Seven steps to writing more effective emails

6 mins

A friend asked me to write about becoming a better email communicator. Here are my top tips.

This is post is for you if:

  • you want to be more conscious about how you use email to communicate;
  • you’re terrified of hitting the ‘send’ button; or
  • you want to be more confident with email (for some, English may be your second or even third language)!

First, a bit of history…

Email has revolutionised the way we communicate.

For context, ask anyone who started practising law 20-30 years ago. My law lecturer took great pleasure in telling me about how telex machines used to be the main mode of communication. Check out this Wikipedia article. His old law firm had a roomful of legal assistants who would send and receive telex messages on behalf of lawyers. These machines would spit out reams of paper into cardboard boxes.

Go back further in time and you realise that there was a genuine cost associated with writing to someone. In the 19th century, people saved on paper and postage by using the ‘crossed letter’ technique. The crossed letter had at least two sets of writing, one written over the other at right-angles. Some people took this to extremes. Francis de Laporte, a French naturalist, wrote in three directions: horizontal, vertical and diagonal. It would have been hell for the poor sod who had to decipher his handwriting.

Letter written by Francis de Laporte de Castelnau (1810 – 1880).
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Travel even further back in time and our problems were even weightier. The Mesopotamians never had the luxury of emailing their clay slabs. They also had to get their their thoughts down in a pretty concise way. In other words, a physical word limit barrier!

A tablet inscribed with cuneiform about 5,000 years old.
It contains details of beer rations, still an important topic today as it was then.
British Museum

Finally, check out the Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi, a Babylonian king between 1792 to 1750 B.C. The imposing stele has 282 rules, from commercial law to removing body parts for various crimes. As the official scribe, you would definitely hate to make a chiselling error halfway through. For more history, check this page.

The 2.25 metre basalt Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi which is nearly 4,000 years old.
Louvre Museum

Why are you telling me this?

This speed and ease of email means that we often hit ‘send’ before thinking. We can attribute this to our perception that sending an email involves zero cost. This is far from the truth. Lengthy emails almost always result in frustration and information overload.

There is nothing more annoying than getting spammed by your boss or co-worker at work. I’m sure you can relate to that sinking feeling when you get five emails in quick succession on the same topic. Even worse, when the sender wrote an essay on a topic deserving of two paragraphs. And the worst, when the sender changed their minds about the topic more than once.

Your emails are a reflection of you. They should project care and respect for the recipient. And certainly, they should not be a live feed of your mental state.

So, without much ado, let’s launch into the seven steps to becoming a better email communicator!

Step 1.

Identify your audience

The first question you should always ask is – who are you writing for? Will your reader forward your email on to another person? Is your ultimate reader a law professor, a work colleague or a legally untrained client?

Adjust your language once you’ve worked this out. What you write and how you write matters. No one ever sends their friend this message: ‘Dear Sir/Madam, I would be grateful if we could meet up for a coffee this week. Kind regards, X’. They will think that you’ve lost your marbles.

My personal preference is to use less formal language where possible. The only exceptions are when I am writing a cover letter to my CV, formal legal advice, or to a robot (joking)! I also dislike the sign-off ‘Kind regards’ or even worse ‘Regards’. The latter makes you sound like you’re about to march off to a military parade. For people I know well and work with on a daily basis, my preference is to use the sign-off ‘Thanks’.

To conclude, ask yourself – is formality necessary, or can you be more conversational? Formality invokes gravitas in some situations, but it often puts people off. You definitely don’t want the reputation of a doddery, antiquated creature.

Step 2.

Figure out your key message

Long emails have one fate – the virtual trash can.

Don’t make your reader think! Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, think about the key message you want to convey. A quick test is to imagine explaining your message to a regular person on the street. Can you do this in one or two sentences?

Once you’ve worked this out, start writing.

A few things I find helpful in organising my mind:

  • write a summary at the start;
  • put my thinking down in dot points;
  • check the logic from one dot point to the next; and
  • then start writing to put ‘meat on the bones’.

Your summary will guide you in your writing. Does every single sentence support your point? Or do you deviate away? Is your message persuasive and convincing?

Step 3.

Less is more

‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.’ – Blaise Pascal, French mathematician (Letter XVI , 4 December 1656)

Simplicity is beautiful. Whether it is the beauty of Einstein’s e = mc2 or the minimalist movement – we’re drawn to simplicity. So will your reader.

Try and get your message through in less words, not more. Are you including extra detail that is unnecessary for the reader?

Once you’ve finished writing, become your own editor. Be brutal in cutting back your sentences. Also, check the following:

  • Are you using short sentences?
  • Are you using punctuation in the right places?

Step 4.

Use the active voice

Using the active voice is especially difficult for legal writing. Lawyers love lapsing into the passive voice. This is because it reduces the force of a statement or conclusion.

This is an example of passive voice: ‘He is known to me.’ The sentence creates distance between two people who know each other. Such a sentence might feature in a criminal trial where a witness admits that they know an unsavoury person. Rewording our example to take on the active voice results in this sentence: ‘I know him’. A much more forceful statement.

While it’s not always possible to use the active voice, it will make your emails easier to read.

Step 5.

Check your spelling (and other things)

Spelling mistakes are distracting. They are like bum notes in an orchestral piece or the sound of a screeching violin.

From a reader’s perspective, spelling mistakes reflect the sender’s abilities. Add a few more spelling mistakes, bad punctuation and long sentences – and voilà – you destroy all goodwill. Worse, your reader discounts the veracity of your piece.

Don’t start off the wrong foot by throwing in a spelling mistake or several. My other tips include:

  • using concise but descriptive headings;
  • reducing the length of sentences (no more than 25 words per sentence);
  • using proper punctuation; and
  • using paragraphs (one paragraph per concept).

Step 6.

Beware of the ‘reply all’ button

You should never use the ‘reply all’ button, unless necessary.

If you work in a large organisation, the ‘reply all’ button can be a fatal choice and an excellent source of gaffs. Enjoyable for everyone, except you.

A more practical reason is that the ‘reply all’ button has real spam potential. It’s like that time you woke up in the morning with 250 unread WhatsApp group chat messages.

Where you can respond to one person with a simple ‘reply’ button, use that option. Only use ‘reply all’ when everyone on the list needs to hear your message.

Step 7.

Practice, practice, practice!

Finally, there is no replacement for good old practice. Keep writing and you will find your sea legs. On a positive note, it’s great that we no longer have to use clay tablets to communicate.