How to write e-mails

The art of writing e-mails is, I think, little understood. As part of my strategy to offer reflections on exactly those things we usually never talk about, I here offer a few remarks on how to write e-mails most effectively.


The order of writing

The most important practical tip for writing e-mails is the order in which you write it. All e-mail applications have the sender text box on top, then comes the subject text box, and lastly the message text box. This entices you to first write the sender’s email address, then the subject of your e-mail, and finally the e-mail itself. Don’t do that! The correct order for writing e-mails is bottom-up: you first write the message, then you come up with a good subject, and only lastly, after proof-reading the message you insert the sender’s e-mail address. This ensures you that you are sending the message you want to send.

For Gmail users, also consider enabling ‘Undo Send’, which will grant you a couple of seconds after you have hit ‘send’  to halt the e-mail. Click here for more information.


 The message

An e-mail message should be short. It preferably only discusses one topic. When it is a request, place the request just before the valediction in the form of a question (including question mark). Always read your message before you send it. For important messages, do not be shy to really sit down for it and craft it to perfection.



Crafting, however, does not mean that you bury your message under a layer of rhetorical softeners. I think this is all too familiar. PhD Comics really hit the nail on the head with that one; the professor is churning out e-mails one after the other; the student is anxiously trying to soften his request, thereby snowing under the actual message. However, the lesson to be learned from the comic is not that students should adopt a style as the professor is displaying. It depends on the position one is in. The position of e-mail communication is largely defined by the following aspects:

  • real life power dynamics
  • communication power dynamics
  • rate of communication
  • social position

Real life power dynamics: What is your place in the corporate or academic hierarchy ? What is the receiver’s position? Does the hierarchy presuppose a direct relationship between you and the receiver (e.g. supervisor-student, manager-employee)? Or are there steps in between (e.g. dean-student, CEO-employee)? Take the comic as an example. The professor is able to simply reply ‘yes’, ‘no’, etc. because his position in the hierarchy allows him to give direct commands. The student should under no circumstances command his professor in this direct manner. However, this does not mean the student should adopt the overly insecure style as is shown in the comic. This is inappropriate because there is a direct relationship between the two and so the professor should know that the student may request something of him. Maintaining an overly insecure style after a direct relationship has been established, especially when it is formalized within a corporate or academic hierarchy will only irritate the professor.

Communication power dynamics: Do you need something? Is the request urgent, important, big? Does the receiver owe you one or not all? Keep in mind that a response may not come the same day. If you include deadline, you are allowed to send a reminder short before the deadline. Always be positive, non-judgmental, and write in such a way that the responder is left with outs.

Rate of communication: This is best explained when you consider e-mail communication as air traffic. Some airports (persons) have only few flights (messages) and most of them are outbound, to a few destinations. Other airports have many flights, in- and outbound, to many destinations. It is good to realize your and the receiver’s rate of communication. What may be the only message you send on that day, could be the 30th message the other receives. The higher the rate of communication, the shorter and more to the point your message should be. Vice versa, when you expect the other does not have a high rate of communication, do not be shy to embellish your message with details or side notes. The receiver might just enjoy them. Connected to this simile of air traffic you should also realize that for some destinations it may be wiser to use a ‘lay over’ (intermediary person). Contacting by proxy someone you do not know personally is always a good idea.

Social position: What does the cultural background of you demand? What about the receiver? For example, Germans are in general more formal in their communication than Americans. It could be that no matter how well you know someone, you have to keep addressing them as “Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor.” Always adapt to the social position the receiver is in.

When writing e-mails, you should assess your own position and the position of the receiver based on these four points. Based on that assessment you will be able to write most effectively.

In a future post I will explain how to read e-mails most effectively.

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