It is not quite an official, signed-and-sealed letter, nor is it the casual, emoji-laden text message. It’s the beloved (or dreaded) email: one of the most commonly used forms of communication in the professional world. One group estimates that more than 200 billion emails are sent around the world each day.
Honing the ability to write an effective, polished email is critical both in school and the workplace. Whether you are notifying your professor of a planned absence, contacting vendors for an ASDA event or following up with a company post-interview, there are essential, unwritten rules to follow when drafting a professional email. Here are some of my tips on email etiquette:
- Ditch the kitschy username. If you like to traverse the web as “preppy_chick182” or “sheislikewow,” that’s your own business. Reserve these personal accounts for personal conduct. The best professional email addresses are clean, simple and are usually variations of the first, middle and last name. If you are provided with a school-affiliated address, use this to your advantage. You may also opt for an address hosted from an outside server, like Gmail.com. However, keep in mind that some professors will refuse to open any correspondence received from non-university e-mails.
- Write a clear subject line. This is the first thing the recipient will see, and will ultimately determine whether the e-mail is read. Be clear and focused, stating the topic in no more than 6-8 words. Also, busy professionals may not read your message right away and often set filters and folders to better manage their email. For this reason, it is important to incorporate searchable keywords in the subject whenever possible.
- Use the proper greeting. Start with a neutral salutation, like “Dear…” followed by the person’s title (Dr./Mr./Mrs./Ms.) and their last name, unless you are on a first-name basis with the addressee. Follow the greeting with a comma for a personal message, or use a colon for a business letter. If the contact is unknown, simply stating “To Whom It May Concern:” is appropriate.
- Clearly state your purpose. Ideally, this should be your first sentence, since most people will not stick around for a surprise ending. Treat this as a thesis statement, which essentially “argues” for your request—be it clarification of a syllabus item, scheduling a meeting, etc.
- Be comprehensive, yet concise. Provide enough context for your message in the body paragraph(s) to supplement your purpose, but be wary of being too wordy. Be sure to separate unrelated thoughts into different paragraphs, or consider writing a separate email. If the single request is multi-faceted and too cumbersome to address fully and coherently, don’t hesitate to write your availability in order to speak with the recipient in person.
- Do your homework. Writing an email is asking for the recipient’s time. Therefore, don’t waste the reader’s energy by asking trivial questions that you could easily look up yourself. Run a quick Google search or review the syllabus first to see if you can readily obtain the answer.
- Be empathetic. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s situation from their perspective. Try to think from the reader’s point of view, and consider how they may interpret your message. For example, most professionals are busy. They don’t have the time to decipher what you want and should be able to read and respond to your e-mail with ease. Furthermore, people like to feel appreciated. Be sure to thank the recipient for any help they have provided, even if it is their job to help you. Kind words go a long way in written correspondence. Just be sure not to offset the equilibrium by being too liberal with the compliments, which may make the notion seem contrived.
- Tie it all together. This rule especially applies to a lengthy e-mail. As stated before, the first sentence should clearly address the purpose of the email. The filler is necessary to supplement the topic, but it may detract from the main objective. Following the body of the text, restate your purpose in a way that is speculative, yet conclusive. This will revert attention back to the original request. For example:START: I am inquiring about research opportunities within the Department of Orthodontics.END: I look forward to exploring with you the possibility of conducting research in Orthodontics.
- End with a solid signature. Let’s say you’ve crafted an exceptional email, but the signature is simply “Sent from my iPhone” or nonexistent. Don’t overlook this part, as it is your chance to make it seem more official. You should add a signature block with the appropriate contact information via your email settings, which includes, as applicable, your name, business address, website and phone number. The server will automatically attach the signature to the end of every draft so you don’t have to type it manually each time.
- Proofread. Proofread. This cannot be emphasized enough. Don’t let your hard work be all for nothing by allowing spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors to slip by. The recipient will take you as seriously as you take your writing. Pro tip: I always enter the recipient’s e-mail address after proofreading to ensure that I don’t accidentally send anything embarrassing or incomplete.
Knowing how to write professional emails will not grant everything that your heart desires, but it can certainly offer leverage in building important relationships with faculty, business contacts and others. By keeping these tips in mind, you are well on your way to effective, quality writing. Happy emailing!
~ Lynna Van, Oklahoma ’19