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Mark Grossman

The Art of Writing E-mail, Part I

24 October 2002

The art of writing e-mail is this week's topic. This will be the first of a three-parter, which will run over then next few months, unless of course I run out of things to say about this before I finish part three.

Let's put the legal stuff behind us and then move to the art. The legal side is that e-mail counts; it can haunt you in a courtroom as surely as a letter, and it's easier to disseminate. So, unless you're prepared to see it appear in the worst possible place, don't say it in e-mail.

On the artistic side, you can usually discard what you learned about letter writing because e-mail has developed its own unique styles. "Styles" is plural because there are different ones for different situations.

When writing to your peer in an internal office e-mail, it's okay to say, "r u ready to leave yet?" This e-mail is an example of one that's a substitute for a quick conversation. Informality, abbreviations, smileys :-) and poor grammar are acceptable here if the message is short and sweet. However, even within your internal e-mail, you shouldn't send out a hundred words of typos, poor grammar, incomprehensible abbreviations and smileys that require one of those smiley charts to understand. You'll seem illiterate.

Whatever you do, please remember that if you speak words with a judgmental thought (especially a negative one) like, "You did a poor job," it has one level of impact. If you type those words in an e-mail, the very same words are more impactful to your reader.

So, whatever you write, you must remember to tone it down in your e-mail. "You did a poor job" when spoken is probably the e-mail equivalent to, "I think you could have done a better job on that." There's just something about the written word.

Now, some will argue that the delivery format, paper or electrons, doesn't matter and that the "art" of writing e-mail is the same as the "art" of letter writing. While there is some truth to that, the fact is that letter writing is a more formal and ritualized practice. People are inherently more circumspect in what they say in a formal letter that will get a stamp and envelope.

E-mail has that spontaneity thing going for it. Most people don't write letters that criticize someone's work unless they're trying to document their dissatisfaction. Yet, people will often express that thought in an e-mail.

I think that the difference is that people use e-mail as a primary means of communication while they use letters to confirm, document and enclose. E-mail is like the telephone in that way. It's a substitute for face-to-face--albeit a poor one.

I do subscribe to the theory that you should almost always avoid anything that smells like a personal attack in an e-mail. If you're in one of those situations where you feel you must, then I strongly suggest that you save your e-mail and sleep on it. You may feel quite differently in the morning.

If you decide to send it after sleeping on it, tone it down. Trust me, you always need to tone them down.

In an informal e-mail in which it's okay to use abbreviations, you might want to consider the lead-in, "IMHO." I don't see this used as much as in the "old days." (The "old days" is when e-mail was still mostly the province of new technology's early adopters.)

In case you're not familiar with it, "IMHO" means "In my humble opinion." Using the written out phrase in a formal e-mail seems almost silly, but it's an acceptable softening phrase in informal e-mail. In fact, I think it can work emotional wonders on your reader. It really does soften a strong statement in a sense similar to the way that "please" and "thank you" soften a "demand" or "order."

In more formal e-mail, you shouldn't really type "IMHO," but you can soften your words. You will just have to devote some electrons to thoughts like, "While I understand that you and others may disagree, it remains my personal conclusion that…"

Formal e-mail is more like writing a formal letter, but not quite. Clearly, there are no hard and fast rules to any of this, but "Dear" as a lead-in is not really e-mail style. That's letter style. IMHO, the preferred style is to drop the "Dear" and go with, "Joe:" or "Joe," and then right into the e-mail. (Even if you disagreed with what I just wrote, you'll probably agree that "IMHO" probably made you say "jerk" softer.)

If your e-mail has multiple male recipients, I think that, "Messieurs" is painfully old-fashioned. I suggest you start with, "Joe, Pete, and Jon," or better yet, skip the greeting and go right into what you have to say. The "To" line told them who the intended recipients were.

More in a few weeks.

The Art of Writing E-mail, Part I is republished from
Mark Grossman
Mark Grossman