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?