How to Write Clear, Concise, and Effective E-Mails that Will Be Read and Answered

E-Mail is 40 This Year. It’s Time We Learnt to Use It Properly

By Jonathan Spira on 22 April 2022
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Despite the fact that e-mail is celebrating its 40th anniversary last year (it was invented by Ray Tomlinson, a pioneering American software developer, in 1971), people continue to struggle with using it.

Many users wrestle with the basics, such as how to write an effective subject line.   The subject line, of course, may very well determine if the e-mail gets opened and read and it’s important to keep it short, concise, and on message.

Given that so many of us are relying even more on e-mail as we telecommute amidst the coronavirus pandemic, I thought it a good idea to review some basic principles.

While many so-called experts say to write the subject line before the body of the e-mail, that can misfire easily.  I typically put a placeholder in the subject line, such as “Follow-up question from our meeting last Friday” and proceed to write the e-mail.  I then circle back and make adjustments as necessary and the final e-mail end up as “Urgent question about late widget deliveries.”

It’s important to remember that the subject line is not the place for a greeting such as “Hello” or “Thanks.”   Indeed, it’s important to avoid anything that is so imprecise.

Once the placeholder subject line has been typed, proceed to the body of your e-mail message. A salutation is important: Don’t jump in and bombard the recipient with something such as “We need to jump on a call and go over the widget order from the Republic of Freedonia due to multiple defects found in the shipment that just arrived.”  Yes, this is a key sentence but greet the person first and explain what you’re covering.

For example,

Rob, hi and good afternoon!

I’m writing to call your attention to a problem our warehouse is reporting with the Freedonia shipments.

is a good start and tells the reader exactly why you are interrupting his day with this missive.

Then explain what you found (as I alluded to earlier) and close with an action item.

Finally, circle back and look at the subject line. Does it cover what you are actually writing about? If not, make modifications as required to make it more on message.

Hence, the final e-mail should look like this:

Subject:          Quality control issue with Freedonia shipments

Rob, hi and good afternoon!

I’m writing to call your attention to a problem our warehouse is reporting with the Freedonia shipments.  The quality control supervisor is reporting a defect rate of 22% and it’s going up as more shipments arrive.

We need to jump on a call and craft a strategy on how to handle this as we already have orders in and letters of credit open for 643 new orders with them.

Are you available either today at 16h or tomorrow morning at any time (Eastern time zone here)?  Please let me know stat.

Thanks in advance for your attention to this matter.

/s/ Paul

Finally, if you must include multiple topics within one e-mail, include a preamble of sorts, explaining what you plan to cover in the note – and be especially careful to be clear and concise in e-mail messages with multiple subjects. For example, such an e-mail should look like this:

Subject:          Future Orders and New Warehouse

Rene, hi and good morning!

This e-mail will cover two items, namely future orders we will be placing with your company as well as information about our new warehouse you will be shipping these orders to.

Got it? Good.  Now go and press Send but only if you’re sure.

In our next article on this topic, I will look at how e-mail users create an avoidable form of Information Overload.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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