Don’t suck at e-mail

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These days, your first contact with your boss and coworkers is likely to be via e-mail. So make your first impressions count – don’t suck! Most people do and never realize why they don’t get a reply.

When your e-mail sucks, it gets skimmed and deleted or ignored. Here’s how to do e-mail right. If this checklist is too long for you, hit the first three and you’ll already be way above average.

1. Use the subject line! Put 2 to 7 words in it that summarize your reason for writing. If I’m searching for your e-mail, the key words you put in the subject line will help me find it and will set it apart from other e-mails from you if we e-mail each other frequently. Preface your subject with FYI if appropriate which tells the recipient no response is necessary.

2. Write three sentences only, most of the time. If one of those sentences is a question, make it the last sentence. Don’t ask more than one question. Three sentences is most important when you are starting a conversation. It shows you value your time and won’t squander it writing long passages about something I don’t care about, am not interested in or have not asked for. It shows you value my time also. It shows you understand that teamwork and communication is a conversation where the ball bounces back and forth between us with rhythm – like a game of ping-pong. Know that the longer your e-mail is — the more likely I am to postpone reading and replying. Your long e-mail is like a basketball pitched across the ping-pong table. It sucks.

email cartoon3. Use a signature with your contact information! If you make me hunt for that information, I dislike you already. It takes 5 min. to set up and shows you have a little concern for me and the ability to have your computer do what you want it to.

4. Spellcheck! And, if you are writing a critical e-mail, print it before sending it and read it out loud. You will catch any and every mistake that way.

5. Reply to important e-mails quickly. If you can’t provide a substantive answer immediately, acknowledge you received the e-mail and say you will write again as soon as you can.

6. Give a heads up using IM or VM, when you send an important e-mail. If you send me an e-mail you consider urgent or unusually important, give me a heads up in some other medium to make sure I’m on the lookout for your e-mail. I prefer instant message, but you need to know your boss’s preference (cell phone, text message, etc).

What good is technology7. Write again, if you don’t receive a reply. Checking to see if I’ve received your e-mail is not a nuisance – it shows you take responsibility for driving results and make no excuses. It shows you understand that I may receive a high volume of e-mail or have my attention splintered in many directions and need your assistance.

8. Use the phone if e-mail isn’t working. Please don’t tell me you haven’t received a reply to the e-mail you sent to so-and-so. Just pick up the phone. It shows you know that e-mail is just a tool and not everyone’s favorite, that you get the job done using whatever tool works best under the circumstances.

9. Take control of your e-mail client by learning keyboard shortcuts and filtering. This shows you understand efficiency with e-mail matters (it’s at the center of most jobs today).

10. Understand your boss’s preferences for what goes on e-mail versus IM and Intranet/wiki/project management system. Ask your boss about preferences for who should be cc’ed about what. You don’t want to be that guy that insists on wasting everyone’s time copying others unnecessarily.

Bonus points – never use an attachment when there is no compelling reason to do so. Attachments suck! Instead of copying and pasting information into an Excel spreadsheet or Word document, just paste right into an e-mail whenever possible.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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Thanks to Beef Wellington for music clips (Fran C) and to Mark O’Sullivan for inspiration!
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  • Brett Wysocki

    This is exactly in line with my experiences in the workplace so far! One way to ensure that you won’t be taken seriously is to have spelling errors or poor formatting in your emails. The easiest way to ensure that the message will be neat is to keep it simple. This helps the other person to absorb the information at a glance and respond quickly!!

  • cdorey1

    It is of utmost importance for an employee to present himself or herself in a way that is both professional and respectable. First impressions matter in the professional world and in many cases, one’s first impression with an employer or potential employer is over email or the phone. This applies to the way students should email professors as well.

    I had one professor who immediately lost a lot deal of respect from his students the first week of school. His grammar was terrible, he used texting shortcuts in his emails, words were misspelled, and whenever we emailed him, two and a half weeks would pass before we got a response. Taking what I have learned from both my experience with him and this article, I will change the formatting of my emails to streamline what I need accomplished

  • Gina D’Alessandro

    When I send an e-mail, I try to make it stand out as important. If I wouldn’t open it if it was sent to me, then the person that I send it to won’t either. E-mail is a great tool, however, face to face communication is still my favorite way of making sure that the other person has the information that I want them to have. E-mail is a good secondary form of communication.

  • Carter Pope

    Before I started my college classes I didn’t understand the
    importance of email. Really though my email existed for two reasons; one so I
    could make a Facebook and the second because I got tired of being asked by
    businesses for my email to be a member.
    I wouldn’t check it for several weeks just because all I would see in my
    inbox were notifications from Facebook that didn’t exist and the weekly sales
    paper from those businesses. I thought that email was a thing of the past; that
    everyone used texts. This lack of email-fluency was one of the worst traits I
    had entering into college.

