Stay Under 5 Sentences, and Other Rules for Great Emailing

What’s rude in a letter is right for an inbox

Illustration: Andrea Chronopoulos

TThere’s a golden rule of email etiquette: Everything you do should be in service of reducing the burden of email on your recipient. Concision and clarity are your guiding principles.

In this respect, emails diverge significantly from traditional letter writing. If you’ve ever written a snail-mail letter, you know that the chattiness is the point: You would usually expect to open with some small talk, ask after your correspondent’s health, thank them for their previous letter, and so on. In this context, launching straight into whatever you want from that person would be considered rather abrupt.

Email turns that protocol on its head. When you’re writing an email, it’s perfectly fine — indeed preferable — to get straight to it. Far from being impolite, brevity in email shows a respect for your reader’s time.

If you’re emailing in a business context, you are probably doing so out of necessity, not nicety; you don’t need to try to disguise that fact with generic pleasantries, which will likely only come off as inauthentic anyway. Unless you have a genuine reason to be concerned about your recipient’s well-being, there is no need to start your message with, “How are you?”

Making your email as easy as possible for your recipient to deal with means being crystal clear about what you’re asking and, crucially, what action you expect the other person to take. If you need a yes-or-no answer, make sure there’s a yes-or-no question. Include all the necessary information in your first email, so that you don’t end up drawing it out into a string of back-and-forth messages. If you need to set up a meeting, don’t just say you need to set up a meeting; suggest a specific time and place.

Then wrap it up. A good rule of thumb is that if you have to scroll your screen to get to the end of a message, it’s probably too long. Shoot for five sentences or under.

There’s also your subject line, which can be the difference between someone reading your email and ignoring it. Keep it short and obvious: Your reader should be able to tell from the subject line what they can expect from the rest of the email. Remember it will likely be read on mobile, so you can probably fit a maximum of around six words before it gets cut off. Never leave the subject line blank; that’s just rude. Don’t put the whole message in the subject line and leave the email blank; that’s a text message.

And unless you’re sending out a mass-marketing email (which: don’t), don’t try to be funny and definitely don’t try to fool people into opening your email with clickbait headlines or sneaky ruses. The worst trick I’ve seen is a marketer starting the subject “Re:” to make it look as if they were responding to an email I’d already sent. Yes, your recipient may be duped into opening the email, but you can bet they will angry-delete it in less time than it took you to type those two letters.

If the email is urgent, you may note that in the subject — but exercise restraint. Each time you play the urgent card, you’re decreasing its value. You can also use electronic labels to flag an email’s level of importance, but it’s best to avoid this unless absolutely critical.

Finally, don’t send an email in the first place, unless you have to.

From Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love by Victoria Turk, published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Victoria Turk. Originally published as Digital Etiquette by Ebury Press, 2019.

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