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Writing Good Emails

How much of your time do you spend writing, replying to, and second-guessing emails?

Research shows that workers in the U.S. spend an average of two to three hours a day checking their work emails, and an additional two hours on personal emails. In other countries, like India and Australia, the trend is similar. With the increasing rise of remote and hybrid workplaces, this frequency — along with email fatigue, burnout, and job dissatisfaction — are growing. What can you do to get some of those hours back?

If you want to spend less time fretting before hitting “send,” you need to get better at crafting a great message. In fact, cultivating this skill will do more than save you time. It will improve your reputation as a thoughtful team member, and help you articulate your ideas clearly, grow your influence, avoid unnecessary back-and-forths, and actually get things done.

Here are a few basic guidelines that will keep your emails clear, concise, and productive.

Step 1: Identify what you want your email to convey.

Before crafting your message, ask yourself: What outcome do I hope this email brings? What do I want the recipient to do?

For instance, are you looking for a status update on a project? Are you trying to secure a time for a one-on-one meeting with a team member? Are you hoping the recipients will participate in your survey?

Pro tip: As you begin writing, think of your words as the call to action that you want your recipients to perform. This mindset will help you craft a message with clear intention.

Step 2: Edit your recipient list.

Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), carefully select who you need to perform the outcome you’ve identified. If you’re looking to schedule a one-on-one meeting, for instance, the required recipient will be obvious. But if you’re looking for a status update on a project, you may need to be more thoughtful when putting together your recipient list.

Ask yourself: Who has the information I’m looking to acquire? Will one team member be able to share it with me, like a team lead or a project manager? Or do I need to include multiple team members? If so, who is absolutely necessary to include? Who isn’t?

If you want to include someone just as an FYI or CC a person to keep them in the loop, write a short note to the email thread when you add new recipients, so everyone has context. In general, though, avoid sending a message to an entire team of people if you only need to talk to one or two. Similarly, don’t CC your boss on all emails that don’t require their oversight.

Knowing who the email is for will help you craft a more personalized message.

Pro tip: When responding to emails, set your default to “Reply” rather than “Reply all” so you don’t flood people’s inboxes unnecessarily.

Step 3: Tailor your subject line.

In the age of infinite scrolling, most of us are quickly scanning the text in our inboxes and prioritizing messages that feel critical to respond to. You need a standout subject line to get your email noticed. A clear subject line can also serve as a “north star,” and help you stay on track when crafting the body of the message.

How do you write it?

Revisit the outcome you identified in Step 1 and use a verb or a phrase to indicate what action you want the recipient to take. This will give them a preview of your intentions before they open the email. Use precursors like “Decision:”; “Action Required:”; “Feedback:”; or “For Your Information:” depending on the context of the message.

Here are a few examples of strong vs. weak subject lines that you can emulate and adjust for your own message:

Example 1: You want your boss to make a decision on your proposal.

Example 2: You need action from a team member to meet a project deadline.

 Example 3: You want a colleague to provide feedback.

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