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A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email



================================
Items Covered in this document
================================

Context
Useful Subject Lines
Information, Please
Quoting Documents
Remove Pronouns
Shorter Paragraphs
Line Length
Terser Prose
Summary

Context:

In a conversation, there is some minimum of shared context. You might be in the same physical location, and even on the phone you have, at minimum, commonality of time. When you generate a document for paper, usually there is some context embedded in the medium: the text is in the proceedings of a conference, written on a birthday card, handed to your professor with a batch of Econ 101 term papers, or something similar.

With email, you can't assume anything about a sender's location, time, frame of mind, profession, interests, or future value to you. This means, among other things, that you need to be very, very careful about giving your receivers some context. This section will give specific strategies for doing so.

Useful Subject Lines

A subject line that pertains clearly to the email body will help people mentally shift to the proper context before they read your message. The subject line should be brief (as many mailers will truncate long subject lines), does not need to be a complete sentence, and should give a clue to the contents of the message. For example:

    Subject: need 3 thrombos by Tues

    Chris - I need three thromblemeisters for Thursday's
    demo in Boston. They need to be left-handed, and
    they need to be packed for shipping by Tuesday night.

Here the subject line summarizes nicely the most important details of the message.

If your message is in response to another piece of email, your email software will probably preface the subject line with Re: or RE: (for REgarding). If your email composition software doesn't do this, it would be polite to put in RE: by hand.

    Subject: Re: need 3 thrombos by Tues

    Pat - I've got two thromblemeisters already packed
    from last week's demo, but I don't have another
    functional left-handed one right now. Can you
    cope with two lefties and one rightie?

For time-critical messages, starting with URGENT: is a good idea (especially if you know the person gets a lot of email):

    Subject: URGENT: need left-handed thrombo

    I've *got* to have another left-handed thromblemeister
    for the Boston demo, and I need it by tomorrow
    afternoon. Chris only has two, and I've got to have
    three. Chris *does* have a broken leftie, so if
    anyone could fix that one, or if they have one in
    their desk somewhere, I'd really appreciate it!

For requests, starting with REQ: can signal that action is needed:

    Subject: REQ: turn in thrombos

    Pat's call for a left-handed thromblemeister
    turned up 12 functional lefties that were
    lying around people's offices unused. Please
    take a moment to look around your area for
    thromblemeisters (rightie *or* leftie) that you
    are no longer using, and get them back to Chris.

If you are offering non-urgent information that requires no response from the other person, prefacing the subject line with FYI: (For Your Information) is not a bad idea, as in

    Subject: FYI: donuts in break room

    The donut fairy left a dozen doughnuts in the
    downstairs break room. First come, first served!

Information, Please

Do yourself a favor and eliminate the word "information" from your subject lines (and maybe from the body of your message as well). I get a lot of email that looked like this:

    Subject: information

    Please send me information about Computers.
This gave me very little clue as to what the person wanted to know about: Full computer, Parts or Part? The number of Parts? Software or Tutoring? Times and prices? The only thing I could do with email like this was ask for further context. Mail like this would have been much better as
    Subject: Computer System Prices

    Could you please send me some prices on a computer system for my 10 year old son?

Quoting Documents

If you are referring to previous email, you should explicitly quote that document to provide context.

Instead of sending email that says:

    yes
You should probably send an email that says:
    > Did you get all of the left-handed thromblemeisters
    > that you needed?

    yes
The greater-than sign (>) is the most conventional way to quote someone else's email words, but your email software may use a different convention.

Even if there are a fair number of words in your response, you still might need to quote the previous message. Imagine getting a response on Monday to some email that you can't quite remember sending on Friday.

    I talked to them about it the other day, and they want to see the other one before they make up their minds.
Your response would probably be the highly articulate, "Huh???" It would be much easier for you to understand email that said:
    > I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassembly
    > ready; as soon as I get a decision on the
    > thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go.
    > Have you talked to the thermo guys about whether
    > they are ready to go with the left-handed thrombo or
    > do they want to wait and check out the right-handed
    > one first?

