E-mail generally falls into one of two categories — business or pleasure — and while each has several different rules, they also both have common ground.
First, remember your audience (have you heard that often enough?) and adjust your tone and style for your recipients. If you're telling your children about your upcoming birthday party, you'll probably use different language than you would if you're sending the same information to your friends or your boss.
Keep in mind “netiquette,” a blended word meaning “etiquette for the Internet.” This means that, under no circumstances, should you criticize someone in your post (“flaming”); write all your post in capital letters (“shouting”); send unsolicited advertising (“spamming”); write something long or inappropriate in the subject line; send an e-mail to those for whom the e-mail is irrelevant; send attachments without asking permission; or forward messages that are hoaxes or urban legends (try
In this time of rampant computer viruses, beware of forwarding or opening posts that have a questionable origin. With one quick click of a button, you can open a virus-ridden attachment and wipe out years of work.
Private and Personal — or Not?
Perhaps the most important thought to keep in mind about personal e-mail is that anything sent as a private post can easily become public. All a recipient has to do is forward an e-mail, and it can quickly become fodder for the whole world to read.
Another area to think about — albeit a far less important consideration — is whether to use abbreviations, such as acronyms or other shorthand (e.g., typing @TEOTD to mean “at the end of the day”). Again, your audience is your key. You'll probably be fine using some of these in chatty e-mail with friends, but they usually don't have a place in an e-mail to your grandmother.
While writing in all capital letters is a no-no, a trend in personal e-mail is to write in all lowercase letters. This may be fine between friends who are accustomed to writing (and reading) this way, but it may be off-putting to others. When in doubt, use that shift key when it's appropriate.
One problem with e-mail messages is that they're usually short and often hastily written, so their tone can sometimes be questionable. Because of this, you can add emoticons (a word blended from
:-) smiling; agreeing with something
^5 high five
Just remember your audience when you use emoticons so you'll be sure your readers will know what you're trying to convey.
Getting Down to Business
Of course, business e-mail is far more professional than personal e-mail. Since, as the old saying goes, time is money, keep your message concise, direct, and clear. Take awhile to think about why you're writing and what you want to accomplish (maybe this is a mental rough draft). This information will eventually go in the first part of your e-mail.
Begin your e-mail with concise information in your subject line. Something like “Bring new notebook to meeting” or “Do you have Johnson file?” will let your reader know what to expect in the body of your post. If you don't have any details to add to the information in the subject line, you can just copy and paste the same message in the body (some people who read lots of e-mails say they first look at the body rather than the subject).
In academic or literary writing, authors will often lead a reader up to a climax in a paragraph (that is, they'll place their topic sentence at the end of the paragraph). Don't do this in business e-mail. The sooner you can let your reader know what your post involves, the better — so get to your point in your first sentence or two.
Resist any urge to be flowery in your message. You're not writing the Great American Novel here. Keep your paragraphs short, and skip lines between paragraphs so that your material will be easier to read. Reading from a computer screen is often more difficult and time-consuming than reading from a hard copy.
E-mail recipients tend to read their messages quickly, so if you have several points to tackle, use numbered or bulleted lists so your reader will note all the points that require attention. If your points are quite detailed, dividing them into separate messages might be better. This also makes responding to your points easier.
Use correct spelling, capitalization, grammar, and mechanics — that is, use what you learned in the beginning of this book. Almost all companies look for certain grammatical standards in business correspondence.
Whenever possible, use the active voice (“We will deliver the shipment on May 15” rather than “The shipment will be delivered on May 15”). Posts written that way give the impression that you and your company are more involved and concerned than if they had been written in the passive voice.
Always give personal or business information (your name, your company's name and address, your business telephone or fax number) to those with whom you're not in frequent contact.
As often as possible, avoid sending attachments. In addition to their potential danger as carriers of viruses, downloading them takes valuable time. Unless your recipient knows to expect an attachment, put your material in the body of the message.
Make sure that your e-mail spell checker is turned on and that you go back and proofread your post before you send it. You don't want to type an order for six billion parts when you intended to order six million instead (the spell checker wouldn't have realized this was a mistake).
After you've finished your post, reread it to see if your tone comes across too harshly or too abruptly — or in any other way that might be offensive. If so, change your wording.