Writing for readers


 Ten years ago, I covered the basics of communication (including email) in “You talking to me?” (chapter 8). With the rise in social media, and the reduced dependency on quick and dirty email, you’d think the other messages would have gotten better by now. Nope, you still stink at writing email.

I get over 1,000 emails every day. Eighty percent are automated build, integration, or check-in mails, but most of those are lousy too. I hate crappy email—especially when writing half-decent mail isn’t rocket science. An email message just needs some selfless purpose in its miserable life. Are you so self-centered and thoughtless as to deny a blameless email its moment of glory? Yes, apparently you are.

You can make every message worthy of attention. All you have to do is keep the reader in mind. That’s it. Write for readers. Keep messages focused, purposeful, and scannable. Need details? Please scan the following before writing to ask me.

One at a time

A well-written email is like a well-written function—it’s about one thing. (In programming that’s called cohesion.) Your email should be about a single topic. If you have two different issues or need to ask about two different subjects, write two different emails.

I’m sensing some “But-what-ifs?”

  • “But what if I’m writing to someone super-intimidating, and I can’t bear to send two emails?” Grow up. Failing that, start the email with “This email covers two different topics: topic 1 and topic 2. Plus, I’m lame.” Then cover each topic in separate paragraphs, using bold headings if you tend to be longwinded.
  • “But what if an existing mail thread brings up a new topic?” Change the subject line and fork the thread.
  • “But what if I also have a reply on the original topic?” Send two replies: one reply on the original thread about the original topic and one reply on a new thread about the new topic with a new subject line.
  • “But what if the thread already forked?” Consolidate each thread (combine the broken pieces using copy/paste), rename one of the threads, and give yourself a pat on the back for being a decent human being.
  • “But what if my new topic doesn’t concern everyone?” Drop those who aren’t involved from the To line and Cc line, and thank you for caring.

You’re lucky if people read or scan your email at all. Expecting them to read your mail carefully enough to discern two different topics is the stuff of fantasy-action thrillers.

The last will be first

Well-written email tells you everything you need to know in the subject line and first two content lines (what appears in auto-preview). That includes the topic, action items, and due dates. The only reason to open the message should be to get the details.

  • “But what if it’s complicated?” Don’t send it. Email isn’t the right communication mechanism for complicated. Either simplify or set up a meeting.
  • “But what if I don’t have solid due dates?” Hold off until you have dates or pick dates that make sense. Leaving out dates (or setting them far into the future) makes your mail meaningless, powerless, and useless.
  • “But what if people don’t respond by the due dates?” As my New York taxi driver once shouted at a four-way stop, “You snooze, you lose.” People who don’t respond have tacitly accepted the decisions of those who did. If that’s not okay, email isn’t the right communication—talk to the stakeholders.
  • “But what if there are too many action items?” Don’t use email for project management. Host the items in a work item tracking tool (like Visual Studio Team Services, SharePoint, or even OneNote) and provide one action item: “Check your assigned tasks.” (You can list the tasks and status later in the email, if you want.)
  • “But what if there aren’t action items?” Label the mail as “FYI” or “Notes,” and expect most people to ignore it. Use OneNote or some similar mechanism to collect, share, and archive the information.
  • “But what if it’s important for people to be informed?” Get over yourself—it’s not that important. If it were that important, knowing would be an action item.

Remember, the email isn’t for you—it’s for your readers. Keep it scannable and actionable, and maybe your readers will care as much as you do.

Spare me the details

Now that we’ve covered the most important and most-read portion of an email, the subject and first two lines, it’s time to consider the body of your message.

  • If your message is short, like a single paragraph, good for you. Write it, sign it, and send it.
  • If your message is long, full of self-serving nonsense focused on the greatness that is your essence, good for you. Write it. Print it. Frame it on your wall. And then delete the unsent message.
  • If your message is long, full of valuable details for those who need them, good for you. Put a summary at the top with the heading “Summary” or “TL;DR,” followed by a “Details” heading and all the details you wish. You can use subheadings and put key sentences in bold to make the long message easy to scan. (I’ve been doing that throughout this column.)

The key is to make your email very easy to digest, whether your readers need every detail, just the key points, only a summary, or just the action items. A well-written email serves the needs of its readers.

Eric Aside

“TL;DR” means “too long; didn’t read.” That says it all.

I’ve been busy

People are busy and get plenty of mail. They can’t and don’t read it all. To make your mail valuable and effective, focus on one topic at a time; put the topic, the action items, and the due dates within the first couple of lines; and make the rest of long messages easy to scan and consume by clearly delineating the summary and details.

Other effective practices for messages include:

  • Distribution lists are great when appropriate, but remember to list the key people directly on the To line. This helps the key people filter properly and avoids mail getting lost. And never put distribution lists on the Bcc line—it breaks common filtering and inbox rules.
  • Only send mail to those who need it. If that means trimming the To line and Cc line, just move the uninvolved folks to the Bcc line, and start the message with “(Bcc’ing <folks you moved>.)” If you’re trimming away a distribution list, fork the thread: one with the distribution list saying “Discussing offline,” and one with the continued discussion.
  • Avoid sending mail when you’re emotional. Write it, save it as a draft, review it when you’re calm, and then delete it or rewrite it from scratch.
  • Provide deep links for tools and resources in line and up front, instead of being lazy and making your readers search for them.
  • If you know your readers may have limited access to links, directly attach the files they need (using IRM to protect IP as needed).

Finally, if you manage tools that produce automated email, all the same rules apply. Focus the message, only send it to those who need it, list key people on the To line, put the action items up front, give a summary with deep links to tools and resources, and then provide the details (including attachments as needed).

It’s not hard to write great email, though my inbox tells a different story. Stand out. Make a difference. Show you care. Write for readers, and maybe, just maybe, your email will actually be read.

Eric Aside

Need help getting through your emails? Read Your World. Easier.


Comments (1)

  1. LocTeam says:

    What about all these polite beginnings? I see it as a waste of time and space, but when everyone keeps adding that I feel like a cold hearted person when I don't put it ;).

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