5 Steps to Writing Concise Emails

Jan 11, 2012
5 Min Read

Ask one hundred people about their number one email pet peeve, and you’ll see a sizeable percentage report long emails. Long emails simply aren’t received well. They either don’t get read, or they are skimmed and the message is misunderstood. The result? The receiver’s response is not what you expected or needed. If you tend to be long-winded, shortening your emails can ease a lot of unnecessary frustration and enhance your effectiveness at work.

The way to learn to craft a concise e-mail is to understand the two critical components of an email:

1. Your point.

2. The response you expect.

That’s it! That’s the two essentials to email. The rest is filler. The more filler you add, the more you dilute your message and the less likely you are to get a relevant response.

Here is a five-step process you can use to simplify your message:

1. Use your email voice. Don’t write like you speak. Don't write an email like you would write a book or report. There is no need to structure all your emails as formal business letters either. For most interactions, you can skip the niceties and fluff as most people will prefer concise over nice.

2. Write out your message as you normally would, but constrict yourself to making only one point or bringing up one subject per email.

3. Next, edit your message. Combine similar points and delete any duplicated information. Make each sentence a few words shorter. Use multiple short paragraphs. Add formatting to bold and underline to make it scannable.

4. Distill your message down to one sentence. Put this as the first sentence. You don't want to bury your main point in paragraph three, sentence five.

5. Figure out what type of response you are looking for. Then ask for that specifically in your second sentence. Then end your first paragraph.

You’ll notice number 4 and 5 directly above correlate to the #1 and #2 items I stated as the critical components of an email. Thus, they should define your first two sentences. Start your email by composing a summary of what the email is about and if you want a response, specify your request immediately thereafter.

If you are including details or data preemptively, add them in the next paragraph using bullet points or a list. This is effective because it parallels the cognitive process going on as the recipient reads your email. First they want to know why you are contacting them and once they deem that information relevant and important they become curious about the details.

If after going through the process outlined above you still feel compelled to write more, consider a few of your alternatives to lengthy emails:

Write a newsletter or blog. If you find you write the same lengthy email each month or each week to keep people updated, consider creating a newsletter or blog instead.

Use a different communication strategy. If you are asking more than one or two questions in your email, you will save collective time if you speak directly instead. Call or meet. If you need to ask many questions of many people, consider sending a survey.

Attach a document or link to a web page. If you expect people to need to refer to the information in the future, give it to them in a format that won't get buried or deleted. And if you can explain yourself better using graphics, visuals, screenshots, or flowcharts rather than words, do it!

What’s the longest email you have ever sent or received?

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