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On Netiquette: A Guide to Effective Email, Part II

April 2005

Composing Email

Set the context:
If you want an answer, you have to write to the right address and use an appropriate subject. Remember, your email will be arriving out of the blue. You need to give the recipient a clue as to why you are contacting him/her or else risk having the email inadvertently trashed. This is especially important if you are contacting someone new. After all, in a conversation you would likely have been introduced and had the opportunity to give some background information about yourself. Even a letter comes in an addressed envelope that allows the recipient to see what institution you are affiliated with. The subject line is the best way to set the context. It helps the recipient to mentally shift and focus on your topic or frame of mind. Be brief and specific. Give the recipient a clue as to the content and urgency of your message.

Organize your layout:
Make your email readable. You will only irritate people and distract them if your email is difficult to read. Many people find it more difficult to read from a screen than from paper. Depending on the monitor, a computer screen and the program being used, a long message will not fit in one pane and may need to be scrolled through. This makes it visually hard to track. Also, different software text wrap lines differently and may split your sentences up if they are too long. So, keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Try to keep everything on one page (about 25 lines). And don't get into the endless "reply" loops where the original message and replies keep getting copied and the mail gets longer and longer.

Remember, not all web-browsers and mail programs are created equal. What you see when you type may not be what your recipient sees. So, use formatted text judiciously.

  • Be aware of special characters
  • Send web pages as text
  • Type in http:// before your URLs

Always minimize, compress or "zip" large files before sending:
Be careful with attachments. Check the size of your document/file before sending. Large documents, graphics or photo files may be rejected by a server or clutter up your recipient's mailbox causing other messages to be bounced.

Don't SHOUT!!!!!
Text messaging has developed the ability to convey information via text into a true art. But for your usual email, there are a few simple rules. For light emphasis, you can enclose a phrase in asterisks. This is the email equivalent of italics for hard-copy written documents. Another way is to capitalize the first letter of each word in the phrase you want to emphasize. To emphasize something more strongly, use all CAPS and add exclamation points as needed. Remember to use this judiciously, if people see you "shouting" all the time they are likely to tune you out. Reserve !! for only the most EXTREME circumstances!!!

?!?! = (The shorthand equivalent of astonishment)

The Smiley:
Similarly, there are ways to add gestures to your conversation. Most people will be familiar with the ubiquitous smiley (emoticon):


;) and

In addition, using white space between words and individual sentences allows you to inject "pauses" into your thinking.

Use good grammar and spell correctly:
The care and time you put into crafting a good email message depends entirely on the context, your hope for outcome and the person to whom you are writing. Obviously, people who know you well are not going to be put off by a few typos or grammatical errors and may actually be offended if your style is too formal. However, in a professional setting, people will be making assumptions based on your name, address, and above all your facility with language.

Getting chatty:
The ease and simplicity of email encourages an informal tone that, depending on the person with whom you are corresponding, may or may not be appropriate. Be aware that the tone of your message can be used to control the number and type of responses you get.

Greetings and signatures
Think about what you are trying to convey. The salutations and greetings developed for verbal and written communications help convey context, introduce the sender to the reader. In general, it is better to err on the side of formality. That is, start with a salutation, include the person's title, don't address them by their first name or worse yet, their diminutive (e.g., Angie instead of Angela) until you have been given permission (see how they sign their reply).

Quickly establish who you are:
If you are writing to someone for the first time, include some kind of information identifying who you are within the subject line or first few lines of your message. This tells your reader why they should even bother to open and read your message.

Always end your emails with "Thank you," "Sincerely," "Best regards" - something!

Have a variety of signatures:
Apart from your name, include the following information on an as-needed basis: title, contact information (including mailing address, telephone numbers such as work, cell, fax).

Responding to email

Respond to each message within 24 hours:
If someone takes the time to email you and it is not junk mail or offensive, then they deserve the courtesy of a response. By not doing so you appear to ignore them. If you are pressed for time, a short acknowledgement of their email saying that you will get back to them or perhaps even briefly commenting on the major issues. By responding promptly you will leave a positive impression with those you communicate with.

Again, Don't rely on email alone to maintain contact. Etiquette requires some communications to be written and sent by snail mail. Use good judgment and consider calling.

Answer all questions

When replying to emails edit out unnecessary information:
Don't just hit the reply button and start typing. Use your common sense to edit out unimportant parts of the email. Yes, there may be times when keeping the entire previous email is important, especially if you are adding folks to the conversation via CC. But that is the rare occasion.

On occasions when it is necessary to email a group:
As a courtesy to those you are sending to, please list all recipient email addresses in the BCC field. (Blind Carbon Copy - from the old days when typewriters used carbon paper to create identical copies of a document when it was being typed.) When an email address is designated in the Blind Carbon Copy field, the recipient will get a copy of the email while their email address remains invisible to the other recipients of the email, some of whom they may or may not know.

Never forward email without a comment as to why you are forwarding the email. Is it simply FYI or do you want the party to actually comment or review? What is it exactly that you want the recipient to do? And always ask permission before forwarding someone's email.

A short dictionary:

  • FYI - For Your Information
  • IMHO - In My Humble/Honest Opinion
  • RTFM - Read The Manual ("Manual" here refers to any documentation)
  • LOL - [I] Laughed Out Loud [at what you wrote]
  • RSN - Real Soon Now
  • ROTFL - [I am] Rolling on the Floor Laughing [at what you wrote]
  • <g> - grin
  • <hug> - hug

Online dictionaries: