—By Jessy Tapper
Junior Copywriter, Momentum Chicago
When I was 16 I first learned the importance of knowing how to write a good email. Working for my dad over the summer, I sauntered into his office one afternoon to inquire about the serious topic of what we were having for lunch, when I noticed an email from over his shoulder that he was about to send. Stuck somewhere between horror and incredulity, I lunged my body in between him and his computer screen and demanded to know what in the world he was doing.
It’s been quite a few years, but I believe the email in question looked something like this:
Have yu seen the the place on W .Astor i havnt been by yet but I wantedto check to see if you had before I sent fdChad to take alook. The fixtures need checking and you shuld know should see the plumbing when you go see.Garage.
Call me whewn you see it.”
Now, my father is an incredibly intelligent man, but apparently not so good with the proofreading. (He also types with only two fingers.) So from that point on, I became in charge of all his email correspondence. I barely even let him near the keyboard for fear that he might send another note like the one above while I wasn’t looking. The thought still gives me chills.
Ever since that fateful summer afternoon, I’ve thought more and more about what constitutes a “good” email, and more relevantly, how to write one. Over the years, I’ve come up with a relatively simple method that has helped even my dad rise from computer ape status to a semi-understandable human being. My list is as follows.
6. Keep it casual.
Emails are an inherently informal mode of communication. Somewhere between the formal To-whom-it-may-concern format and a text with your BFFL, an email is a simple, straightforward way of getting information from point A to point B. While I don’t necessarily recommend signing your emails, “TTYL LOL,” there’s no point in overanalyzing the perfect placement of every word, use of punctuation, or grammatical decision.
So what if you want to start a sentence with a conjunction? By all means, go ahead. And what if one of your sentences isn’t complete, but it makes your point stronger through its brevity? You go, Glen Coco. Do it.
5. Keep it positive.
In my experience, if there could only be one cliché allowed in this world, chosen for its consistent and overwhelming truth, it would be, “you always catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” While I don’t know why anyone would ever need to “catch flies,” I will vouch for its metaphorical validity 100% of the time. No matter how irrepressibly angry/annoyed/upset/whatever you may feel in the moment, I guarantee you’ll get more out of the exchange if you can stay calm and positive. In the same way that road rage is such a problem because people can hide behind the protective shell of their vehicle, emails offer that same kind of dehumanizing shield, transforming blunt into rude and rude into OHMYGODICANTBELIVESHESAIDTHAT. Basically, when in doubt, just be nicer. Or add a smiley. :)
4. Don’t be afraid to throw in some humor.
Take it from someone who spent almost an entire year working on not much besides other people’s expense reports—a little bit of humor can go A LONG WAY. I tend to believe that the blander the subject matter, the more important it is to go hard for the laughs. If for no other reason than people will be more willing to read your email in a timely manner if they expect it to be funny. Unless the subject of the email is incredibly serious or important, it’s all about the jokes.
3. Check your spelling.
While perfect grammar and punctuation are not mandatory in a good email, having bad spelling is akin to having a disgustingly massive zit, square in the middle of your forehead. It’s impossible to ignore no matter how polite everyone else tries to be, and it’s ugly. The worst “zit” of all is when you misuse “your/you’re” or “there/their/they’re.”
2. Write like you speak.
The one thing I always keep in the front of my mind when I’m writing an email— whether I’m writing it to my boss, my mother, or someone I’ve never met before—is what I would say to this person if we were face to face instead of face to interface.
And then I write exactly that. It guarantees that your thoughts stay concise, easy to understand, and not overly formal.
1. Read it aloud
As a writer, this is the concept with which I struggle most when critiquing others’ work. An email, essay or even a post-it may be perfect in grammatical and structural regard, but if it doesn’t possess that lilt or flow of normal speech and conversation, it’s still wrong. As such, the most important key to writing a great email is to simply read it aloud before you hit send. This is when you’ll figure out that a word is out of place or something about a sentence feels wrong. We are innately much better speakers and listeners than we are readers and writers. They’re two of the first things we ever learn on this earth, and as such I believe they are two skills that should be trusted more than any rules or guidelines we learn in school.