How to Write Effective Emails

9 rules for writing an email that's easy to answer

Many of us did not learn to write emails in school, yet knowing how to write an email is an invaluable skill in the workplace. This is particularly true for those working in (or looking for) telecommuting jobs. Next to good phone etiquette, there is probably no skill as important as email when it comes to getting--and keeping--a work-at-home job.

A well-written email makes it easy for the recipient to understand and act on its message. In the job search, email may precede or even replace the face-to-face first impression, so proper punctuation and a coherent message is key. And on the job, unclear emails cause confusion and delays. Follow these tips to write effective emails to colleagues, clients, potential clients, hiring managers, and even friends and family.

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First, Consider the Message and the Recipient

Woman writing email on computer

Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

An email should start in your mind, not with your fingers on the keyboard. In order to write email effectively, first, consider why are you writing. What kind of response do you want? What message do you wish to impart? If you are requesting information, applying for a job or inquiring about openings, be sure your request for action by the recipient is clear.

Next, consider the point of view of the recipient. What information do they need to take action or understand your message? Give necessary (but not excessive) background information. Also, keep in mind appropriate etiquette for this particular recipient. Emoticons and abbreviations, like OMG or LOL, are not appropriate for job applications and most business email.

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Write a Descriptive Email Subject Line

When you write an email, do not write something vague in the subject line like "hi" or "work-at-home jobs" or leave it blank. Emails with this kind of subject line have a good chance of ending up in the recipient's spam box or simply ignored. If you are applying for a job, put the name of the position in the subject line. If the email is to a colleague, make your subject line a short phrase that sums up the purpose of the message.

Another benefit of writing a descriptive subject line is that it will be easier for you to find in your inbox if you need to search it out later. Something with an email line like "Question" will not be helpful, though.

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Greet the Recipient Properly

If you know the name of your recipient but don’t personally know them, greet by using a title, eg. Dear Ms. Brunelli. (Use “Ms.” for women when uncertain whether “Mrs.” or “Miss” is appropriate.) If you are uncertain about gender, simply use the first and last name, i.e. Dear Chris Smith. If you don’t know the person’s name, begin your email with no greeting or use a simple greeting, eg. Hello, Greetings, Dear Manager, etc.

If the email is to a colleague or someone else you know, use the name you would use in person or on the phone.

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Use Correct Grammar and Punctuation

It's very important to use correct grammar in an email. Consciously or subconsciously, readers penalize senders for grammatical errors.

  • Run-On Sentences - When you write an email, don't spare the periods. That small pause gives readers time to take in the words' meanings. Short sentences allow for more of these tiny pauses. Break up long sentences even when they are not technically run-on sentences.
  • Commas - Too few or too many commas can be confusing. Learn to use the comma correctly.
  • Subject-Verb Agreement - Sentences with this type of error are red flags for employers seeking candidates with good communication skills. Review rules for subject-verb agreement.
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Check Spelling and Capitalization

Use a spell checker, but don't rely on it. A spell checker won't catch "they" for "the" or "there" for "their," and this type of error indicates carelessness. Do not use texting abbreviations such as "u" for "you" or "tho" for "though."

Use correct capitalization. Most people know to capitalize the beginning of the sentence and proper nouns, but many fail to do so in emails. Show that you don’t mind taking that extra fraction of a second to hit the shift key. On the other hand, too many capital letters can distract the reader. Avoid writing phrases in all caps (which many interpret as the equivalent of screaming in person) as well as capitalizing, just for emphasis, the first letter of words that are not at the beginning of a sentence or proper nouns.

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Use Simple Formatting in Email

Remember that email programs all display differently. What looks perfectly aligned on your screen may run together on someone else's. For this reason, avoid pasting a highly formatted word-processing document, like a resume or cover letter, in an email. Use documents that are written in plain text format. 

Make paragraphs short. Like periods, paragraph breaks give the reader's eye a rest. Someone reading email on a cell phone will benefit from short paragraphs. But be careful to still follow basic rules regarding paragraphs.

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Be Concise

Meandering emails that bury the point get tabled and eventually forgotten. Or worse, they may be misunderstood. Make your purpose clear, using concise language.

  • Eliminate WordinessWrite with active verbs. "Jack sent me the forms" uses an active verb. "The forms were sent to me by Jack" is passive. The passive form only uses a few more words, but it adds up. More than that, it requires readers to rearrange the ideas in their heads.
  • Stick to the Point - Resist the temptation to add extraneous information or ideas. Save these for another email.
  • Use Bullet PointsThese allow your reader to use visual clues to take in what's important. But if in doubt about how bullets will display, use asterisks or hyphens to create bullets.
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Sign Email Appropriately

If your email defaults to a standard signature, be sure it is appropriate for the particular email you are sending. Signatures with political statements or the names and ages of your children are fine for personal email, but for work use a less personal signature. Depending on your job and your employer, you may still personalize your email signature with a quote. Choose something non-controversial. If you are inquiring about a job, use your signature to give appropriate contact information without any quotes or extra personalization.

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Reread/Rethink Before Hitting Send

Check for spelling and punctuation errors before you hit send. If you find an error in an email for a job application, fix it, then reread again before you hit send. But also reread for content. If your email is long, think about ways to make it more concise. And if your email is controversial or was written in anger, hit save not send. Come back to it a few hours or a day later and see if you still want to send it.

This may sound like a lot to do before sending an email, but if you are sending effective emails and are more efficiently organizing your email, you will find you actually have more time not less.