The Correct Way to Email
It’s still the best way to communicate professionally, but only if you follow these guidelines
Email is underrated.
Yes, it takes up too much of our workday — 3.1 hours on average, according to a 2018 survey. Yes, it adds stress to our off hours, thanks to endless push notifications. Yes, those 1,652 unread messages amount to a checklist that has been incomplete for literal years.
But unlike Slack or video conferencing, email lets you take a step back and actually consider your thoughts — an unusual advantage in these harried times. It is a space for artfulness and thoughtfulness, where it’s possible to stand out, to surprise people, to get attention.
It can also make you stand out in the wrong way, of course — see New York Times staffers Bret Stephens’ and Jonathan Weisman’s recent email disasters, and Don Jr.’s “If it’s what you say I love it.” Unlike Slack messages (which can be edited) or tweets (which can be deleted), once you hit “send” on an email, it’s out of your control. Missteps are not only easy to make but really hard to live down.
I’ve apprenticed under some true email ninjas in my career, and I’d like to think I’m well on my way to master status. As a journalist writing and editing on books and culture, I’ve written to thousands of celebrities, authors, and the people who represent them, usually cold-emailing to ask for something: time for an interview, a contribution to the TIME 100 when I worked at that magazine, a juicy book excerpt for our publications now that I oversee books coverage here at Medium. I’ve established a few rules of the road for effective work email that’s succinct, professional, and respectful of the fact that there’s a human being at the other end of that “send” button.
Quickly get in and quickly get out
Whether to use “Dear” or “Hi” or “Hey there!” depends on your industry and the nature of the note. “Hi FIRST NAME” is fine in most cases. (Please, on no account address a young woman as “Miss.”) Avoid too much formality on the one end or too much folksiness on the other.
Sign-offs should be simple (and you don’t need to include them every time, particularly if you’re going rapidly back and forth with a correspondent.) There is nothing wrong with “Best, NAME.” Do not attempt “Cheers” or “Ciao” unless you talk like that in real life.
A two-sentence email is a perfect email. Ideally the recipient shouldn’t have to scroll on either mobile or desktop.
That said, if you’re asking someone to do something for you, give them the full information and deadline the first time around. Don’t give a short, vague pitch for your idea and then write, “Interested? Ask me for more information!”
If your email must be long, at least make it easy to skim quickly: Consider breaking up the paragraphs and bolding the most important sentence.
If you’re spending more than 30 seconds trying to think of something charming to say, you’re trying too hard.
If you don’t reply fast, you must reply well
Delay your response when you’re not exactly sure what to say. I’ve been thoroughly stumped on how to answer an email countless times, only to sleep on it and sit down at my desk the next morning knowing exactly what to write.
And always delay your response if an email makes you mad. Cool off for an hour, or as long as it takes for the issue to feel more academic and less emotional. Things will clarify and you’ll be less tempted to write something you’d be embarrassed for your mother to read — or maybe even a tougher crowd: everyone.
As the journalist Olivia Nuzzi once tweeted, “Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.”
Try to avoid emailing at strange hours
Not only is 24-hour email culture bad for your health, but research has found that it’s far more effective to send important messages when they’ll land at the top of someone’s inbox as they sit down to work. A study out of the University of Southern California suggests that emailing on weekday mornings solicits longer responses than afternoon messages. Every email application, even Gmail, allows you to schedule emails now, so use it.
No same-day follow-ups on email unless it’s truly urgent. Assume the person does email batching at the beginning or end of the day and will get back to you when that period arrives. If you can wait a week to follow up, that’s ideal. Follow up on an email request up to two times, then move on.
Use a voice (preferably your own)
As handy as Gmail’s predictive responses can be when you’re on the go, we don’t always have to communicate in a formulaic series of “Sounds good”s and “Got it”s. If you’d like to insert a little more voice in your emails, but aren’t sure where to start (or how far to go), take notice of the turns of phrase your colleagues use, and shamelessly copy the ones you like.
Avoid writing anything more floral than you would say out loud. If you’re spending more than 30 seconds trying to think of something charming to say, you’re trying too hard.
Since my work often requires me to email high-profile people or their publicists asking them to do something for my publication — write an article or consent to an interview — I try to walk the line between flattery and sycophancy. Good: “Of course you were the first person to come to mind for this.” Bad: “We couldn’t possibly imagine anyone but you doing this!”
Some people can get away with more aggressive flattery than others. I once had a boss who would write things like, “We’d love to get your big brain on this.” It worked because that was her real-life persona, too; if it’s not yours, don’t try it.
If someone turns you down by email, don’t write something like, “What a shame.” It won’t change their mind, and it makes you sound petty. Similarly, do not write “No worries” or “All good” if the person did not apologize for something. “Thanks for considering” is much more gracious and likely to ensure future collaboration.
Make the subject line simple
The rule of brevity applies to subject lines, too: Make them short enough to be fully legible in a push notification. Some email experts go significantly shorter than that: The media icon Tina Brown famously uses “You” as her subject line to catch the recipient’s eye. (“Nothing is more fascinating to people than themselves,” she told the Wall Street Journal.)
Make sure the subject line is also an accurate representation of what the email is about. That way, you and your recipient will both know what the subject is about two years from now when you have to search for it.
And use words like “urgent” with extreme caution. There’s no need to get someone’s adrenaline pumping unnecessarily, and what’s urgent to you isn’t necessarily to your recipient. If something is truly urgent, get on the phone and address it.
CC with restraint
Those 3.1 hours we all spend in our work inbox every day could be seriously cut down if folks stopped and deleted a few CCs from time to time. If a colleague has requested visibility on a project, by all means copy them. But most of us could do with fewer non-essential messages.
Resist the urge to CC as a form of passive aggression. If you have an issue with a colleague, take it up with them directly rather than copying them on a note where their work was criticized or their overdue deadline was mentioned. The brief moment of triumph you feel will be far outranked by the lousiness they stew in for the rest of the afternoon. Which brings us to…
Never forget that a sharply phrased email can ruin someone’s day — and perhaps more importantly, that a kind one can make it much better. If your colleague knocks something out of the park or has a rough day, consider sending them a note of congratulations or encouragement.
You might prefer to say something in person or in Slack, but the beauty of an email is that the person can file it away and return to it whenever they need a boost. The less ephemeral nature of email is what makes it so valuable — and important to get right.