What’s more frustrating than spending time writing and rewriting a detailed email with important information, only for the reader to miss the point or, worse, not read it at all?
We know how it feels to receive too many emails. We all have inboxes with ‘to be read’ emails that sit there for months. Most of us don’t have hours to clear all our emails. We usually just skim through to get the gist of what’s in them. We want to find the key points easily and quickly to decide whether we need to read the details.
The answer to getting your email read and actioned is to use the right structure so that the important information will be read and understood.
It may be tempting to put all the background information in first to explain why you have written, but the reader may just skim the first bit, not understand the point, and hit delete.
You won’t get the answer you want.
Here are some tips to writing emails that get read.
The first thing you see when an email comes in is who it’s from and the subject heading. Make sure these make the reader want to read your email.
Set up your email so that the recipient can see who you are or the company you work for. If they don’t recognise you or the company, they will be less likely to open the email. Use correct capitalisation and spelling!
Specify what the email is about. In detail. Add as much detail as you can so that the recipient can easily find the key information again later without having to click into the email.
Bad subject line: Staff meeting
Good subject line: Staff meeting, guest speaker Dave Price, 10.30am, Tuesday 25 Oct 22
Greeting and sign-off
Your greeting and sign-off will depend on the overall tone of the email.
Formal: Dear Mr Williamson … Yours sincerely, [Name], [Title], [Company] or use an automated email signature
Semi-formal: Dear Dave … Best wishes, or Kind regards, [Name]
Informal: Hi Dave or Hello Dave … Regards, or Best, [Name]
Your recipient might open your email on their PC or on their phone. Either way, they will see just a few lines at the top of their screen.
And the first thing they will wonder is how this email relates to them and what they have to do.
The easiest way to make sure they read it is to put the most important information at the top.
Here are two useful structures for emails.
‘News triangle’ or telescoping
Put your most important information first, then filter down to the least important. You may need just one scene-setting sentence or paragraph at the start.
This structure works especially well if you are asking something from someone that they may not be very willing to do. If they are already feeling reluctant before they start reading your email, then leaving the important information or question until the end will likely mean they don’t get there. Placing it first shows you are being upfront with the reader, and they will be more likely to keep reading to find out more – hopefully meaning they will be a little more likely to help you.
This structure is a good way to deliver negative information too. The reader will usually appreciate knowing the news straight up and not want to wade through a lot of background information. It may feel like deliberate bewilderment or insincerity if the negative news comes at the end. Of course, you should word it carefully to soften the news with a tactful ‘setting the scene’ paragraph.
Here's a basic example for an email:
Setting the scene
A short sentence or paragraph describing the situation
Most important information
State the most important information first – the thing that the reader will want to know.
Less important information
State further information or conditions.
State the minor detail or instructions such as asking them to fill in a form.
This structure is useful for short emails, letters and reports, especially if you are working with the reader on a problem, or need to acknowledge that a problem has occurred and suggest how you will fix it.
The reader can feel satisfied that you understand their problem, and that there is a solution that you will implement.
State the problem
Thank you for your letter alerting us that the trees in your hedge have been trimmed too close ….
State the cause
The contractor was new to the council, and didn’t receive sufficient instructions.
State the solution
We are reviewing our processes and have created a document for new contractors to follow. To acknowledge our error and offer an apology, we would like to …
Use plain language
Using the principles of plain language writing in your emails will help your reader understand your content quickly and easily. Keeping your reader in mind helps you focus on how to write clearly.
Plain language is also about layout. Use headings and bullet points to help the reader quickly scan the content.
While it may be tempting to be informal in an email, it’s important to think about your reader. And anyone else who might read it. You have no control of your email once you hit send, so it could end up somewhere you hadn’t expected. Err on a more formal tone unless you know recipient well enough to judge how informal you can be. You can take the lead from the recipient if there is a further email exchange.
Abbreviations and symbols
Avoid using abbreviations or text speak in formal emails. You may get away with them in informal emails, but make sure you are sure what they mean before you use them!
Emojis have become more popular even in emails. A simple smiley face is OK in informal emails, but they are still frowned upon in formal writing. In a more personal email you might get away with other emojis.
Check it through before hitting send
It’s become a meme now – only finding typos after hitting send. Don’t let that happen to you!
Though we’d like to think typos are acceptable to a certain extent, the reality is that most people get annoyed by them. Make sure you re-read your email before hitting send, and if necessary run a spelling and grammar check over it.
Re-reading it also means you can check that you’ve written it in the way you intended. Think about how the reader will read it when they first open the email. Will it come across too blunt, over-friendly, too informal, or too formal? Does it get your point across? Does it include all the information the reader needs to know, and is it correct? (You don’t want to put in the wrong date, or leave the date out altogether.)
Got an unruly report that needs to be whipped into shape, or some untidy copy that needs some TLC? Get in touch today to enquire about my business editing and plain language services.
For more information on how I can help you make your writing shine, please contact me.
I would love to hear from you.
Hi, I'm Marja!
You'll find all my advice about creating professional,
New Zealand English Series
The Editing Process