How do you write an e-mail message that is clear and easy to understand? There is more to it than typing a few words and clicking the Send button. These notes give guidelines on technical issues, document structure, the importance of knowing your audience, language issues, and layout and visual design.
A clear distinction between technical issues and content issues does not exist. For practical purposes, that is not important. Typically, there are no rights and wrongs; you just need to be aware of the options available and the implications of your choices:
- HTML or plain text? HTML e-mail has many advantages over plain text e-mail. However, it can carry worms and viruses. Therefore, many people prefer plain text e-mail. If you send an HTML e-mail, and if your recipient's system is set up for plain text, then usually the recipient will see the e-mail message as an attachment. Usually, the e-mail software can change the message so that there is also a plain text version. Sometimes the conversion is not correct, and the HTML code is displayed, as shown in the example below.
- Character sets. Have you ever sent an e-mail message that contains, for example, the £ symbol. In the reply, did your original "£" appear as the "?" character? That is because of the character set. In the UK, the best option is to use ISO 8859 (in Microsoft Outlook: Tools > Options. Internet Email tab).
- Attachments. Possibly, your recipient uses a dial-up connection, so do not send large attachments. Instead, include a link to a web page or to a file on a web page. Can you be sure that the recipient has the correct software to read an attachment? Instead of a small attachment, send the information as part of the e-mail message itself.
- Bulk commercial e-mail (BCE) and unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) may soon be illegal in the EU. Even now, your contract with your ISP probably does not let you send these. There is no problem until someone complains. But then your ISP must investigate.
- The Data Protection Act says you must not divulge personal information. Is an e-mail address personal information? When you send an e-mail message to many people who do not know one another, the safest method is to use the Bcc option, so that the recipients cannot access the e-mail addresses. (Another problem with putting many e-mail addresses in the To or CC fields is that if the e-mail message is printed, the e-mail addresses are printed. I have come across e-mail messages where the addresses completely fill the first two pages of the printed e-mail message.)
- Do not use free e-mail addresses, such as firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to looking unprofessional, it is easy to get a false positive with spam filters. Therefore, possibly, your recipient will accidentally blacklist your e-mail address.
- If you use Microsoft Outlook, do not use Word as the e-mail editor. If your recipient does not also use Word, then all the formatting will be lost, and the e-mail message will look terrible.
Although an e-mail message is usually a short document, you can structure it to improve its effectiveness. In particular, consider these points:
- Subject field. Use this to give your readers an idea of what the e-mail message is about. If you send and receive replies, and if the subject changes, change the content of the subject field. It will make your e-mail messages easier to manage.
- Opening salutation. Some people do not bother with an introduction. Other people are formal. There are no absolutes here, but I know of people who were very irritated because an e-mail message did not conform to their preferences.
- Call to action. What do you want the recipient to do? Is the e-mail message for information only? Do you want the reader to do something? If yes, what, and by when? Probably, the best location to put this information is at the start or at the end of the e-mail message.
- Include contact details, both of yourself and of third parties, unless you know for sure that the recipient has this information.
As with all communications, you need to understand your readers' requirements. You do not need to spend a long time thinking about this for each e-mail message, but consider the following things:
- Specify the audience. What do they know? What do they need to know? Do they need to receive the e-mail message?
- What are the recipient's preferences: plain text, HTML, attachments? To be informed regularly or to receive only an occasional digest? This is probably most applicable if you send newsletters or ezines.
- Before you send the e-mail message, make sure that it is addressed to the right person! To make a mistake is easy, and there is no recovery.
Some people think that e-mail is informal. Whether it is formal or informal is not important. Bad writing makes a bad impression. Frequent errors include the following things:
- Grammar (and/or, its/it's)
- Spelling (principle/principal, their/there)
- Vocabulary. Do not use long words or unusual words for the sake of it. Simple words help to make an e-mail message easy to understand.
- Verbosity. Decrease the number of words as much as possible. For example, instead of "on a regular basis" write "regularly".
