The Art of Writing E-mail
by Gerardo San Diego

Introduction

It simply comes down to making others understand. Yet people treat writing e-mail as either a chore, a waste of time, or worst, a lesser form of communication. Because of this, it isn't given the same amount of care and attention as putting pen to paper.

So what if penmanship isn't seen, or that the stationery doesn't matter? So what if everything becomes left-justified or gets truncated during transmission? Doesn't this mean that the words themselves become even more important than ever before?

In this section are some guidelines that I use when composing an electronic letter - if simple words aren't able to convey the message properly, we're using the wrong alphabet.

 

1. USE APPROPRIATE SALUTATIONS
2. MAKE THE SUBJECT MATTER MATTER
3. KEEP A DICTIONARY HANDY
4. INSERT "BREATHS" OF EMPTY SPACE
5. NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY, SMILEY FACES WORK
6. WHEN IN DOUBT, PREFACE
7. INCLUDE PREVIOUS MESSAGE
8. COMPRESS THOSE FILE ATTACHMENTS
9. REREAD BEFORE PUSHING THAT "SEND" BUTTON
10. BE POLITE, AND RECIPROCATE GOOD DEEDS
11. ANTICIPATE, EMPATHIZE, UNDERSTAND

Use Appropriate Salutations

When used well, salutations are an effective way to set the atmosphere of the letter. Think of it as a handshake, another way to greet your reader. It allows the reader to get into the right frame of mind, preparing him for your message.

Choose your salutations wisely; starting off a letter with a simple "Hello" is very different from a more casual "Hi there," or a downright comfortable "Howdy." Including the reader's name in the salutation lets him know that you've written the message specifically for him.


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Make the Subject Matter Matter

Your e-mail's Subject Heading is one of the first things that your reader will see. Oftentimes, and especially during sorting, it's the only way you can distinguish one letter from the next. Make it count. We all know that your letter contains "stuff" that you've written-putting "Stuff" as the Subject Heading is just as useless as not putting anything at all.

And when it comes to back-and-forth messages with the same subject matter, it's easier to keep track of things if you alter the Subject Heading to match the current phase of conversation. Here's a series of sample Subject Headings:



   (Original message)   Subject: King Arthur

          (1st Reply)   Subject: King Arthur

          (2nd Reply)   Subject: King Arthur

          (3rd Reply)   Subject: King Arthur

          (4th Reply)   Subject: King Arthur

Notice that since the Subject Headings don't change with each subsequent reply, you have no idea how the conversation is evolving, or what is being discussed other than King Arthur. Now try this:



   (Original message)   Subject: King Arthur

          (1st Reply)   Subject: Sir Parsival

          (2nd Reply)   Subject: Parsival's a ninny

          (3rd Reply)   Subject: What about Guinevere?

          (4th Reply)   Subject: Get her to a nunnery

Just from reading the Subject Headings, you can now get an idea where the conversation is going.


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Keep a Dictionary Handy

First of all, it's just good practice. Secondly, you'll be more confident when "experimenting" with new words and phrases. As long as you verify that what you're writing is spelled correctly and is used in the proper context, you'll naturally increase your wordpower and further enhance your own writing style. And this will, in turn, make your letters more enjoyable to read, and easier to understand.

Note: From my experience, the most subtle (and polite) way of letting someone know of their misspellings is to simply reply with the word(s) correctly spelled - no need to call it out, just let your reader notice his own error. In turn, pay attention when your own misspellings are corrected -- don't worry, it happens to everyone.



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Insert "Breaths" of Empty Space

It is very hard to focus on one thing when all of your thoughts and ideas and lunch plans and computer questions and computer answers and universally cosmic ponderings are crammed together into one paragraph that never breaks and you just keep going without inserting periods or commas or line spaces and just because this is how you yourself are thinking and you are completely lost in your train of thought does not mean that someone else is going to understand any of it and you should not expect them to so pay attention to how good stories are written especially when there is dialogue going on notice that there is a new line every time someone else new is talking or a new idea is introduced and try to separate Web addresses with blank lines or you'll wind up with something like hey dude check these sites out go here www.idjit.com www.goofus.com www.dorkwad.com and then everybody will be totally confused and will wind up not reading any of it.


