angry-computer How to write an email

The art of writing a good email is also part of professional writing.

When you think about technical and professional writing, you might think about writing user manuals, writing training materials, writing project plans, and other kinds of technical and professional content. But the email is also part of professional writing. And it’s still an important part.

I learned from a friend that the best rules to writing an email are:

  1. Write your email
  2. Delete most of it
  3. Click “Send”

The reason for those three rules is because it’s really really easy to just write a lot about whatever topic and give all the details. After all, those are important details, your recipient needs to know about them, right? But when I’m reading emails, I don’t want to wade through a “novel” just to get to your point. And when you think about it that way, you realize others don’t want to read your long email, either.

The balance is providing enough detail to describe the topic and provide context, without email bombing with every tiny thing. It ends up being an art to write the right amount.

Too little detail

One example of emails in a professional context is the transmission memo. This is basically a note that says “I’ve delivered what you needed me to write, here it is.” And then the email attachment is the document, or you provide a link to a document online somewhere.

Whoever asked you to write this probably also asked a half dozen other people to write other things for other projects. Unless you work in a small organization of like two people, people don’t remember the specifics about what they asked you to work on. Writing an email like this is not helpful:

Here’s the document you asked me to write for you.

That's not a lot to go on

Those ten words don’t mean much. The person you delivered it to doesn’t have any context for what this document was about. And they probably have a bunch of other questions too, like “is this a draft for review?” or “is this delivered on time or is it late?” And probably, “what am I supposed to do with this, now that you sent it?” Things like that.

Too much information

Equally annoying is when someone sends you a virtual novel in the body of their email. I just don’t need that much detail. If you need to provide that much background information, this probably should have been a Zoom meeting instead, so we can talk about it in more detail.

Here’s another hypothetical example transmittal memo, but one that goes into way way too much detail:

Hi John. I was reviewing the request that you sent, asking about the updated training materials for next month’s workshop. You said we could probably update last year’s materials, that the training went well last time so we can do basically the same thing. I went through last year’s document. It was about 20 pages long and covered the old version of the software. I updated this year’s version by making new screenshots for how to enter data into the system and how to run reports. I kept the basic reports that we used last time.

Anyway, I think everything is okay. I had a question about the report generation. Raji said that the reporting back-end now supports different document styles like fonts so I included examples for how to use that. Does that look okay to you? Or did you want me to just use the basic branded report and not go into the details since this is an introduction and departments can probably cover the “branding” specifics on their own, if they want to use it.

The document is probably ready to go at this point. I formatted everything with the new training template, so it has the updated logo and new fonts. The interior is black and white, and I’ve included a separate PDF for the cover that uses colors. Give this a quick look and let me know if you have any changes, or if everything is okay on your end. I can send it to the printer. The printer said that they have a lot of work going on right now, like printing the budget instructions for next month’s CFO meeting, so they will need to know by Friday if this is approved for printing. If you let me know by Friday, I can send it to them.

That's way too much

That is a book in about 300 words. No one wants to read that much detail in a transmittal memo. And this transmittal memo had a question hiding in the middle - did you spot it? Because it’s right in the middle of a long email, which otherwise looks like a regular transmittal memo that is asking for approval before printing, that question is probably going to get missed.

This email is unclear and unintentionally buries the request in an avalanche of extra information. The recipient doesn’t need to know every little thing you did to write the updated training manual. And by providing all that detail, the important stuff gets lost.

Reading long emails like this seems like more work than reading other emails, because the reader needs to parse through everything to figure out what’s going on. Please keep your professional emails short for the sake of the person who will read it.

Just the right amount

When you send the final transmittal memo, you need to provide a little bit of background to remind them what the project was about. If you need to ask a question, put it in a separate email - or maybe highlight it with bold or a background color, something to draw attention to it. A better way to write a transmission memo for a deliverable gives some additional information about what this is for.

Hi John. You asked me to write the training materials for next month’s half-day workshop about how to do __.

Here is an updated copy of the training workbook we used last year. I updated it with screenshots from the new version. There’s also a new section about branded reports, I sent you an email about that yesterday.

This should be ready to go. If it looks good to you, let me know and I’ll send it to the printer. We should get this sent to the printer by Friday.

That seems like the right amount

That provides a brief context about what this was about (training materials for a workshop) and what the document actually is (updated version of last year’s workbook). The email also says what’s new (updated screenshots, report branding) and the document status (ready to go, needs final review) and what to do (give approval so we can print it).

And all of that in about 90 words. It doesn’t need to be very long.