For the last six or seven years, it has been interesting for me to watch texting from phones slowly elbowing out email as the most common form of interpersonal communication. Email, of course, did the same to voice phone calls.
What they are
There are two modes of email.
- One is personal email between friends. Many people treat those emails like texts, only longer. By that, I mean they write as directly and as concisely as they can.
- The other mode is professional email between employees of companies or organizations, both internally and externally. This email will be stored (forever?!?) on the company’s servers. Companies, rightly so, consider these emails part of the company’s digital assets.
Remember, when you write an email as a representative of an organization, you do not have the First Amendment right of free speech that you have when you write an email to a friend.
Yes, some internal organizational email is not as formal. But most is. However, almost all external email to clients, customers, and suppliers is written in formal business mode.
This email, like every email I send to students as a professor at Medaille, is written in that mode of formal organizational email. I want it to serve as a model for you. You, too, need practice writing this kind of email.
What they look like
The word “conventions” refers to a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards or criteria. They are arbitrary, not natural or absolute. They can change, and often do, though being conventions, they change slowly.
The business letter and memo have relatively stable conventions. Email, being sort of like a memo and sort of like a letter, does not have stable conventions yet.
The advice below is based on the thousands of emails I have received and sent for professional or organizational purposes. Refer to the sample above right. To learn more: Business e-mail etiquette basics
- The subject line
I wrote it with thought to how it’s going to appear on your screen when you’re looking for it.
- The greeting
Even though every email has lines for To, From, and Subject, I began this email with “Hi everyone -“. I can’t list all 60 names. If I were sending this to only four or five students, I would list the names. More than half a dozen, and I’m looking for a collective noun. “Dear students” sounded too stuffy. Some of my colleagues put “All -” or “Dear all -” but I don’t like the sound of that. “Hi” seemed more consistent with the tone I set in class. “Hello” might be ok, too. What about the punctuation? A colon, a comma, the hyphen I used, or even no punctuation? The colon seems most formal. The hyphen seemed more in keeping with the tone of “Hi”.
I used short paragraphs. The first word of each paragraph is flush left, not indented. I left only one line between each paragraph. I made lists to further break the text into more easily digestible chunks. Instead of bullets, I used a hyphen followed by a space.
I used short underlined phrases as subheadings to help group the short paragraphs.
The conventions: *for bold*; _for italics_
Make links flush left. If it isn’t otherwise clear from the context, paste the title of the page on the line above the link to it.
- The closing
When I finish a conversation with someone, we almost always say or do something formal, almost ritualistic, to mark the end of the conversation. In the business world, this leave-taking often involves a handshake. What about email? When I first began sending email around 1990, I settled on “Cheers,” as my all-purpose closing. The Dutch use “groetjes” with a lower-case “g”, so that’s what I use when I write in Dutch or to Dutch people.
- The signature
I use both my first and last names if I have not met the person I’m sending the email to or if the purpose is very formal. Most email systems let you add what they call a “signature”. This is a little chunk of text, often with the sender’s job title, the organization’s name, the sender’s contact info, and even an organizational logo. The software will add it automatically or in response to a couple of keystrokes.
- The attachment
Refer to it in the text. “Please see the attached …” is the standard phrase. If you have multiple files to attach, zip or otherwise compress them so that you attach only a single file. If the attachment is too large for your email system, use Dropbox or a similar online storage web, aka, “the cloud”.
- The proofreading for content
Have you missed any important details? Have you repeated yourself? Would the sentences and paragraphs be more effective in a different order?
- The proofreading for grammar and mechanics
If your email software has a built-in spelling checker and grammar checker, use it. If not, copy and paste your email into software that does, like most word processors.
Did you remember to attach the attachment?
Even though email has been widely used in organization for the last twenty years, there is no consensus on some of these conventions as there is for ink-on-paper letters and memos.
As a result, each organizational culture has its own way. Sometimes, these standards are explained in a style book. Many times, it’s “just the way it’s done here”.