Tips for making sure your email doesn’t get tossed

The designation TL;DR stands for ‘Too long; didn’t read,’ and it’s a death knell for your missive. Try these steps to ensure your message gets the attention it deserves.

I opened the email from my smartphone. Then, I closed it.


If you’re not familiar with TL;DR, it means “too long; didn’t read.”

Most working professionals don’t have time for lengthy, information-packed emails. We’re inundated with information, most of which we access through a mobile device. Add to that our innate desire for self-preservation, which is a nice way of saying that even the kindest among us are thinking of our own needs first:

  • Why should I care?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • How will this help me?

Within seconds of opening your message, readers decide whether to continue reading or file it under “TL;DR.”

Here are some quick steps to avoid the latter:

Ask: What’s my point?

The most effective emails have a big idea or central point. What big idea do you want to communicate? Think about the goal of your email. Do you want to incite action, influence thinking or simply inform? If you’re not clear about why you’re communicating, then your reader won’t be either.

OK, now get to it.

Once you know why you’re sending the email, don’t waste words getting to your point. Most people skim emails for important details so don’t force them to scroll or swipe to get what they need. After a brief, but polite, opening get to the meat of your message: Make your request, give key information, or communicate a deadline.

Trim the fat.

Your “writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things [you] can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there,” says William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well.” Focus on your big idea, provide essential information to orient the reader, and then ruthlessly prune clutter. For example, choose short, one-syllable words over long words: “initial” (first), “attempt” (try), “assistance” (help), “in order to” (to), and the list goes on.

Think visually.

Words are important, but just as important is the physical presentation of your message. A succession of long, dense paragraphs discourages readers, whereas crisp, spacious paragraphs invite them to continue reading. Bulleted lists help, too. When it comes to sentences, similar rules apply: Think short. Be succinct.

Write actionable subject lines.

Nothing inspires inaction like a boring, generic subject line: Q4 report. Give people a reason to open your email by writing attention-getting subject lines that make it clear why your email is important. If you want the reader to take action, then say so in the subject line: Feedback requested on Q4 financials (attached). Also, keep subject lines brief, usually no more than 55 characters.

Consider your timing.

Send messages when you expect your reader will be available to read it. For most, that means emailing during normal work hours, though there may be instances when sending a very early email or late-night message is appropriate. Also, think about the timing of your message in relation to current events in your office or around the world. You want to be sensitive to external influences that can affect how your message is received.

Email is the default communication tool in most organizations. Your writing approach demonstrates your ability to think clearly and articulate your point. When your emails are too long, too complicated and too time-consuming, you risk being overlooked and unheard.

Use the above methods to avoid letting your next email slip into the TL;DR abyss.

Michele Richardson is the founder of Inciteful Communications, a company that shows leaders and organizations how to build influence, impact and inspiration through better communication. A version of this article originally appeared on the Inciteful Communications blog.

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