Friday, April 16, 2010

How to Write Email That Gets a Response

Cynthia Mittelsteadt

Everyone these days writes email, whether for business, job search or personal communication. This article helps you to learn to write email that's easy for the recipient to understand and will more likely send a response.

I write hundreds of emails a week and still learn something from every email. Most of us did not learn to write email in school, yet knowing how to write email is an invaluable skill in the workplace. This is particularly true for those in (or looking for) telecommuting jobs or home businesses.

A well-written email makes it easy for the recipient to understand and act on its message. In the job search, email may precede or even replace the face-to-face first impression, so proper punctuation and coherent messages are key. And for business communications, unclear emails cause confusion and delays. Follow these tips to write effective emails to colleagues, clients, prospects, hiring managers and even friends and family.

First, consider the message and the recipient.

An email should start in your mind, not with your fingers on the keyboard. To write email effectively, first consider why you are writing it. What kind of response would you want? What message do you wish to impart? If you are requesting information, applying for a job or promoting a product or service, be sure your request for action by the recipient is clear.

Next, consider the point of view of the recipient. What information does he or she need to take action or understand your message? Give necessary (but not excessive) background information. Also keep in mind appropriate etiquette for this particular recipient. Emoticons and abbreviations, like OMG or LOL, are not appropriate in job applications and business email.

Write a good email subject line.

When you write email, do not leave the subject line blank or write something vague like "hi" or "work at home jobs." Emails with this kind of subject line have a good chance of ending up in the recipient's spam box or simply being ignored. If you are applying for a job, put the name of the position in the subject line. If the email is for business communication, make your subject line a short phrase that sums up the purpose of the message. To compose the perfect email subject:

  • Give the message's bottom line. If your email comprises multiple topics, consider breaking it into multiple messages.
  • Summarize the message — why you are writing and what you want to be different after the recipient has read your email — instead of describing it. If you invite somebody to a Webinar, use "Invitation: DubLi Online Shopping Training, Tuesday, April 13, 2010 6:00 PM” instead of a plain "DubLi Online Shopping Training".
  • Be precise. Include detail that allows the recipient to identify what you are talking about quickly and unambiguously.
  • If your message requires the recipient's action, say so; preferably with the first word.
  • Leave out unnecessary words. Email subjects need to be concise. Skip articles, adjectives and adverbs.

Greet the recipient properly.

If you know the name of your recipient but don’t personally know him or her, greet by using a title, i.e. Dear Ms. Brown. (Use “Ms.” for women when uncertain whether “Mrs.” or “Miss” is appropriate.) If you are uncertain about gender, simply use the first and last name, i.e. Dear Chris Smith. If you don’t know the person’s name, begin your email with no greeting or use a simple greeting, i.e. Hello, Greetings, Dear Manager, etc.

If the email is to a colleague or someone else you know use the name you would use in person or on the phone.

Use correct grammar and punctuation.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to use correct grammar in email. Consciously or subconsciously, readers penalize senders for grammatical errors.

  • Run-on sentences - When you write email, don't spare the periods. That small pause gives readers time to take in the words' meanings. Short sentences allow for more of these tiny pauses. Break up long sentences even when they are not technically run-on sentences.
  • Commas - Too few or too many commas can be confusing. Learn to use the comma correctly.
  • Subject-verb agreement - Sentences with this type of error are red flags for employers seeking candidates with good communication skills. Review rules for subject-verb agreement.

Check spelling and capitalization.

Use a spell checker, but don't rely on it. A spell checker won't catch "they" for "the" or "there" for "their." And this type of error indicates carelessness.

Use correct capitalization. Most people know to capitalize the beginning of the sentence and proper nouns, but many fail to do so in emails. Show that you don’t mind taking that extra fraction of a second to hit the shift key. On the other hand, too many capital letters can distract the reader. Avoid writing phrases in all caps (which many interpret as the equivalent of screaming in person) as well as capitalizing, just for emphasis, the first letter of words that are not at the beginning of a sentence or proper nouns.

Use simple formatting in email.

Remember that email programs all display differently. What looks perfectly aligned on your screen may run together on someone else's. For this reason, avoid pasting a highly formatted word-processing document, like a resume or cover letter, into an email. Use documents that are written in plain text format.

Make paragraphs short. Like periods, paragraph breaks give the reader's eye a rest. Someone reading email on a small screen, like a Blackberry, will benefit from short paragraphs. But be careful to still follow basic rules regarding paragraphs.

Be concise.

Meandering emails that bury the point get put aside in a folder and eventually forgotten. Or worse, they may be misunderstood. Make your purpose clear, using concise language.

  • Eliminate wordiness. Write with active verbs. "Jack sent me the forms" uses an active verb. "The forms were sent to me by Jack" is passive. The passive form only uses a few more words, but it adds up. More than that, it requires readers to rearrange the ideas in their heads.
  • Stick to the point. Resist the temptation to add extraneous information or ideas. Save these for another email.
  • Use bullet points. These allow your reader to use visual clues to take in what's important. But if in doubt about how bullets will display, use asterisks or hyphens to create bullets.

Sign email appropriately.

If your email defaults to a standard signature be sure it is appropriate for the particular email you are sending. Signatures with political statements or the names and ages of your children are fine for personal email, but for work use a less personal signature. Depending on your business and your employer, you may still personalize your email signature with a quote. But choose something non-controversial. If you are inquiring about a job, use your signature to give appropriate contact information without any quotes or extra personalization.

Reread/rethink before hitting send.

Check for spelling and punctuation errors before you hit send. If you find an error in an email for a job application, fix it then reread again before you hit send. But also reread for content. If your email is long, think about ways to make it more concise. And if your email is controversial or was written in anger, hit save not send. Come back to it a few hours or a day later and see if you still want to send it.

Send a Test Message

Before you actually send your email, send the message to yourself first to test that the formatting works. If everything looks good, resend to the employer. offers a free 5-day Email Etiquette>>

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Cynthia Mittelsteadt

Skype: cynthia.ebishop

(510) 659-6330

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