An engineer named Ray Tomlinson sent the first-ever email in 1971. He opened the floodgates for limitless communication in the modern era. No doubt, email is intended to make our lives easier. Over time, however, it’s transformed into a tool with boundless potential for annoyance and sloppy correspondence.
Bad emails are rampant, my friends.
What is a “bad email”, you ask? Apart from chain emails and blatant spam, the worst kind of email is one that fails to achieve its goal. Usually, that means they’re simply indirect and lacking pertinent information. Occasionally, this also includes abysmal fonts and massive attachments. (Please don’t.)
Corporate emails come to mind, actually. Perhaps you’ve worked in an office where team members are trying to organize some kind of meeting or outing, but leaving the plans completely open-ended, inspiring endless back-and-forth?
Or maybe you received a crappy PR email that’s missing contact info or a website address…?
I can’t count how many times I sat in my swivel chair, clutching my hair in both fists, willing myself not to pull a panda.
Bad emails happen to good people all the time, but you don’t want to be the one writing them. You’re a writer, after all, and you make a living on the internet! If anyone is writing excellent emails, it should be you.
I’d go as far as to say that writing effective emails is the first step to being taken seriously as an online professional. A good email can increase your odds of growing your network, initiating great business relationships, and so much more.
Whether you’re cold-emailing a potential client, pitching a story to a news site, or tapping out everyday communication, these tips will help you write better business emails.
Address people by name
Regardless of the nature of your email, the person receiving it is more likely to be receptive to your message if they see their name on the screen.
People like reading their own name. It instantly makes the interaction more human and makes you a more likable presence in their inbox. Need proof? Just notice how you feel when you receive an email with “Good morning (your name!)” vs. an impersonal, generic opener.
I know it was pounded into your head by a well-meaning career counselor at some point, but “to whom this may concern” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
If you don’t know someone’s name or you’re reaching out for the first time, get creative! You can start by looking at their company’s website. Most of them will have a “Team” section where you can track down information for key team players (including names).
LinkedIn has proven to be a goldmine for finding the right person to reach out to when you’re pitching or attempting to contact a company. Directing the email to the right department and using someone’s first name can pull you ahead of the “To whom it may concern”-wielding masses.
You can also Google the company and adjacent job title. Enough digging will uncover the information you need.
When you absolutely can’t find a name, always opt for a “good morning” or “good afternoon” over the robotic “to whom this may concern”.
Use formal greetings & closings
In most matters of business, I consider my M.O. fairly modern. When it comes to communication, though, I’m basically a relic. And I see too many business emails with sloppy openings and closings.
While breaking into that first sentence is okay when emailing more casually, you should structure your business emails as follows:
- Message with succinct details
- Signature with contact information
A well-structured email is informative, productive, and honestly? Just satisfying.
In a sea of quickly-scrawled, typo-ridden emails, why not let yours stand out as refreshingly well done?
If you’re mid-conversation already, you might leave out more formal openings and closings, but I don’t recommend it.
Coming across too casual can make a bad first impression—and inspire your prospects and current clients to take you less seriously. First impressions are especially important when building online relationships.
Even if your “brand” is more edgy, you don’t want to be pegged as amateur during your first attempt at communication.
Using this 4-part framework for an email also ensures you’ve covered your bases and provided whatever the recipient needs to take that first step.
Crafting a fully realized email will show your contact that you’re taking their time seriously, too.
Tighten up your message
When we talk about writing a structured email (see above), know that structured doesn’t mean lengthy.
Brevity can feel like a luxury when someone has a full to-do list to handle outside of their inbox. If you can get to the point quickly, the recipient will be more likely to take action in your favor.
When your email is succinct, you eliminate the frustration out of skimming paragraphs and hunting for clues as to what the point of the email is.
Make it easy for your recipient to process your information and reply with a sentence or two.
Start with a rough draft. Say everything you want to say. Then, go back and refine. Delete entire sentences, distill several into one. There’s almost always a shorter way to say things.
The hidden bonus in this strategy?
The person you’re emailing will almost certainly reciprocate your reduced word count when they reply. We “train” people in how to communicate with us by the way we reach out to them.
Be direct about details
Have you ever asked a friend to make dinner plans and said something extremely vague, like, “How about this weekend? Let me know what time you’re free.”
That’s annoying enough with friends, but it’s a big mistake in a business email.
