How To Write An Email

A screenshot of a silly email
I spent several hours in school learning how to write a letter. From the correct placement of the address, right down to the "Yours sincerely / faithfully" - every aspect was drummed into me.

That never happened with email. Judging from many of the people I work with - young and old - the art of writing an email has not been adequately explained.

I want to take a few moments to explain how I write effective emails and what simple tips you can use to make your work emails better.

Short Version

  1. Other people's time is valuable to them. Writing good emails is a mark of respect and will get you results.
  2. Create a relevant, actionable subject line.
  3. Put your request in the first paragraph you write. Repeat it at the end if necessary.

Long Version

This isn't a guide on whether to use conventions like "Dear Sir / Madam" or whether to use an Oxford comma. This is a brief guide to show you how to get the most out of email. To ensure your emails get acted upon. And to stop your emails from annoying people.

Why Bother

I used to be late for lots of appointments. One day I was pulled up on it, I began to make my excuses - there was traffic, I had to finish a report, I needed some lunch... My boss told me she didn't want to hear why I was late. She wanted me to realise that being late was a matter of respect. I respected my own time more than I respected anyone else's time - and that attitude is ugly and unfair.

It is the same reason that correct grammar and spelling are so important. You are favouring your own time and convenience over that of another. Yes, the reader can probably figure out that you meant "their" not "they're" or "late" and not "l8" - but to do so takes time and effort which they would rather spend on other things.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is travelling a long road and carries a heavy burden.
-- Plato

You are also, I presume, sending an email in order to generate a response. That response may be someone emailing back, filling in a form, reading and understanding your request, or simply to get them to do something for you.

If you write bad emails, people will misunderstand your instructions and will not respond in the way you hoped.

Let's start at the beginning.

Subject Line

You need to have a subject line that lets someone know exactly what the email is about and whether they need to take action.

Remember many users will be looking on a mobile device and only see the first few words.

Subject lines act as quick reminders when people are scrolling through a long list of mails.

Take a look at these subject lines - I'm sure you recognise some of your own bad habits.

TPS ReportsPlease fill in your TPS reports by Tuesday
Project X ScheduleProject X - Behind Schedule
AliceWhat is Alice's phone number?
Team MeetingCancelled: Team Meeting
January's SalesI need January's sales figures ASAP
URGENT!URGENT! Fire in Building 7!
Crash ReportCrash Report for iPhone build 7.1

Do you see the difference between the good and the bad? With the good, the reader instantly knows what the email is about, whether she needs to take action, and will be able to deal with them appropriately.

The First Paragraph

Make the first paragraph contain the action you want the recipient to take.

How many times have you read an email which contained several paragraphs of waffle? After the first few seconds, you probably skimmed the rest of the email. Sounds familiar, huh?

Please can you get me a new set of icons for the Stingray project. They need to be suitable for iOS7.

Many people find this style of email abrasive. Cutting to the chase doesn't fit in with the way that we normally socialise. When you talk to a person you normally enquire as to how they are before asking them to do something.

Let's take a look at this, fairly typical email, and see whether it meets the needs of the send or the recipient.

Subject: Heya!
Body: Alice,
Glad you had a great time on holiday - can't wait to see the photos!

We all missed you in the office. You didn't hear about Bob's run in with the police, did you? Well, that's all sorted now. Looks like they won't press charges and the swelling should subside shortly.

I know you were looking at a new colour scheme for the Dolphin project, but we're going to have to cancel that - I know you worked really hard and I'm sorry that we can't take it forward.

Anyway, will have to catch up properly now that the weather has improved.
PS if you've read this far, please can you get me a new set of icons for the Stingray project. They need to be suitable for iOS7.

Here's a better verison

Subject: Stingray - we need iOS7 icons.
Body: Alice,
Glad to have you back! Please can you get me a new set of icons for the Stingray project. They need to be suitable for iOS7.

Hope you had a great time on holiday - can't wait to see the photos!

We all missed you in the office. You didn't hear about Bob's run in with the police, did you? Well, that's all sorted now. Looks like they won't press charges and the swelling should subside shortly.

