Writing Effective Emails

Although email is now only one of a growing variety of on-line forms of communication, you will find that a great deal of your communication with faculty will take place via email.  After graduation, students find email to be very important in the realms of business and government work.  A well-constructed email communicates effectively and at the same time makes a favorable impression on the recipient.  It is therefore worthwhile to develop some good email habits.

  1. First of all, always fill in the subject line.  Most of us receive a huge volume of email daily.  When I see my inbox, all that shows for each message is the sender’s name or address, subject line, time received, and size of the message.  I get a lot of spam, and if the name and subject lines don’t ring a bell, I delete the message.  A lot of people simply delete any email that doesn’t have a subject line.
  2. Next, make the subject meaningful.  I have received thousands of emails with the subject “Hello,” and I have to say that it doesn’t help at all.  All that says is “I’ve sent you a message,” which is pretty obvious to begin with.  Sometimes a student will put her name in the subject line, but that’s not where it belongs.   Here’s a radical suggestion: put something in the subject line that tells the recipient what the subject of your email is.  So if you’re asking about your grade on exam 3, put “grade on exam 3”.  If you’re informing the professor that you’re going to be absent two weeks from Friday, put “absence Friday, March 18.”  The subject line is your best chance to get the recipient's attention; use it wisely.
  3. Use standard punctuation, spelling, and grammar.  Email is not texting or chat; it’s one of the more formal means of online communication.  In particular, when you’re writing to a college professor, it makes sense to write like a college student.  Start sentences with capital letters.  Capitalize the word “I”, wherever it appears in a sentence.  Write full sentences with periods at their ends.  Spell words out fully.  Think of an email to a professor as a short writing assignment.  While it may not be graded, it still makes an impression on the recipient, and you want that impression to be “this is a good student”.
  4. Make your point clearly and fully.  You can’t imagine how often I get an email that says something like “When is this test?” and nothing else.  Remember that you’re not the only student a professor has contact with, and, superhuman though we may seem, most of us can’t actually read minds.  In the above example, there are some obvious unanswered questions, notably “what test?”  Provide full context for your question.  What class are you discussing, what section of the class, etc.  Look at what you’ve written, imagine you are the recipient, and say “Would I understand what this is about?”  Then add any missing details.  You can relax this standard somewhat if the email is part of a series of replies; when a previous email is included below your new message, the context may be obvious.  Still, when in doubt, explain more.
  5. Sign your email.  You probably want the recipient of your email to know who sent it.  Almost any email software (Outlook, Eudora, etc.) allows you to construct a standard signature and automatically add it to your emails.  If you aren't using such a program, you should just get in the habit of adding a signature to every email.  The signature should include your name (it may show up in the address line, but it won't hurt to repeat it) and your phone number, at a minimum.   If you’re writing in an official position (say you’re an officer in an organization and you’re emailing about organization business), your title and organization should appear.   Unless you want people to respond to a different email address, you don’t need to include it in the signature, as the recipient can just hit “reply” to respond.


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