How to Write a Better E-mail

Writing an e-mail efficiently is an art. Here’s how to master it.

  • Andra Chantim

1. Tailor the Subject Line to the Message…

Writing to someone who e-mailed you last week? Don’t pull up an old, unrelated message and hit Reply. Compose a fresh e-mail with a subject line that reflects the new topic (say, “Background information on our newest client, Jane Doe” or “Directions to our new house in Cleveland”), says Peggy Duncan, a personal-productivity expert in Atlanta. You’ll be less likely to confuse the recipient, and your message will be easier to find later on.

2. ...and Be Specific

Bad subject line: “Staff meeting.” Good subject line: “Bring this attachment to 2 p.m. staff meeting.” When you include particulars, like an action that is needed or the where-and-when details, you help the recipient instantly gauge your message’s importance, says Marsha Egan, the author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence ($20, amazon.com).

3. Include Reply Instructions

Even when your e-mail doesn’t require a response (“I’ll be at a doctor’s appointment for the next two hours” or “You can turn in your report tomorrow instead of today”), many people feel obligated to acknowledge it with an “OK” or “Thanks.” Give these people an easy out. “If you don’t want to hear back, include ‘No reply necessary’ at the end of your message,” says Duncan. “It saves time on both ends and stops useless e-mails from cluttering in-boxes.” Also, don’t hesitate to write “Thank you in advance” when you’re asking someone a question. It will stop you from feeling tempted to send a one-line “Thanks” when the person writes back.

4. Don’t Hit Reply All

If a friend e-mails an invitation to a birthday brunch to all her pals, remember to RSVP directly to her, not the whole group. You don’t want to waste others’ time by making them read e-mails that don’t pertain to them. Her college roommate doesn’t need to know that you’ll be visiting your in-laws and won’t be able to make it.

5. Don’t Get Too Personal

“E-mails are for facts, not feelings,” says Egan. Due to the lack of voice inflection and body language in digital correspondence, certain sentiments—how you feel about a coworker, what you thought of your neighbor’s party—can easily be misinterpreted. If you want to bring up a sensitive (or less than positive) issue, call instead.