Every year we all sit around and come up with our New Year's resolutions: lose weight, exercise more, eat better. Sure, all of these are admirable goals, but if you really want to make the world a better place, how about improving your emails? So many of our communications these days are by email, and so many emails are simply annoying: badly formatted, too confusing, hard to get through or open. Here are seven tips we should all live by.
Rule #1:Use a clear subject line.
We're all busy. Whether you're sending an email to a friend, your mother or a colleague, be considerate and put a clear subject line that will both allow your recipient to see if he or she needs to open it right away, and will help them sort and get back to it if necessary. Things like "Check this out!" or "Ha Ha!" may be fun every now and then, but "Directions to Saturday's Party" and "New Bookgroup Time" are more reader-friendly
Rule #2: Keep it short.
If you really think people are going to scroll through your emails, you're probably wrong. Yes, sometimes we all write nice long emails to friends we haven't seen recently, but for the most part, emails are meant to be quick bites: try to make each email about one thing and keep it short. Remember that your reader is probably looking at this on his or her smartphone.
Rule #3: Don't overdo the formatting.
There are lots of good reasons to use simple black fonts. First of all, your special italicized neon green fonts may not even translate to someone's iPhone. Secondly, if they do, they will most probably distract from your message or be hard to read. Be fun and creative when it makes sense, but don't go crazy.
Rule #4: Keep it positive.
Someone once advised me that it's never a good idea to write anything negative in an email – it will almost always be misconstrued. Of course, we all from time to time write negative emails. If you're complaining to the local paper or a customer service rep, fine. But if you're sending an email to Aunt Helen about how disappointed you were that she didn't accommodate your diet on Thanksgiving, think again. Don't hide behind an email: have difficult conversations in person or on the phone, where at least the person you're talking to can hear the concern in your voice and stop you before you go too far.
Rule #5: Keep abbreviations and emoticons to a minimum.
Sure. I use FYI when I forward an email to someone with some basic information below. And I've been known to start a sentence with BTW. And I've even come to see how useful the smiley face can be—sometimes you need your reader to know you mean a comment to be funny. But if you're using them all the time, you are probably annoying your readers and perhaps are confusing them. Not everyone knows what every abbreviation or group of symbols is supposed to mean. And while you're at it, cool it with the exclamation points as well.
Rule #6: Beware the Reply All and Forward functions.
It happens. You forward an email and don't realize that way, way down on the chain there was a nasty comment about one of the people you've forwarded to. Perhaps there was some proprietary information about a business deal. Or you may simply have hit reply all when you meant to hit reply and said something like "Really? Do we have to go to Mary's house next week?" (See rule #4 to avoid that.) Be careful. Which leaves our final rule:
Rule #7: Proofread!
Emails are casual. You can have a typo or two and not use perfect grammar. But before you hit "send," take a second. Read through what you just wrote. Check the chain if you're forwarding. Make sure you're sending it to the right person (the auto-fill from your address book may populate a similar name) and that auto-correct didn't change your request to pick up some popcorn to pick up some porn. (Yes, it happens.)
With just a little bit of care and thought about your recipients, you'll create better emails. Now that's a resolution we can all live with!