Tuesday, March 9, 2010

10 tips to write shorter emails

[This was originally posted at http://timstall.dotnetdevelopersjournal.com/10_tips_to_write_shorter_emails.htm]

There are some who think that the volume of email you send out directly reflects how much work you've done. So if you cc twice as many people, you've done twice as much work. For the rest of us, reading long emails is a time-consuming nuisance. To avoid being that person who irritates everyone with a daily novel-worth of emails, here's some tips to write shorter emails:
  1. The shortest email is the one you never even had to write- perhaps the issue can be resolved with a quick IM or water-cooler conversation.
  2. Refer to external resources with the URL instead of pasting large chunks into your email (like "see the wiki page at...". Although sometimes it may be more convenient for the recipients to just see the content of the URL that you're referring to (such as if they don't have access to the target URL).
  3. Make good use of "To" vs. "CC". Some people even filter their emails to redirect CC.
  4. If replying to a long email thread, consider deleting the older history that no longer matters.
  5. If your email is longer, consider splitting it into a clearly-marked "Summary" (2 lines), and "Details". Make it easy for a busy person to get the main point of the email in less than 30 seconds.
  6. "A picture is worth a thousand words", therefore a picture (like a diagram or graph) can often convey a concept much quicker than verbose text paragraphs. Consider also using outlines and tables for the same reason.
  7. Differentiate between informal and formal emails. Informal emails are usually quick questions or responses to friendly co-workers about a current issue for which there isn't a big consequence (example: "Should the confirmation page have a link back to the home page?"). You can make them shorter because you don't need to re-explain the whole problem or define every term. Formal emails usually have big consequences, are usually followed up with a live meeting or phone call to confirm, and have the details in an attachment. (Example: "Is a rate of $120 per contractor hour acceptable?") This usually requires them to be longer such that you catch all the influential and controversial ideas to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  8. Consider tailoring your email to your target reader and their history of the topic at hand. For example, phrases like "Per our discussion yesterday..." can save you from re-describing a problem. Don't assume that because email can be forwarded to everyone, you need to write it to the "lowest common denominator".
  9. Consider batching multiple questions into one email. Yes, that individual email may be longer, but as a group, the emails will be shorter. It also saves you from having to re-explain the context in each email.
  10. Use good writing skills to condense your writing.

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