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No Matter What They Say, Smiley Faces Work

Some call them emoticons, some call them smiley faces. And they're great when you really want to let your reader know what you're feeling, or how you'd like your reader to feel, and you just don't have the words nor the time to say so.

They're most appropriately used in casual e-mail, and most effective when used sparingly. I myself use them when I want to let the reader know that everything's okay, don't worry about it. Just as it's hard not to smile back when someone is smiling at you, the same goes for smiley faces.

:-)

See what I mean?

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When in Doubt, Preface

There's nothing worse than a misunderstood letter-everybody gets mad for no reason. I've found that this happens most often within personal criticisms, when even a well-intentioned comment, when phrased incorrectly, sounds harsh and condescending.

One way to avoid this is to begin your e-mail with why you are writing what you are writing, and how you have come to your conclusions. Then proceed with your comment. Emphasize that this is just your opinion, and that you could be wrong.

You are wrong, sometimes, aren't you?


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Include Previous Message

Some folks get dozens and dozens of e-mail a day, and chances are you're not the only one they're having a discussion with. To prevent misunderstanding, you should include all or at least part of the original message along with your reply, or at least reiterate the topic somewhere in your reply letter.

Imagine trying to figure out this e-mail:



     Hey Carl, sounds good.

Reiterating the original topic will help your reader know what you're talking about:



     Hey Carl, the barbecue this Saturday

     at 2pm sounds good. See you then.

If the original message is rather long, include it after your reply, using dashes or underlines to visually separate your reply from the original message. To help you out, most e-mail programs automatically include arrows or other markers to distinguish your reply from the original message.

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Compress Those File Attachments

To minimize download time, it's a good idea to compress any file that's over 100k in size, using programs like WinZip and PKZip. If you have to send multiple files and directories, compress all of them into one attached file. Also, make sure that you name your compressed file specifically, not some arbitrary name like:

file.zip

If you need to send a really large file, you may want to e-mail your recipient ahead of time, letting him know what time you'll be sending it over. If possible, send large files during off-peak hours, or during lunch, when computers aren't being used.

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Reread Before Pushing That "Send" Button

There's no greater finality than that split-second moment when your letter leaves your computer and enters the point of total commitment. Unlike sending surface mail, you don't even have time to address the envelope, lick it shut, put a stamp on it, go to the post office and drop it into the mailbox. Maybe if we had to use cyberstamps, we'd be more careful about what we send (not that I'm proposing cyberstamps, oh no...)

Have you also found yourself sending a follow-up letter, because you weren't really finished with your original thoughts, or you've suddenly gained a bit more sanity and would like to take some of those first words back? The problem with sending follow-ups, especially when the subject matter is the same, is that your reader may think you're just being redundant, and will not pay attention to the subsequent letters. Or your reader may be put off so much by your original letter that any of your following letters will not be read at all.

One way to avoid these moments of haste is to queue up your message to be sent at a later time. This will give you enough time to mull over what you've written, and rewrite it if necessary. And if, after taking all precautions, you still accidentally send something you didn't want to, write the words READ THIS FIRST! as the Subject Heading on your "real" letter, send that off, and pray that your reader hasn't already read the first one.

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Be Polite, and Reciprocate Good Deeds

The Internet is full of good people willing to help others, and they all deserve at least a "thank you" once in a while. And you'd be surprised at how well your favors will be answered if you include a "please" and thank the person ahead of time.

In turn, you should also offer to help others out with whatever answers you can provide.

Some common acronyms of politeness:



         TIA = Thanks In Advance

        IMHO = In My Humble Opinion

         HTH = Hope This Helps


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Anticipate, Empathize, Understand 

Regardless of rules of writing, of misspellings or protocol, here are some basics that we should at least consider:

Anticipate what questions your reader might want answered, and what messages your reader might infer from your letter. Write specifically so that your reader understands. Your writing style may change depending on your intended reader, and that's okay.

Empathize with your reader-he or she may be having a bad day or simply didn't understand what you were trying to communicate. Ask yourself, "If I were the other person, what part of this letter might have confused me?" If necessary, repeat your original message with a more specific explanation.

And understand that not everyone will be able to respond to your letters immediately, not everyone will write positive remarks all the time, and not everyone will be in the same exact mood as you when you send off that letter.

And when all else fails, you can always use the telephone.


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