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The Art of Writing Short Emails
D o you want to know how you can save an hour a day or more dealing with your email inbox? It’s pretty simple: Write short emails. Not just shorter, but short — a few sentences at max.
There actually aren’t many situations that call for novel-length emails. I would argue that there are no legitimate circumstances that call for emails longer than a paragraph or two; anything beyond that should probably be contained in an attachment rather than in the body of an email.
Do you know who writes short emails? Here’s a brief list: people who are extremely busy and don’t have the time to write out a long reply. Also, people who have carved out about 15 seconds of their valuable time to respond to an email, who you can almost guarantee will never think of a particular email again after they have sent their response.
And do you know who writes long emails? Often, its people with nothing better to do —a long email is a dead giveaway that the sender had a lot of extra time and emotional investment in the subject matter of the email, the person they’re sending the email to, or both. Look out for the people you know who continue to send you long emails and you’ll start to notice a pattern.
Ask yourself this: In your business life specifically, which of the above people do you want to be?
There are plenty of other benefits to writing short emails as well. If you send someone a very long email, there is a very good chance that they will put your email into some kind of ‘reply later’ folder, where it may just rot with the other long-forgotten emails in their inbox, meaning you either won’t get a reply, or may not get one as quickly as you would have liked.
And writing short emails is a skill. Writing short anything is a skill. If you keep your emails concise, people will come to recognize that very skill in the crafting of your email’s succinct message. In today’s world, people value clarity and brevity more than ever. They read their emails on their mobile devices while waiting at traffic lights or on public transport, and really don’t want to be scrolling down, page after page, while you ramble on.
Sometimes we’re asked a question that we don’t know how to answer, so diving straight in with a rambling reply that doesn’t actually address the question at hand is just another way of procrastinating.
So when you do craft an email, before hitting “send,” imagine your recipient reading your email on their smartphone while in the bathroom. Did you get your point across in a few lines, or do you imagine them squinting while they scroll down, line after line?
David Belasco, an American theatrical producer who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, once hit the nail on the head about succinct messaging: “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”
Now that you know the merits of writing brief emails, it’s time to put it into practice. Don’t know how to write a short email? Here are some pointers. Firstly, a short email is not a rude one. It must still contain all of the niceties expected in today’s society: a proper greeting, a friendly tone, etc.
Don’t ramble, rather, think before you write. Pretend you’re back in the good old days when correspondence was either handwritten or typed on a typewriter — there’s less room to go back and delete what’s already on the page, and for a flawless finish, you need to get things right the first time. This means putting in more time to think about what you are going to say before typing it out. Consider what you want to say and then say it in the least number of words possible.
Why do this?
Sometimes we’re asked a question that we don’t know how to answer, so diving straight in with a rambling reply that doesn’t actually address the question at hand is just another way of procrastinating. It makes you feel as if you’re being productive, when in actuality you’re just skirting around the real issue. Thinking first about what you’re going to say forces you to be direct without rambling on and on. Here’s a particularly nauseating example of someone who did not do this right:
If you don’t mind, when you’ve got a moment, would you please review the attached report and let me know what you think? I’d really appreciate any help or advice you could give.
Argh! That is frustrating to write and even worse to receive! Instead, try this:
Please review the attached report and send your feedback. Thanks!
You’ve still included both a please and a thank you, so your need for politeness and good manners are met, while being direct and succinct. In my opinion, the exclamation point on the “Thanks!” lightens the tone so that it doesn’t appear snappy or forceful.
There are additional pointers that communicate mastery of email writing. For starters, always stick to one topic per email. Discussing multiple topics in one email can lead to confusion and delays, as the recipient will not reply until they can answer every part of the original email you sent. If you ask five questions in one email, you’ll have to wait until the recipient can confidently answer all five questions (and until they feel they have the time and headspace to tackle your long list) before you get a reply.
This technique also allows you to make excellent use of your subject line. Many people throw away the subject line by leaving it blank or writing something generic like “Hi!”—but it’s valuable real estate in the recipient’s inbox. It, along with the sender’s name and the date and time, is the only information the recipient will have before opening your email, and it will form the basis of their decision of whether to or not to open your email in the first place.
If you find yourself writing the same content over and over, it may be time to use a template.
The subject line, therefore, becomes the only variable you have to influence your recipient’s decision to engage with your email immediately after they receive it. Since you’re including only one topic in the body per email, go right ahead and put the topic in the subject line of the email.
Say you send a colleague an email with five questions: four simple ones and one complicated question that the recipient doesn’t immediately know the answer to. If you put all five questions in one email, you’ll probably have to wait until the recipient can answer the one difficult question before getting a reply to any of them. You also may get a reply with the answers to the four easy questions with a promise of an additional reply containing the answer to the fifth question. This may never actually come since your email has already been marked as having been replied to.
On the other hand, if you sent five separate emails each containing one question, the recipient will be able to shoot back answers to the simple questions, and will be reminded that they still need to answer the fifth question because that particular email has not yet been replied to.
Yes, you may feel silly creating five emails all at once, but you will be glad later when you can track the entire conversation relating to each distinct topic in one email thread. And you can bet that the recipient will appreciate your organization and foresight.
A useful tool that can help you save time and stay organized when you write your emails is to make use of email templates. Depending on your job and the reasons that you use email, you may find that you send variations of the same message several times. Perhaps you work in customer service and you find that you answer the same questions over and again, or that you are due to have a baby and your family, friends, and coworkers keep emailing you for updates. Whatever the situation, if you find yourself writing the same content over and over, it may be time to use a template.
I am a big fan of simplifying matters as much as possible. Most email clients will allow you to create a template that you can customize and send off with a few clicks of your mouse. If this is something that you’d like to explore, a simple Google search will show you how to set up templates that will work for you.
I prefer to use a good old-fashioned Notepad document to create, store, and access my templates. Anytime I find that I’m writing the same response over and over again, I’ll add the text of the email to my template document.
Anything that needs to be personalized, such as the name of the recipient, date, or other details, I replace with “XXXXX,” so that my eyes are immediately drawn to these spaces and I don’t accidentally send off the email without properly personalizing it. The reason why I use a customizable Notepad document email template is because I’m concerned that a pre-made template such as the ones available through Outlook or Gmail may be sent out without being properly customized.
What if someone was complaining about the late delivery of an order, and I used a pre-made template that which includes a link to a feedback form? The last thing I want is for an unhappy customer to leave feedback before I have the chance to resolve the problem and turn them back into a happy customer. So I prefer pasting in my own template sections on a case-by-case basis, while still composing the email reply in the same way that I would any other email, so that I always maintain strict control over the contents of the email. If you feel happy to try turning one of your prewritten messages into a template within your email client, by all means do so.
In short, writing short emails is a win-win. Now that you know how to do it, you can potentially save up to an hour a day dealing with your email inbox, while come out looking like a thought leader in the process.