11 common email blunders that everyone should avoid

Gone are the days of people perking up at the cheery ‘You’ve got mail!’ alert. Still, electronic missives are vital for conveying crucial information. Here are the pitfalls to sidestep.

How many emails do you produce each day?

How many of them are polite, effective and easy to read?

If you’ve ever had concerns about your ability to write winning emails, check this list to ensure you’re not making mistakes that trip up a surprising number of communicators:

1. You pay too little attention to the subject line. This includes sins such as:

  • Using a vague or non-specific line: “It’s almost here!” Instead, say exactly what your email is about: “XYZ Co. releases new baby monitor.”
  • Simply “replying” to a previously existing subject line without changing it, particularly if the initiating email has a bad subject line. So, instead of: “April 28 event gives you a chance to party,” change the subject line to what you’re writing about: “I can’t [or can] attend April 28 event.”
  • Writing a line that’s specific but way too long. The email delivery company MailChimp has analyzed 200 million real subject lines and found that 28 to 39 characters is the optimal length for the best open rates. Exceed 39 characters at your peril.
  • Leaving the subject line blank. A subject line is like a headline: No news site would ever publish stories without headlines, and you shouldn’t send out emails without them, either. Tell your readers what to expect, and help them decide whether they want to open the missive. Spend as much effort on the subject line as you do on the email.

2. You use ALL CAPS or only lowercase, or you abuse exclamation points. Using ALL CAPS seems like shouting.

Occasionally you can uppercase one entire word for emphasis, but it’s better to use italics. (Just don’t use italics for more than a couple of words; they’re harder to read.) Lowercase looks like laziness—that you didn’t bother to use the “shift” key when you were writing. This will make the reader feel disrespected. Using too many explanation points makes you look overly excited and untrustworthy. Worse, if the item isn’t exciting to everyone in your audience—e.g., “VP wins leadership award!”—the exclamation point makes you look deluded.

3. You use paragraphs that are too long or, worse, no paragraphs at all. Most people scan emails and feel irritated if the message looks daunting or overwhelming. Do your readers a favor by giving them short paragraphs separated by a line of blank space. The patch of white will make your message look much less frightening and a whole lot easier to read.

4. You send your emails to too many people. Think hard before you use the “reply all” button. I think it should be used as infrequently as the nuclear red phone in the White House. Most people don’t need all that much information from that many people.

5. You don’t respond in a timely fashion. Everyone knows emails arrived moments after they’re sent, so if people don’t get a response within 24 hours they feel irritated and disrespected. Even if you can’t answer right away, send a brief acknowledgement of receipt that indicates when you will reply.

6. Your message is unfocused or too long, or it covers too many points. Don’t jibber-jabber when you start; get straight to the point. Remember what some doctors tell you: only one problem per visit. The same is true of email: only one subject per email. This is hard to follow, because you’ll be tempted by “economies of scale” to jam in too much info (or ask as many questions). Don’t do it. Many people never discard emails and, instead, file them in folders for later reference. If your email has covered three subjects and the subject line reveals only one, they’re going to have a great deal of difficulty finding that email again. It’s particularly important to follow this rule if you’re asking your readers to do more than one thing.

7. You fail to distinguish between formal and informal emails. If you’re writing to your best friend or your mom, be as informal as you like. If you’re preparing a business email, keep it professional. Begin with “Dear” (rather than “hi”), introduce yourself if the reader might not know you, and don’t use jargon (it’s rude and isolating) or emojis (they’ll make you look young and perhaps irresponsible) and initialisms like ROFL or IMHO and LOL (not everyone knows what they mean).

8. You fail to edit. I’m a big believer in the crappy first draft. There’s a crappy first draft for emails as well. Don’t inflict it on your readers. Let your email incubate for at least an hour; then go back to edit. It’s not required for simple, straightforward emails, but it’s essential for important ones. Write the crappy first draft as fast as you can, and then spend at least as much time editing it. If the email is important, it’s well worth the time investment.

9. You fail to proofread. We all make mistakes when we’re writing. I was reading a document (not an email) for a client yesterday and discovered we’d written “If fact” instead of “In fact.” Thankfully, our professional proofreader caught the error. Almost no one can afford a professional proofreader for email, so here’s what I suggest: Temporarily change the typeface and point size of your email—I like Papyrus 18 point—and read the email aloud. If you perform both these actions, you’ll be able to catch most, if not all, of the errors.

10. You believe all emails are private. The security of emails is laughable. Whenever I’m emailing someone, I assume it could be read on the evening news. Quite apart from legal issues (it’s always possible your email will be caught up in a court case), think about how blisteringly easy it is to forward any email—or to make a mistake. Many years ago, my then-boss was ranting by email about a reporter. The trouble? He accidentally sent the email to the very reporter he was complaining about. The boss was deeply humiliated and (rightfully) had to make an abject apology to the wronged employee. If he’d been more careful, he wouldn’t have made the mistake. If he hadn’t sent the email in the first place, the issue would never have arisen. Don’t gossip or complain; if you must, do it in spoken conversation rather than email.

11. You let yourself respond in anger. I recently received a client email that deeply annoyed me. Knowing I was angry, I put it aside for half a day so I wouldn’t respond inappropriately. Once I was calmer, I thought about what I wanted the client to do (abandon his dumb idea), and I wrote a carefully crafted email that politely spelled out the drawbacks of his suggestion. Then, I concluded by giving him a choice and saying I’d follow whichever option he preferred. He told me I was right and let me go back to my original plan.

Email is an enormous burden on many professionals, adding hours of work to already busy days. Your electronic missives needn’t be high art, but nor should they make you appear careless or unprofessional.

This post first appeared on the Publication Coach blog.

(image via)


Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.