Anyway, will have to catch up properly now that the weather has improved. Looking forward to seeing those new icons.


No one reads emails - but when they do, they rarely get past the 1st paragraph. So don't start emails with "It's been a busy week and we wanted to inform you of some exciting changes which are happening." and then drone on. Cut to the chase.

"We need you to fill in this form because new legislation means..."

To Whom Are You Sending?

Every email you send takes up someone's valuable time. Do you need to send an email to the entire mailing list?

How often have you ended up on an email trail due to someone replying to all?

Just stop.

Every person in your "To" list must be able to take an action from the email. If not, remove them.

Make every person aware of why they have been sent this email.

To:Alice, Bob, Carol,
Subject: Information for TPS Reports needed by Friday
Body: All,
I need information from you to help me complete the TPS reports.
Alice - please send me the YTD figures.
Bob - please run the XYZ report and forward it to me.
Carol - I will send you the report once Alice and Bob get me the information.

To Attach or Not To Attach?

Most people on modern email systems will be able to handle large attachments. A few people will be stuck on ancient Microsoft products which don't allow large files. Some will have draconian corporate rules which prevent certain attachments.

Sending an attachment is usually an act of kindness. You're including something so your recipient doesn't have to click on a link and try to download via another system.

My rule of thumb is that the sender should keep the attachments small - no greater than 10MB - and send them only to relevant people.

What Else?

That's my fairly minimal set of tips to create better emails. If you have any other simple suggestions - I'd love to hear them.

Share this post on…

9 thoughts on “How To Write An Email”

  1. says:

    One of the better tips I've seen before is when someone forwards you an email to transfer an action to you or just an introduction email, when you reply move that person to the BCC line, that way they see that you've taken over the thread but don't end up being copied into the entire ongoing debate:


    To: Sam
    CC: Bob
    From: Alice
    Subject: TPS Reports Team Introduction.

    Hi Sam, I'd like to introduce you to Bob, can you work with him on the TPS reports

    From: Sam
    BCC: Alice
    Subject: Re: TPS Reports Team Introduction.

    (Thanks Alice, moving you to BCC)

    Hi Bob, nice to meet you, where do we go next?


    From: Bob
    To: Sam
    Subject: Re: TPS Reports Team Introduction.

    Blah, Blah Blah, Ponies

  2. says:

    Oh and one thing that is sure to wind me up,

    Don't put the content of your message in a 100k word doc with some fancy 'memo' formatting that says all of about 2 lines of useful information then have your PA email that as an attachment to everyone in the company with an email subject of "Message From Mr Weaselworth"

    If you do this I will hunt you down and make you pay dearly,

    PS (true story, name changed to protect the incompetent)

  3. says:

    I'd like to add a "How to reply to email" section, which would include these key points:

    - An email may include more than one action point or question. Make sure you've properly read the email and understood all the action points/questions.

    - Acknowledge all actions you have been asked to do, eg, "Hi Bob, Thanks for your email. I'll get you the report by Tuesday, and book the conference room for our meeting on Thursday." Don't just assume that because you've seen it you don't need to respond to say you've seen it. If I know you've seen it and are acting on it, I can close the mental loop in my head that says "This thing must be done", which allows me to get on with other things rather than worry about whether the report's on schedule and the conference room booked.

    - If you are asked more than one question, answer them all, not just the first one or the last one. This drives me batty. If I asked you more than one question, it was for a reason - because I want the answers! If you can't answer one of the questions right now, at least acknowledge that you've seen it and will get back to me.

    Really, I do sometimes wonder why people find this stuff so hard. And it's not necessarily the youngsters who are guilty of crimes against email, it's everyone.

  4. @Edent I might print the FUNNI CATS email and tape to my display as a reminder to not be so long-winded and vague.
    (Yes, I did edit this toot to cut to the chase)


What are your reckons?

All comments are moderated and may not be published immediately. Your email address will not be published.Allowed HTML: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> <p> <pre> <br> <img src="" alt="" title="" srcset="">