    I talked to them about it the other day, and they want to see the other one before they make up their minds.
This is substantially better, but now errs on the side of too much context. The first three lines have nothing to do with the question being answered. You should only include enough to provide a context for the message and no more. (Peter Kimble, my high school computer science teacher, now gives his students the heuristic that at least half of the lines in an email message should be their own.)

You need only enough context to frame the question being answered:

    > Have you talked to the thermo guys about whether
    > they are ready to go with the left-handed thrombo or
    > do they want to wait and check out the right-handed
    > one first?

    I talked to them about it the other day, and they want to see the other one before they make up their minds.
Remove Pronouns

The above example gives a good amount of context, but the response to it still takes a little effort to follow. A good rule is to look very carefully at all pronouns in your first three sentences. If they don't refer to something explicitly stated in the email, change them to something concrete.
    > Have you talked to the thermo guys [about which
    > handedness they want]?

    I talked to the thermo group on Wednesday, and they think the left-handed thromblemeister will probably work, but they want to evaluate the right-handed unit before they make up their minds.
Now the answer is very clear and specific. And, since the response contains implicit yet clear references to the original message, less explicitly quoted material is needed. Responses like this, with the context mostly in the body of the message, are the easiest to understand. Unfortunately, they take the longest to compose.

If you want to quote a sentence that is in the middle of a paragraph, or wraps around lines, go ahead and remove everything but the part that you were really interested in, inserting "[...]" if you have to take something out in the middle. You can also paraphrase by using square brackets, as above.

If the message isn't important enough to you to warrant the time to pare the original message down, include the whole thing after your response, not before. If you put the original message at the end, your readers don't have to look at it unless they don't understand the context of your response.

Shorter Paragraphs

Frequently email messages will be read in a document window with scrollbars. While scrollbars are nice, it makes it harder to visually track long paragraphs. Consider breaking up your paragraphs to only a few sentences apiece.

Line Length

Some software to read mail does not automatically wrap (adjust what words go on what line). This means that if there is a mismatch between your software's and your correspondent's in how they wrap lines, your correspondent may end up with a message that looks like this:

    I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassembly ready; as soon as I get a decision on the thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go. Have you talked to the thermo guys about whether they are ready to go with the left-handed thrombo or do they want to wait and check out the right-handed one first?

(Sorry for the funny break. HTML made me do it!) Furthermore, the "quoted-printable" encoding also contributes to the line-length problems. If a line is longer than 76 characters, it is split after the 75th character and the line ends with an equals sign. People whose email reading software can understand quoted-printable encoding will probably have the lines automatically reconstructed, but others will see ugly messages, like the following:

    I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassemby ready; as soon as I get a= decision on the thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go. Have you= talked to the thermo guys about whether they are ready to go with the= left-handed thrombo or do they want to wait and check out the right-handed= one first?

There are even a few email readers that truncate everything past the eightieth character. This is not the way to win friends and influence people.

You should try to keep your lines under seventy characters long. Why seventy and not, say, seventy-six? Because you should leave a little room for the indentation or quote marks your correspondents may want if they need to quote pieces of your message in their replies.

Terser Prose

How many times when you were in school were you told to write a 20-page paper? Probably a lot, and you got penalized for being terse. This training is not appropriate for email. Keep it short. If they want more information, they can ask for it. (Also note that some of your correspondents may be charged by the kilobyte and/or have limits on how much disk space their email can use!)

If you are sending a report to many people, then you may need to put more detail into the email so that you aren't flooded with questions from everyone on the recipient list. (You should also ask yourself carefully if all the people really need to be on the list.)

The fewer the people there are on the recipient list, the shorter the message should be. Books to thousands of people are tens of thousands of words long. Speeches in front of large groups are thousands of words long. But you'd tune out someone at a party who said more than a hundred words at a time.

I try to keep everything on one "page". In most cases, this means twenty-five lines of text. (And yes, that means that this document is way, WAY too long for email!)

Summary

You may know what you are talking about, but your readers may not. Give them the proper context by:

    Giving useful subject lines
    Avoiding pronouns in the first three lines
    Quoting the previous message
    keep everything short.
    Keep your lines short, keep your paragraphs short
    Keep the message short.


---- Rookie





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