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Guide for writing effective email messages

Much of our daily communication is managed via email so it is essential that we understand the benefits and pitfalls inherent in this communication form.

Email is speedy and efficient. However, poorly written email messages reflect on your professionalism and that of your organisation. If your message is ambiguous, it may not be understood correctly and may end up being ignored or causing duplicate work. Tone is difficult to convey in an email and could create the wrong impression, annoying or upsetting the recipient. Well-written, structured emails not only assist your recipient to manage their influx of email more efficiently, they also reflect positively on you. This guide is designed to give you some quick pointers on how to write effective email messages.

 

Send an email 

The correct usage of To, Cc and Bcc

The use of the ToCc and Bcc fields has different meanings in an email message. They indicate who should take action on the email. However, they are often incorrectly used and this can cause confusion about who is supposed to be doing something - or not.

Used effectively, they can be likened to a RACI chart, indicating who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed.

 

Use this option... to indicate Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed
To R A

the person(s) who will action any requests in the email

Cc (carbon copy or more commonly referred to as the courtesy copy) C I

for information purposes only

no action required from the recipient(s)

Bcc

(blind carbon copy)

C I

protects the privacy of recipients who don't know each other and who don't want their email addresses distributed to unknown audiences

 

Etiquette tip: Mention at the top of the email that the Bcc field was used to address the email message to a wider audience.

 

The subject line 

Use a short, strong subject line that indicates the content of the message and possibly any action that is required. This will help your reader to prioritise his/her time in terms of reading and responding to your message.

Commonly used subject line abbreviations
RR Reply requested 
AR Action Required
AB Action By (date)
NRR No Reply Required
FYI For Your Information
NWR Not Work Related (Personal emails)
Y/N Yes or No (All the writer requires is a Yes or No)

Build your subject line in such a way that it summarises your message content and what you want back from the reader

Subject line Translation
RR 30 April Design plan Reply required by 30 April about the Design plan
NRR FYI Molecular structure of glucose No Reply Required, For your information, Molecular structure of glucose
Y/N Kirstenbosch Gardens Outing 12 March A Yes or No reply is all that is required regarding this outing to Kirstenbosch Gardens

 

Basic email structure

Your email message should be structured as follows:

  • Greeting
  • Body of the email
    • Introduction - briefly explain the reason for the message (one sentence)
    • Main point - what is your purpose, explain what action is required by the recipient (one paragraph)
    • Supporting information - details, supporting information (one paragraph)
    • Next steps - explain what, if anything, happens next (one paragraph)
    • Conclusion - one closing sentence
  • Salutation
  • Signature

 

The greeting

Your greeting will depend on the formality of the email content and on your relationship with the person to whom you are writing. It is good practice to start off more formally and then to adapt your level of formality in subsequent exchanges.

If it is a first contact, then use a more formal greeting and ensure that you use the correct form of address, including the use of their title, e.g. Associate Professor Jones and not Mr Jones. If you are unsure of the correct title, ensure that you find out what it is before proceeding.

If you are corresponding with a colleague with whom you have an established relationship, be guided by their preferred style of communication and form of address. Some people prefer to keep all business communications formal, whilst others may quickly adopt more informal tone and address. Match your writing style to your correspondent's - not the other way around.

 

Structure the body of the email for speed and ease of reading
  • Be concise
    A generally accepted length is 3 short paragraphs per email message. Anything longer and people won't read the whole message.

  • Use headings
    If you must exceed 3 paragraphs, use meaningful headings to break the content into sections and use them to reinforce your message.

  • Communicate action steps first, not last
    This helps to ensure that your request is seen and actioned. People rarely read the whole message, often stopping after the first paragraph. Ensure that your main point is not buried in the last paragraph.

  • Number your points/questions
    This makes it easier for the reader to see all your points and facilitates their response.

 

Say goodbye

Don't forget to end off your email message with the correct salutation. It is not sufficient to simply append your signature to an email message; you should always include the appropriate salutation.

The same principle applies to salutations as to greetings; match the level of formality to the tone of your message and to your relationship with your correspondent. For example, it would not be wise to end a formal email message with a chatty, informal "Cheers" or "See you", instead use the more formal and accepted "Regards" or "Kind regards". However, once you are on more familiar terms with your correspondent, you may feel comfortable relaxing your salutation.

 

Create a good signature
  • Always include a signature. The recipient should not have to search for contact details if they want to pick up the phone and talk to you.
  • Create more than one signature: a formal UCT signature for initial contact with colleagues and for external use; and an informal one for internal use once you have established a working relationship with a colleague.
  • Do not use emoticons in your UCT signature.
  • Do not append any quotes (famous, personal, inspirational or religious) to your UCT signature.
  • If your department has not standardised on a signature format, ensure that your signature has this information as a minimum:
    • Full name
    • Title
    • Department name
    • Division/Faculty name
    • University name
    • University address
    • Your phone number
    • Your fax number
    • Your Skype name/Instant Messenger name (optional)
    • Website address (optional)
    • Email address (optional)
  • Do not use your UCT signature on personal email messages. Instead, consider using a separate email account for all personal email using a service such as Hotmail, Gmail and the like.

