Common Sense Emails – Beyond Etiquette

Jan 26, 2022

Forget email etiquette. It's not about manners. It's about clear communication. Fortunately, if you follow the suggestions below, virtually all email etiquette requirements will be met.

While not an exhaustive list, these 10 recommendations will greatly improve the quality of your email communications. In most cases, the suggestions presented below can be applied to both one-to-one interactions as well as group emails.

If you already use these techniques, consider this validation that you know what you're doing:

1. Paragraphs

What a concept. While most emails tend to be short, some people write unrelieved blocks of text, skipping from idea to idea in one long text box. Not only is this hard to read, it's difficult to give a coherent, complete response.

  • If you have a lot to say, break it into discrete chunks (aka paragraphs). New Idea, new paragraph. This not only makes it easier to read, it makes it look easier to read, and thus, more likely to get read.
  • Faced with an email that makes your eyes glaze over, take it apart. Insert line breaks between unrelated sentences. This will improve your understanding of the message.

2. Bullets and numbers

The best way to express multiple concepts is to list them rather than just include them in a series in an ordinary sentence.

  • If the order of the ideas detailed in a list is critical, number them in order.
  • Even if the order of the ideas presented is not important, numbers make it easier for the respondent to address each point by its number. The main headings in this article are numbered to make it easier to refer to specific topics.
  • If the order of the ideas listed is not important, and you don't need an item-by-item response, use bullets just to clarify discrete ideas.

3. Reread or regret

It's better to take the time to review what you just wrote before you send it rather than try to repair the consequences of a regrettable blunder in grammar or content.

  • Fix errors. Most people won't notice your mistakes, but those who do will hold them against you. Know the difference between you're and your, they're and their and there, and so on.
  • Are you sure you want to say this on the record (aka paper trail)? This is especially important if you're using company or other official email. Some things are better spoken, not written.
  • You know what you're saying, but will your reader? Without proper punctuation and grammar, confusion and worse yet, serious misunderstandings can arise. "Let's eat, Mom" means something entirely different from "Let's eat Mom."

4. Change the subject

Have you ever engaged in an ongoing email thread with a subject line like "apple pie," but after a few exchanges you're actually discussing car batteries?

  • If you change the topic, start a new thread.
  • If you need to keep the thread going but want to introduce a tangential or completely unrelated idea, you can modify the subject line to alert readers this is something new. For example, "apple pie" could be "apple pie – jumpstarted."
  • Sometimes the best way to untangle the Gordian knot in an email thread is to just cut the thread. Salvage the key concepts within the tangled mess and start one or more new messages, each with a new subject line.

5. Did you get it, did you read it?

Sometimes, you have a serious need to know if/when an email is delivered – and if/when it's been read.

  • When you definitely need to know a message got through, you can use the delivery receipt function in your email program (if your program has one). Your recipient will not know a delivery receipt is returned to you, but at least you'll be notified that it got delivered – or bounced.
  • Read receipts are more subtle and delicate. If you are on a solid communication basis with your respondents, and you legitimately have a need or even a right to know when your message has been read, it's okay to request a read receipt.
  • In some cases, however, a read receipt can indicate distrust of the other party. Furthermore, the recipient usually has the option of whether or not to acknowledge a read receipt.
  • And in even other cases, the recipient never sees the read receipt request because some email platforms (e.g., gmail) don't support read receipts. If you know this to be true, specifically ask for a read-confirmation in the body of your email.

6. Reply … all?

In a one-to-many email, do you reply to the sender or to everyone on the address list? That depends. Does everybody on the list need to see your response? Many of us have inboxes in permanent overload. Be considerate. Don’t send a Reply All response when only the sender needs to see your response.

7. Embed yourself

When replying to an email that rambles from point to point, say something at the top of your response like, "Answers embedded below."

  • Insert your answers or comments directly after each item in the original email that you want to speak to.
  • Use a different font or color or some other identifier to differentiate your response from the original text.
  • When sending an email in which you want specific answers or responses to a set of questions or ideas, instruct your recipients to reply to your email with their responses directly after each question. This is especially useful when you're surveying a group of people and want a standardized set of answers.

8. Mirroring and modeling

Sometimes it's useful to mirror the writing style of your correspondent, and sometimes you have to model the proper way to communicate. Mirroring is a form of bonding with your correspondent; modeling is a form of instructing by example. It can be a subtle power struggle.

  • In mirroring, you copy the writing style of your correspondent. If your boss always uses a salutation at the beginning of an email, always use a salutation in return.
  • In modeling, you're attempting to influence the writing style of your correspondent. If your boss writes long, stream-of-consciousness, no- paragraph communiqués, break the message down to coherent components and use the clear-communication techniques recommended here. Not only is this demonstrating effective communication skills, it ensures that you address all of your boss' concerns.

9. KISS - Keep it short and simple

We live in an era of information overload. Email boxes can fill up quickly. People don’t want to read long emails. Quite often, they don’t, or they bail out before finishing, which can lead to misunderstandings and outright failures to communicate.

If you have a lot to say, it’s advisable to warn your recipient in advance that they’re in for a long read. Sometimes, it’s better to convert a long email into an attached document and call your recipient’s attention to the attachment.  

10. Time bomb

Ever sent an email only to instantly regret it? Perhaps you just left something out or forgot to attach the file. Worse, maybe you said or sent something in response to the sender that you regret, or even worse yet, you hit Reply All. Some email programs let you set a time-delay on the send operation, anywhere from one minute to 30 minutes or even let you schedule when email gets sent. Some people find this send-delay function quite useful. If you don’t have the delay option, see #3 on this list.

All of the above are best-practice suggestions. Of course, if you work in or with an organization that has email guidelines that contradict anything written here, it's usually best to follow those guidelines.

From smoke signals and drum beats to thoughtfully written letters penned in elegant cursive on linen stationery to semi-literate, emoji-laden text messages demanding your immediate attention on your cell phone right now, the nature of human communication continues to evolve. For now, at least, email seems to be the preferred medium for general personal, professional and business correspondence.

I hope these suggestions help you clean up and clear up your email communication, because after all, that’s just good etiquette.

Tom Durkin

Trained as a screenwriter, Tom Durkin has spent most of his writing career in creative nonfiction: journalism, legal analysis, press relations, marketing, technical writing, op-eds, and documentaries.