    Although a college professor isn’t technically a boss, they
    are my superiors and I answer to them so I feel as if they can highlight how
    this has affected me. My first email, my first ever, was sent to my English
    1101 professor. She didn’t respond, and after reading this I wonder if she even
    read it.. I can countdown the steps above and outline how I messed each of them
    up. For starters in my subject line I typed my name. I know I know, I had no idea what I was doing. Secondly, I
    felt like I needed to write out the whole situation (which was I had an
    emergency and wasn’t able to attend class the next day to submit my paper),
    then I asked her multiple questions about what I should do as they came to me
    in afterthoughts.

    My third problem, out of the top three points here, was that
    I signed off as “Sincerely…”. At the time I thought it was great, but looking
    back on it I doubt she got that far. Over the weekend I sent the email three
    more times without any response. When I walked into class that Monday I was
    asked to stay after class. My first One-on-one session with my professor was a
    lesson over how to properly write emails. Although I’ve learned since then,
    this lesson would have saved me time as well as so much embarrassment if I knew
    of it!

  • Brittany Allerton

    I personally rely on emails quite frequently. I believe it is a good way to set up a time and day for a phone conversation. Now a days, we never know what we are going to be doing or if we will be busy when we have planned a phone conversation.

    I believe I have increased my emailing abilities over the past year, with high school and now going to school at University of Phoenix, you have to know how to make an email short and sweet and let it get right to the point. When emailing, you do not want to flood the entire page with information, because let’s be honest, no one is going to read that. Whenever I send out an email, I always leave my name and number, that way if the email was too confusing, they can contact me as soon as possible.

  • christiancoyote96

    From this Article, I learned how to properly send an email and if it isn’t answered to not be afraid to pick up the phone, and if you don’t get a reply don’t be afraid to send another email. i also learned that it is ideal to create a signature for your emails. I also learned that I must reply to important emails quickly. I also learned to use the subject line– it’s the most important part of the email. I also learned to proofread my emails for accuracy and completeness.

    I already knew most of this stuff because at My University– California State University San Bernardino– if you do not write an educated and proper email you will be ignored and will get no response, your email will more than likely go to spam. I had to learn the hard way.

  • Kassie Smith

    This lesson is very useful to some people in regards to communicating with others on the job. You will not always learn these types of valuable lessons in school. Most people learn these things by error. You will surely find yourself getting the type of attention you want by following these simple steps.

  • Chelsea Perez

    This is a wonderful tool to help people starting out at a new job that may not know quiet how to work their way around an email. I work at a hospital and getting a hold of my boss can be very difficult. Her main form of comunication is through email. So for me, learning how to create a good email was essential. So, thank you very much for all of the helpful tips.

  • James Clark

    My very first manager was the Vice President of Facility Services and he was a stickler for not only grammar and content, but also keeping things simple. He would be a fan of the 3 sentence or less bullet above as well as the phrase “Keep it Simple Stupid”, or K.I.S.S. method. Keeping things as simple, short, and concise as possible was the way he liked to keep things going.

  • Naomi Boldt

    This lesson is so, so important. It took me years to develop the habit of checking my email everyday, much less how to write an email properly. I worked as a finance intern in a congressional campaign office. Because so much of what we did at work was public outreach and done over email, perfecting my email etiquette was crucial. In addition to the points made above, you also have to be careful with not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it. Impersonal interactions like emails and text messages can be tricky. Its so easy for the tone of your email to be misinterpreted. This was especially important when writing requests for donations to the campaign. You can’t come off as too demanding or pleading. Keep it clear, friendly, and professional.

  • Jessica Furrer

    Email is so important in the University setting and the job setting to keep people communicating on important projects. I have never been specifically taught how to write an email and I love the recommendations on this page because this is something we use daily and can really make a tremendous difference for employees in entry-level positions. It is important that we seem like we know what we are doing and we are able to be professional.

  • eleni

    As the article mentions, email really is one of the first and primary modes of communication these days, so following these guidelines are really helpful. For me the most helpful advice is to write 3 sentences or less. I work with children, so writing long emails is tricky to begin with. That said, the longer the email, the easier it is for something can be misconstrued, missed altogether, or ignored. The 3 sentence rule helps me remember that anything that needs more than 3 sentences to explain should be a phone call. In addition, I have evolved this rule to determine that anything more than a paragraph is too long for a phone conversation and should be discussed in person. Implementing these rules has helped me maintain quality standards for communication.

  • Michelle

    I never realized how important e-mailing is until I graduated high school and started University. Suddenly teachers had office hours. Office hours were scary to me – talking one on one with professors in their office about my grades – so e-mailing became my best option.

    Except I see now that I sucked at writing them. Frequently they’d be paragraphs long, since I looked to impress my professors, I would include multiple questions so that they could answer them all in one go and I’d be done communicating with them for a while, and never did I ever include any signature with other ways to contact me.

    I’m glad that this lesson gives so many insightful ways to deal with e-mailing, because it’s going to be a critical skill for the rest of my life. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

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About the author


In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.