Why do I need to know about writing email?
Even with the best of intentions, misunderstandings are likely to occur in almost any type of communication. Most professionals receive many emails every day. If the subject does not grab them they may not even open the email. Often recipients only read partway through a long message, hit "reply" as soon as they have something to contribute, and don’t keep reading. This is part of human nature.
Basics of writing email
- The subject line is the single most important part of an email message - make sure you use it well.
- The subject line should sum up what the email is about (e.g. "Today's meeting of the training committee: Agenda", not "Hello")
- One topic for each email. Get to the point and stick to the point
- Maximum one paragraph or five bullet points
- Write as you would speak in plain english but don't write as you chat (avoid slang etc.)
- Assume nothing is private - email is like sending a postcard.
- Don't use HTML or RTF formatting unless you are sure your recipient's email program can read it; never send formatted emails to mailing lists. Remember: what you see is not necessarily what they get.
- Don't send Word attachments - either include the text in the body of the email or send the attachment in a non-proprietary format such as PDF or HTML; even better, save the file onto a shared drive or web space and send them the URL (web address).
- Don't write sarcastic, abrupt or rude emails - it can be very hurtful
- Don't send your email to more recipients than is necessary.
Best practice guides:
Writing an email
Purpose of the email
Before you start, consider the purpose of the email, and whether the recipient will be interested. You need to make sure that your email expresses your purpose clearly and let the recipient know if it is just for information or for action. Are you:
- Sharing information?
- Trying to persuade people or change opinions?
- Asking someone to do something?
- Giving written confirmation of verbal agreements?
What is the purpose of your message?
An email can be anything from an informal one-liner to a formal letter. However, because of the nature of email, it is best to consider the purpose of your message before writing. Email is not always the best or most effective communications medium to use.
Make sure the subject line is meaningful and descriptive (e.g. "Today's meeting of the training committee - an agenda", not "Hello"). The subject line is the single most important part of an email message - it is your heading make sure you use it well.
Make one point per email
It doesn't cost any more to send several emails than it does to send one. So, if you need to communicate with someone about a number of different things, write a separate email on each subject. That way, your correspondent can reply to each one individually and in the appropriate time frame.
Be careful what you write
Email is neither private nor secure. Do not use email to discuss confidential or sensitive information. An email is a permanent record and can be easily forwarded to others or intercepted. Double check all addresses and content before you send.
Keep it short and to the point
It is best to limit yourself to five or six bullet points or a couple of paragraphs. Try to have only one topic or action point per email.
Specify the response you want
Include any action you want from the recipient, such as a phone call or follow-up appointment. Then, include your contact information, including your name, title, and phone numbers. Do this even with internal messages.
When not to write email
The most effective form of communication is face-to-face, followed by telephoning, formal writing, email, texting, and voice-mail. Face-to-face communication is more interactive, and you get rich feedback, both verbal and non-verbal. However, some people prefer emails to face-to-face communication if you are going to give a detailed set of instructions.
Sending an Email
Don't send your email to people who don't need to know about it
- Think carefully before clicking "Reply to all" - did you really mean to reply to everyone, or just the sender?
- Use the CC and BCC fields where appropriate - know the difference between them. If you want all receipients of the email to see who else you sent your email to, use Cc this means "carbon copy". If you do not want all the recipients seeing who else your email went to, use Bcc which means "Blind Carbon Copy".
Style of communication
Email can range from the formal to the informal. It is a good idea to signal whether or not the email is formal by the type of language you use. Formal emails should begin "Dear [recipient's name]" and end with "Regards" or similar. Don't use an informal style unless you know the person very well.
Always include a subject line in your message. Almost all email software presents you with the subject line when you browse your inbox, so it is often the only clue people will get as to what the email is about. Make sure the subject line is meaningful and descriptive (e.g. "Today's meeting of the training committee - an agenda", not "Hello"). The subject line is the single most important part of an email message - it is your heading make sure you use it well.
Appropriate quoting in replies
It is recommended that you only quote the portions of an email that are relevant to your recipient. This will not only save on storage quota by reducing the size of the email, but also provide a clearer focus. However, it is important to think carefully about what you are removing to ensure your message does not lose meaning.
Most email programs automatically quote the entire body of messages. Take the time to edit this and quote what is necessary to provide adequate context for your reply.
Always use plain text and there are valid reasons for this. There are many different mail programs (Thunderbird, Pine, Outlook etc) running on a number of different platforms such Apple Macs, PCs, or Linux/Unix computers. Messages do not necessarily translate well between different programs or platforms if you are not using plain text. Remember that what you create in your compose window is not necessarily what the recipient sees - they may not have colour or font-style formatting in their email program, for example. If you must compose an email in RTF or HTML, provide a plain-text alternative .
Be wary of Junk email
Email forgery is very simple to do. Apply common sense and reality checks before assuming any message is valid - even if you think you know who it came from. Never open an attachment unless you know what it is and you are expecting it. Even then it is wise to be cautious as many email viruses try to encourage you to open them. Always have up-to-date virus checking software on your computer.