 

Reply to an email

What action to take as a recipient
  • To:
    If you are in the "To" field, the expectation is that you are the person (or one of the people) responsible for actioning the request and replying to the email.
  • Cc:
    If you are in the "Cc" field, you are being copied as a courtesy for information purposes only.
    You are not expected to action the request - or even to reply - unless you have something valuable to add. In which case, do not use the "Reply All" option; reply only to the person who sent you the email.
  • Bcc:
    If you are in the "Bcc" field, you may have been included as a means of protecting the identity of all the recipients and can therefore "Reply" to the sender. You may also have been included so that the sender could inform you of something without alerting the other recipients. This "cover your back" use of Bcc is generally frowned on.
DOs
  • Respond promptly
    If you don't have time to offer a full response, indicate this immediately and tell the person when they could expect a reply.
  • Activate an out of office reply
    If you are not able to access your mailbox for more than a day, activate your out of office reply and offer an alternate contact in the message.
  • Use "Reply" instead of "Reply All"
    It is considered bad form to use "Reply All". Instead use "Reply" to respond only to the sender of the email and then make judicious use of the Cc or Bcc fields to add certain individuals. Very rarely does everyone from the original email need to see your reply.
    (See: Figure 1: RACI chart for email addresses)
  • Delete unnecessary sections of the original message
    This reduces the overall size of the message as it travels back and forth through the mail system.
  • Read the message carefully and stay calm
    Remember that tone is not always correctly conveyed in a written email. Ensure that you haven't misunderstood the intent of the writer. When in doubt, pick up the phone and talk to each other instead.
  • Respond to all points/questions
    Ensure that you have answered all questions posed or covered as many of the points from their email as you can. If you are not able to answer one, don't just leave it out, state that you don't have a response.
DON'Ts
  • Don't reply if you are not advancing the conversation
    Answers such as "Me too", "Thanks" or "Ok" do not add to the conversation.
  • Don't change the subject line when replying
    This makes it difficult to use conversation threads. If you want to change the topic, create a new message.
  • Don't alter what someone else wrote
    When forwarding a message, by all means add your own comments above the forwarded message, but do not make any alterations to the original text.
  • Don't send an angry email
    Sleep on it and then re-read and rephrase if necessary the following day.
  • Don't forward a message without first asking permission
    The author may not want you to send their message to anyone else.
  • Don't reply to the whole mailing list
    Mailing lists often contain hundreds of email addresses. Reply only to the sender or to the mailing list itself to prevent unnecessarily flooding people's mailboxes.

 

Good email etiquette

These are accepted guidelines for good email etiquette.

The use of Urgent, Reply by and Read receipts

Most email software allows the sender to indicate priority (urgentmediumlow) and other sending options such as Reply requested by and read receipts.

Used with restraint these can aid the recipient in dealing with your message. Over-used they become an annoyance and may be considered rude.

 
DOs
  • Be diplomatic and courteous
    Tone is hard to convey and easy to misunderstand. Re-read your email before sending it to ensure that your message is courteous, unambiguous and sincere.
  • Include deadlines, where applicable
    Most busy people appreciate knowing when their response is required so that they can schedule it into their workload.
  • If you include an attachment, mention it in the body of the email
    This ensures that the recipient knows that there is an attachment and helps them to see it in context of your email. If you include several attachments, then list them all.
  • Check your spelling and grammar before hitting "Send"
    There is nothing you can do once it has gone. Use your Spellchecker and read the message over twice before sending.
  • Check attachments before sending
    Have you attached the files you mentioned in the message? This is a common oversight.

 

DON'Ts
  • Don't pretend to be someone else
    Don't forge someone's name or email address. It is illegal to impersonate someone else.
  • Don't forward chain letters, spam messages or virus threats
    Delete these types of messages. When in doubt, check with the IT Helpdesk.
  • Don't send unsolicited email messages
    Don't contribute to people's already overloaded mailboxes by sending "junk" mail.
  • Don't type in uppercase
    This is considered to be JUST AS RUDE AS SHOUTING at someone in person.
  • Don't use background images, colours or animations
    They add to the overall size of the email and often "trail" into a reply.

 

Legislation affecting electronic communications

Stay informed
  • Stay up-to-date with legislation
    The Protection of Personal Information Act applies to personal information that is collected, stored or disseminated by automated or non-automated processes. This would include information that you share via email and other electronic methods.

  • Protection of personal information
    Keep personal information about individuals in an email to a minimum, restrict your list of recipients to only those who need the information and don't forward emails containing personal information without first considering whether this is necessary.

  • Emails are public records
    What you write in an email may become public. Be mindful about its contents.

  • Email is not a secure technology
    Be careful about sending confidential or sensitive information in an email. You don't know if it could be intercepted.