Brush Up Your Email Etiquette


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Brush Up Your Email Etiquette

“Email, instant messaging, and cell phones give us fabulous communication ability, but because we live and work in our own little worlds, that communication is totally disorganized.”

— Marilyn vos Savant

Email pervades our lives. It handles everything from major business contracts to grandma’s quiche recipe. It’s as common as breathing, and like breathing, it happens without much intention.

But email should be more intentional. We could all use a brush up on email etiquette.

What email etiquette should I use?

To get the most from (and avoid the worst of) email communication, do the following:

1. Use email appropriately.

Follow your company’s policy. Use email for group projects, announcements, routine messages, and immediate follow-up. Avoid it for sensitive issues, serious topics, or bad news. Respond to emails within hours, not days.

2. Send an email instead of scheduling a meeting.

If you need to provide information to one person or a group, send an email. It’s fast and permanent, allowing your readers to deal with the message at their own pace and refer back to it later. Meetings are for collaboration and decision making. Emails are for information.

3. Write strong subject lines.

The subject line is your first chance to get your readers’ attention—like a headline. It also helps the reader search for the message days or months or years later. Use these tips to write great subject lines.

Be specific and clear. Vague or missing subject lines are a nuisance, and the message may simply be ignored.

Include keywords. These words capture your subject succinctly and help readers find the email later.

Keep it concise. Readers skim subject lines, and email programs tend to display only the first five or six words, so express your core ideas quickly.

Make it reader-relevant. Speak to readers’ needs rather than your own.

4. Be smart about distribution.

Send the message to all relevant parties, but not to any irrelevant ones. Put primary readers in the “To” row, and secondary readers in the “Cc” row. Place anonymous readers in the “Bcc” row. (To keep all readers anonymous, send the email to yourself and place all readers in the “Bcc” row.)

5. Be careful about replying.

Don’t “Reply All” unless all recipients need to see your reply. If everyone in a large list uses “Reply All,” everyone gets another dozen emails.

6. Use a salutation and closing.

When initiating contact, greet the reader: “Hi Susan,” or “Good morning, team,” or “Hey Pete.” At the end of the message, provide a polite closing: “Best regards,” or “Thank you,” or “See you soon!” Then include your name.

When writing responses in an ongoing thread, you can leave out the salutation and closing.

7. Write brief paragraphs.

Present your ideas in short paragraphs with an empty line between them. Focus each paragraph on one specific thought. For most emails, place the main point in the first paragraph, followed by supporting details.

If an email gets too long, consider porting most of the content to a separate document and attaching it to a shorter email.

8. Use lists.

Put ranked information in numbered lists and nonsequential information in bulleted lists. Introduce lists with a complete sentence followed by a colon. Make list items parallel (in the same basic grammatical form).

9. Avoid negativity.

Readers tend to interpret emails to be more negative than the writer intends. A positive message sounds neutral. A neutral one sounds negative. A negative one sounds hostile. As a result, you should raise your positivity by one notch. Write happy to sound positive, write positive to sound neutral, and write neutral to sound negative. Avoid writing strongly negative emails, which make you seem unhinged.

10. Keep it professional.

Write in a way that reflects well on you as an individual as well as on your work group and organization. Treat readers and subjects with respect. Remember that your confidential email is one “forward” away from unintended readers.

11. “Forward” cautiously.

If you bring a new person into a conversation, make sure that the person needs to be part of it and that the thread doesn’t reveal anything the person shouldn’t know.

12. Edit and check.

Read through your work to make sure your main point comes through clearly and you answer all of the reader’s important questions. Check that details are well organized. Is your writing voice appropriate to your topic and audience? Does the email accomplish your purpose? Correct any errors and double-check all attachments before pressing “Send.”

Tip: If you often regret pressing “Send,” leave the recipients blank until the email is finished. That way if you click “Send,” nothing will happen, giving you one last chance to make the message right.


Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more help with email writing.