Three Steps to Writing the Perfect Email

As I’m sure we’ve all noticed, we’re living in a fast-paced, competitive world where, whether we like it or not, the little things can make a big difference. When important decisions are affected by nuances and minute details, there is no better edge a person can hope to have than the ability to communicate effectively. From deciding where to go for dinner to how to resolve a world conflict, decisions of all magnitudes are largely influenced by how the involved parties communicate with each other. Yet despite the fact that we all communicate regularly, few of us seem as adept communicators as we could and should be.

Though spam-mail may be the tool of choice for foreign princes in need of your credit card info or office friends sending out cat videos, it is safe to say that email has by and large evolved into our go-to platform for formal interactions. While an occasional autocorrected text can be forgiven, it is imperative that your emails are immaculate. Now that it is more than just a means to forward the latest recycled gag chain, it’s the home of business correspondence, official documentation, and the sharing of important resources–you know, the stuff you want to get done right. In other words, understanding what makes a good email and what differentiates it from a bad one can go a long way.

There are three main questions when writing an email: What is the goal? What is the context? And, how do I plan to achieve that goal? These questions are the frames and umbrellas for everything that will make or break the quality of your email.

So, let’s start with the aim of the email. This may seem like an obvious and unnecessary thing to mention, but think about it– was your last email imbued with intention? Did you actually bother to ask yourself that question the last time you composed an email? It is always important to ensure that you are aware of what your overarching goal actually is, in order to have a hope of gauging whether what you are doing is right or not. It’s impossible to achieve your goals if you don’t even know what they are. And if you don’t know what they are, what could you possibly even be judging the effectiveness of your email by? The cleverness of your word choices? Sorry, but I suggest you save that for creative writing class and devote your energy here to determining whether you are seeking an important meeting with someone, trying to clarify some information, or trying to check up on a friend’s health condition. All three are different goals, and should be approached in three entirely different ways.

When it comes to the question of context, there is one word you need to keep in mind above all else–relationship. Who is the person you are writing to and what is the nature of your relationship with them? Even if your goal is exactly the same in two different cases, how you know a person and how well you know a person does affect the way your message will be perceived. A close friend is not going to view a request for an appointment the same way as a leading CEO whom you briefly met one time at a cocktail party ten years ago will. Same goal, same message, different context–solely because of who the person is and what your relationship with them is like. If you want your email to have its desired effect, understanding your audience and the nature of your relationship to them is an important step in the process.

Finally, the question of how comes into play. Having clarified your understanding of the prerequisite information in steps one and two, you now have to go about the actual doing part. You are now tasked with asking the other person to play their part in seeing your goal accomplished. To do that effectively, this is now the part where things like tone and grammar come into play–you know, all that annoying technical stuff people like to boringly explain in writing seminars but that you never feel like paying attention to. Well, I have good news and bad news here. The bad news is that this stuff actually does matter. The good news is that it takes nothing more than a small investment of your time and/or resources into learning how to do this well, or into arranging access to the right people or programs who can handle this on your behalf, to cover yourself on this front.  Ensuring that your spelling, grammar, tone, and writing style are all correct and professional can literally be the difference maker for you over and over again in the long run–especially when you are in competition with others who may or may not be doing this. How much would it suck to have everything an employer is looking for in a job candidate, only to lose out to someone less qualified because they took the time to craft their cover letter well while you left an unprofessional looking typo in the middle of a key sentence? Writing and editing your email well is at least a neutralizer in scenarios like that–and at other times can be the minute detail that puts you over the edge of victory.

So the next time you sit down to write an important email, make sure your writing process is being actively guided by these three questions. And I promise you’ll never have to worry about ending up in someone’s spam folder again.

Words by Mickey Hodges

Photography by Sean Pollock

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