Published: Apr 16, 2019
All work emails are not created equally. Some you dash off in all lower case w/o a care if you abbreviate words or mistakenly include "their" for "there" or "it's" for "its." While others you need to take your time to write, capitalizing the first letter of each sentence, using paragraph breaks, including proper punctuation, ensuring your spelling and grammar are impeccable, and striking the perfect tone.
As for these latter emails, here are my essential rules for crafting high-quality important work emails.
1. Read your email aloud.
This is a trick that writers have used for centuries in order to get their prose just so. And it's a trick that you should use when writing important work emails. The reason why it's so effective is it allows you to detect problems in your writing that you might not otherwise have noticed. Reading aloud gives you a different perspective, allowing you to see (hear) your writing differently. Chances are, reading aloud will not only highlight mistakes you haven't seen but also highlight ways you can improve your email.
Reading aloud also offers particular insight into the tone of your writing. When you read your email aloud, you'll be hearing it not unlike your recipient is hearing it (inside their own head) when they read it for the first time. This is important because when writing and sending important work emails, your email's effectiveness will be judged on what you write as well as how you write.
That said, it's not always possible in a cubicle/open-plan world to read aloud every important email. So, if you're unable to take your email outside (in a draft folder on your phone, say) or into an empty conference room, try reading aloud in your head. Maybe mouth the words, too. Remember, writing is musical. There's a sound to each vowel, each consonant, each word and phrase, and these sounds all play a big part in how your writing is perceived.
2. Imagine you're the recipient.
Building on #1 above, when you read and re-read your important work emails before sending them, make sure, at least once, to read them as though you're on the receiving end. That is, put yourself in the position of the person you're sending the email to, and read it like you're that person. Try to imagine how that person will perceive your email.
Like reading your email aloud, a benefit of playing the part of recipient is you'll be able to detect the tone of your email. Does it come across as too formal, too informal, too business-like, too friendly? Of course, before you can adjust your email accordingly once you detect its tone, you'll need to know the tone you're going for. So, ask yourself this question as you write, re-read, and edit.
Another benefit of acting as recipient is you'll read your email more slowly, allowing you to detect other issues in your writing that you might have overlooked. Typically, when we're re-reading and editing a piece of our own writing, we tend to read quickly and skim, often missing obvious mistakes. So, reading your important email as if for the first time forces you to slow down so you can find mistakes, or just find places where your message can be improved.
3. Be positive before negative but quickly get to the point.
Say you have to email someone to tell them they didn't get the job. Or you have to email a coworker to tell them to take another crack at that report, that it's not quite what you were looking for. In both instances, it can be helpful for you, and for the recipient, if you begin your email on a positive note.
So, first tell the job candidate that they were a strong candidate, that their candidacy was seriously considered, that they were liked by many people on staff. Then get into the meat of the email: that unfortunately, you're unable to offer them the position. Likewise, with your coworker, first point out the parts of the report that were done well before getting into the part about their having to start over.
The reason to start on a positive note is not necessarily to soften the blow that's coming in your email (though that does have that effect) but to create a more honest, truthful email. The truth is the recipient of your email was a solid candidate and will be a great employee, albeit somewhere else at this time. And the truth is your coworker did a decent job in some areas of the report but the report needs to be improved or altered. (Note that you don't want to lie here; if it's untrue that there are positive points, don't be afraid to simply get to the meat of your email).
Further, as you might have noticed yourself, it's much easier to digest negative news or criticism if it's preceded by positive news or feedback. Otherwise, all a recipient hears is the negative news; the positive news that follows gets drowned out by the negative news or criticism. And thus, the truth of your email is somewhat tainted.
That said, it's important not to sugarcoat your email. While it can be a good thing to start with positivity, don't overdo it. Include one or two sentences at most before you get into the meat of your email, otherwise you'll risk sounding insincere. And, perhaps above all else, you never want an important email to come across as insincere.
If you're a copy editing nerd like I am, you'll be very pleased to know that there's a really interesting NPR Fresh Air podcast now available that just might change the way you think about writing cover letters, thank-you letters, and other rather formal (and quite painful) business and career correspondence.
The subject of the podcast is Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of book publishing giant Random House.
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