- Ambiguity. For example: "When the switch is pressed, the valve should be closed". There are three possible meanings:
- Press the switch. The valve will close (that is, the system will close the valve).
- Press the switch and then close the valve.
- Make sure that the valve is closed. If the valve is closed, press the switch.
- Unnecessary information. This wastes a reader's time and gets in the way of the message, so be as brief as possible. When you reply to a message, remove all the text that is not needed. To show that text has been removed, the convention is to use a word such as "<snip>" or "<cut>" (including the angle brackets) in place of the deleted text.
- Terms and acronyms. Do the recipients know the meanings of special words that you use? AFAIK, FWIW and IMHO, TLAs are best avoided. VBG! (As far as is I know, for what it's worth and in my humble opinion, three-letter acronyms are best avoided. Very big grin!)
Make the document easy to read:
- With long e-mail messages, include headings to help the reader. With plain text e-mail, you can use capital letters and underline these to make a clear heading.
- Do not use ALL CAPITALS for the entire text. Text that is all capitals is is more difficult to read than lowercase text. Some people consider it to be the e-mail equivalent of shouting.
- Use bullets and numbering to help the reader to identify particular points. With plain text e-mail, to make sure that the reader sees what you sent, insert bullets (use the asterisk character) and numbers manually, instead of relying on the formatting options in the e-mail editor.
- With plain text e-mail,do not use formatting, because possibly, it will not appear on a recipient's machine. For example, your e-mail editor may let you use paragraph spacing. But if this is not available on the recipient's system, then there will be no spaces between paragraphs of text. A safe solution is to use single line spacing and to use an additional blank paragraph between paragraphs of text (this method goes against the usual guideline for using word processors).
This e-mail message was sent to me a while ago. My e-mail system is set up for plain text e-mail. Usually, a HTML e-mail appears as an attachment, but in this case the underlying HTML code appeared as text.
<TABLE cellSpacing=2 cellPadding=2 width=696 border=0>
<TD class=Arial12Black width=137 bgColor=#ffffff> </TD>
<TD class=Arial12Black width=401 bgColor=#ffffff>
<P align=center><STRONG><FONT color=#ff0033>FAO: Mike Unwalla @ Techscribe </FONT></STRONG></P>
<P align=center><STRONG><FONT color=#ff0033>24 Spooner Road South Yorkshire S10 5BN</FONT></STRONG></P>
<P align=center><STRONG><FONT color=#ff0033>Tel. 0114-266 6933 Fax. </FONT></STRONG></P>
<P align=center><STRONG><EM><FONT color=#ff0000 size=4></FONT></EM></STRONG> </P></TD>
<TD class=Arial12Black width=136 bgColor=#ffffff> </TD></TR>
<TD class=Arial12Black width=23 bgColor=#ffffff><B><FONT color=#000066 size=5><IMG height=57 src='http://www.centralcontracts.com/email/centralcontracts.gif' width=128></FONT></B></TD>
<TD class=Arial12Black width=387 bgColor=#ffffff>
<P align=center><B><FONT color=#000066 size=5> Toyota Corolla T3 1.6 VVT-I 3 door </FONT></B></P></TD>
<TD class=Arial12Black width=119 bgColor=#ffffff><B><FONT color=#000066 size=5><IMG height=57 src='http://www.centralcontracts.com/email/centralcontracts.gif' width=128></FONT></B></TD></TR>
<TD class=Arial12Black width=700 bgColor=#ffffff colSpan=3>
<P align=center><IMG height=90 src='http://www.centralcontracts.com/email/ToyotaCorolla.jpg' width=150></P>
<P align=center>3 Yr/60000 Warranty, ABS + EBD, Air Conditioning, CD Player, Electric Front Windows, Electric Mirrors, Front Fog Lamps, Immobiliser, Outside Temp Gauge, PAS, Remote Central Locking </P></TD></TR>
For help with writing e-mail newsletters, ezines or e-flyers, contact:
Chantal Cornelius, Apple Tree (www.appletreeuk.com)
Work Etiquette's Written Communication section (www.worketiquette.co.uk/WrittenCommunicationCategory.html)