short, it is okay to use commonly accepted abbreviations such as intro for introduction or govt. for government in an informal e-mail to a colleague. However, avoid careless spelling and grammar errors, even when writing from a mobile device. Taking the time to say “You’re welcome” instead of “your Wlcome” shows that you put thought into the communication.

5. Like diamonds, e-mails are forever

“Don’t put anything in writing that you would be ashamed to see reported on the front page of The Wall Street Journal,” the guide says. If you want to share an embarrassing story with a colleague, save it for after work happy hour. In addition, never write an e-mail in anger or frustration. If you feel the need to rant in writing, save the e-mail to your drafts without a recipient, take a walk, and then delete it. Your emotions will pass, but a nasty e-mail can be saved forever.

What tips would you add? What are some of the mistakes you have made?

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David B. Grinberg

Very helpful, Kathryn. A few tips to add:

  • Use paragraphs, bullets, font, point-size, etc. to make the text as readable and user-friendly as possible — similar to any online content.
  • Use the inverted pyramid style that is taught in journalism school: start with the most essential info first and then gradually expand to buttress your main point(s).
  • If in doubt, leave it out.
  • If appropriate, wait 15 minutes before sending. Then read again and edit per less is more — especially if your message is somewhat controversial. Be concise and to the point. Don’t mince words.
William Spencer

Writing well, including in an e-mail, is incredibly important and undervalued. Thanks for your post! I’d add a twist to David’s 4th bullet: In appropriate situations, let a trusted colleague review your draft, especially if it’s about a controversial or complex issue. I often do that to make sure I’m not overlooking something and that my message is clear.