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College Resource Center : Capstone Projects / Project Management : Tips for Communicating Online : Writing Effective E-Mail Messages

Writing Effective E-Mail Messages

Whether you are writing e-mails for a class, work or your personal life, following a few simple guidelines will help you communicate more clearly and get better responses.

Before you write:

Consider your reader and the content of your message. Send only what will be valuable to the person receiving your e-mail—you don't want your name to be associated with an immediate urge to hit the delete key!

Write only what you would be willing to say in person. Write as if someone other than its intended recipient could read your message.

Remember that without facial expressions and tone of voice, humor or irony may be more difficult to identify and could easily be misunderstood.

Some notes on e-mail form and mechanics:

Create a clear, meaningful topic for the subject line.

Use your reader's name in a salutation at the beginning of your message, followed by a comma or a colon. If you are sending to more than one recipient, a group greeting such as "Hello:" or "Good morning," or "Dear Book Club Members:" is fine.

When you end your message, sign your first and last name; a complimentary close, such as "Sincerely," is optional.

Use both lower and upper case letters. Using all upper case is like shouting and is more difficult to read, as is all lower case.

Use an easy-to-read font, such as Times New Roman or Ariel, in black, on a white background.

To avoid confusion, write out dates rather than using numbers (March 4 rather than 3-4).

In educational and professional correspondence, avoid using e-mail acronyms (TTYL—talk to you later) and emoticons (smiley faces or similar graphic symbols).

Proofread for spelling, grammar and punctuation; your writing should represent you in the best possible way; errors detract from the importance of what you have to say.

Consider the content of your e-mail message:

Be considerate of your reader's time: keep your message as brief and to-the-point as possible.

If you need a response by a certain date or time, include that information as well as how your reader should respond (via e-mail or phone?). Allow enough time for a careful response.

Write clearly and plainly. Shorter sentences are better when possible.

Write in complete sentences and fully formed paragraphs.

Offer only as much background information as necessary; make your main point the primary piece of information.

Avoid industry specific or insider jargon, acronyms, and an inflated writing style.

Compare the following messages:

"To better facilitate our exchange this afternoon, please be ready to produce all documents related to the EPPC's last meeting."

"Please bring your notes from the last Employee Picnic planning committee meeting (last Thursday) to our meeting Tuesday, April 30 (this afternoon)."

The first message seems deliberately difficult to understand, and is unclear due to lack of dates and inclusion of acronyms that may not be universally understood. The second message is clearer, more concrete and informative, and frankly, less annoying.

If you are making several points, put them in a logical order (most important first, or chronological order, for example). You may also want to list your ideas numerically.

For more e-mail guidelines, see Elements of E-mail Style, by David Angell and Brent Heslop.

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