Familiarise yourself with the email software you are using. Check which email software Computing Services recommends and supports.
For more information on how to spot junkmail see our junk and spam mail page.
Is to pass on an email which is annotated or edited.
- You have something to add or change
- or if the message has been sent to you in error.
- Never forward virus hoaxes, chain letters, petitions or schemes. Never reply to spam or junk mail.
Don't attach files unnecessarily. Are you absolutely sure your recipient can read the attached format you are about to send them? Are they expecting the attachment from you? They may delete it unread if not. Even if you know your recipient can read the multi-megabyte attachment you are about to send them, are you sure they are not picking their email up over a slow dial-up link or on a wireless device this time. Attachments take longer to download than plain text emails. For security reasons many receiving email systems can block or return attachments, or they may have to check the attachment for known viruses.
Compatibility issues also apply as much to attachments as to messages. In general, the larger and more diverse the list of recipients, the more care you need to take with the format of any data that is sent. Never send attachments to email lists or to large groups of people. The sheer volume entailed in many copies of a large attachment can overwhelm mail systems and for security reasons may even be deleted by the list software.
Instead of sending an attachment, consider putting the text you wish to send in the body of your email or send a URL (web address) or some other reference instead.
Cutting and pasting text: If you are cutting and pasting text into a thunderbird document please remember that you will need to remove any of the styling that has been applied to the text so that it appears as plain text. The easiest way to do this is to copy the text you require (ctrl-C) and paste (ctrl-V) your text into notepad found under Start->All programs-> Accessories-> Notepad (notepad automatically removes styling). Then cut (ctrl-C) the text from notepad before pasting (ctrl-V) it into your email.
Link to a webpage or file:
In Thunderbird this can be done through the Insert menu on the HTML toolbar. A dialogue box below will appear, allowing you to enter text for your link, and the link or file itself.
If linking to a file, you will need to ensure the message recipient has access to the area / drive where the file is stored. If not, it will need to be sent as an attachment.
If you really do need to send an attachment, make sure that the recipient of your email can open the attachment you send. It is best not to use proprietary formats such as MS Word, PowerPoint, etc unless you are collaborating on a document and all parties have agreed on the format to use. (Note - MS Word is not a document exchange format). Use HTML or PDF for document exchange instead.
A signature is a short piece of text added to the foot your emails usually containing contact details about yourself. Keep your signature short (4 to 6 lines) and to the point.
Thunderbird allows for RTF (Rich Text Format) and HTML files however we advise saving your signature as a plain text file. This ensures that the look of your signature remains the same to the receiver of the email as it does to you. Formatting can be lost if you use HTML or RTF signatures.
Some people add famous or humorous quotes to their signatures. This can be acceptable and add character if done properly. It is best to avoid religious or political statements or anything people may take offence at, especially in your formal signature.
University staff are encouraged to have email signatures. Email signatures are a convenient way of letting people know who you are and how to contact you. Signatures appear as text at the end of each email you send and should be created in the following format...
Telephone number (if applicable)
Fax number (if applicable)
Other information, eg. working pattern (if appropriate)
Courtesy and politeness
Responding to heated email should be done cautiously if at all; waiting till the next day is often wise. Flaming (sending strongly emotional email) is rarely appropriate and is unlikely ever to encourage a positive response.
- Don't write in CAPITALS as it is considered to be SHOUTING.
- Avoid sarcastic comments, as these can be taken out of context and be very hurtful.
- Use emoticons or smilies sparingly (if at all), more than a couple in a message look tacky. They are never totally appropriate or professional in email communication.
- Do not circulate emails which are critical of someone's conduct to people who do not need to know - this is bullying.
- If you are angry about the email you are replying to, give yourself time to cool off before sending. Read through the draft several times. Follow the rules outlined above for composing email.
- Email etiquette
Managing your email
Organising your email
We all feel overwhelmed sometimes by the sheer volume of email received. Much of it is unnecessary; some of it is spam. This document will offer some techniques for dealing with emails you have received, and writing emails that your recipients will want to read.
Don't let the emails pile up in your inbox - this will just make you feel overwhelmed. There are three sensible actions for dealing with emails you have received:
- File it in a topic or project folder to read later
- Carry out the actions requested by the sender (and then either file it or delete it)
- Delete it
You can also set up filters and sieve rules for incoming mail; this is useful for organising mail from mailing lists and deleting spam straight away.
Use of read receipts, high priority and URGENT
Don't request a read-receipt - this will almost always annoy your recipient before they have even read your message. Also, the recipient's email software may not be able to deal with this feature.
Don't mark emails high priority or urgent, as people may have many such emails to deal with. Similarly don't use the words URGENT or IMPORTANT in the subject line of an email. If your message really is urgent or important email is not the correct communication method to be using in the first place; the telephone is probably better.
Use Shared mailboxes
Keeping your Job role related emails in a separate mailbox can help with organising and retreiving of emails. Shared mailboxes can not only give you an area dedicated to your Job role but also enable you to easily share emails with other members of your team including a job share. Shared mailboxes are also very valuable when you are handing over a role to a new employee. See our shared mailbox webpages for more detailed information.