In fact, as a rule, leave “let me know” out of your business email vernacular.
Instead of using vague terminology or leaving things open-ended, be proactive. Offer answers where you would usually ask questions.
That means giving an exact day and time and then adding a few options before opening it up to the recipient. It also means looking at a client’s public calendar (if available) to track down info before you ask unnecessary questions.
In general, ask yourself: What information can I include here to make this process easier? How do I reduce the need for the recipient to request more information?
You shouldn’t expect them to decide on all of the time frames or work out the details or a call or engagement of some kind.
And maybe it’s just me… but I think it’s preferable to be the one taking the lead!
Don’t write like a robot
Business emails are serious, but they don’t have to sound robotic.
Going back to our tip of being succinct, don’t suck the life out of your emails when you’re cutting out phrases for the sake of efficiency.
We might be getting a tad bit contradictory here, but I trust you to recognize the nuances. Use contractions, infuse a little light humor where appropriate, or add a timely comment (like a simple “enjoy your weekend”).
Yanno, human stuff!
An email from an actual person is a rare gem these days, so use that to your advantage. Keep it colloquial while remaining professional.
As with many of these tips, the effort goes both ways. When you write like a human, you’ll encourage a human reply. This is especially effective when making a new connection via email for the first time.
Being authentic and infusing a bit of personality into your language can give you a significant advantage in the old inbox.
Let’s talk about emojis.
I promise I’m not a mean, boring person. I love emojis as much as the next girl.
I mean, how great are they?! 🍄 💐 🌷🍹
When it comes to social media, blogging, and chatting, I’m all about those emojis. As much as I adore them, though, I don’t recommend using them in business emails.
While your intention might be to appear friendly, emojis can make an email look less professional to someone who’s more traditional about business communication.
The only occasion where I would not object to emojis is if the person you’re corresponding with has already signaled in their emails that emoji use is part of their M.O.
For example, a “Thank you” with a smiley face or some other straight forward emoji use can lighten the mood and even make emailing more pleasant.
But don’t assume this is the standard when you’re emailing someone for the first time. Keep your cool! You can release the emojis later when you’re chatting with friends.
Don’t send attachments
Once upon a time, I advised writers not to send “big attachments” with their emails.
Now I’m a bit more strict. If you can avoid sending any attachments, that’s preferable. No one wants to receive them.
Opening them is annoying and time consuming. Your contacts might not have the right programs to open what you’re sending, may get delayed by virus scanners, etc.
Also, no one wants their inbox storage space clogged up with random files.
If you have something to share, like a writing sample, upload it to Google Drive or your web server and share a link. Links take the hassle out of dealing with files and are a more modern and seamless way to share things.
For enormous files, I’m a big fan of WeTransfer.
Remember: the easier you can make the experience of communicating and sharing information, the more people will enjoy working with you—and the more effective your business emails will be.
Know when to pick up the phone
So, you know how to write better business emails now. Great!
But is that always the best way to discuss the matter at hand? Sometimes the best email tip is to get off email and pick up the phone.
When a simple phone call can create clarity and increase productivity, don’t rely on email. Emails are clutter. Emails are more items to process and file.
Here’s a good motto to roll with: An unnecessary email is a bad email.
Professional contacts will appreciate the fact that you’re not wasting their time or dragging out a would-be simple process.
But wait—eek! Terrified of the dreaded voice call?
Don’t worry. You’re not the only one. Check out this super-helpful post on having more confidence when you talk to clients on the phone.
Bonus tip! Use your email signature wisely
Don’t underestimate the power of an effective email signature.
You probably email a couple hundred people per month, so it’s worth having the relevant information below your name.
Keep your contact information front-and-center, along with your title. Avoid messy fonts, but do link out to your portfolio or website.
If you have social media profiles used exclusively for your writing hustle, you can link those, too.
Avoid embedding images that will pop up as attachments in Outlook (which many businesses use).
With just a few tweaks, your business emails can go from subpar to seamless! You’ll be amazed at how sending better emails can improve your business relationships and streamline communication.
Give these tips a spin and let us know how it goes.
Not sure how to write an email? Pop into the Freelance Writing Cafe Facebook group and let’s figure it out together.
This post originally appeared on Day Job Optional in May 2016. It has been edited for Freelance Writing Cafe.