One of the best ways to strengthen your writing is to send important emails in plain text. Rich text effects–bold, italics, highlighting, and underline–are the empty calories of online communication–they can satisfy a quick need for an instant eye-catch, but relying on them over a long time will make your writing flabby and weak.

We all work with someone whose long, rambling emails contain a sentence that looks like this:

This is the IMPORTANT part: pay attention!

The writer realizes that the recipient needs a map through their forest of words, and these visual cues create guide posts highlighting what is critical and what can be ignored.

This approach has two problems:

  1. If there’s filler in your email that can be ignored, take it out.
  2. Over time, people get used to ignoring everything that isn’t highlighted.

If you’ve eradicated all unnecessary filler and still have a lot of text, fight the urge to use the sugar-rich visual cues of bold, underline, italics, exclamation points, and highlighting. Why? Because your colleagues use them liberally, and busy people have been conditioned over the years to react to them in these ways:

  • We assume you have not taken out the filler, and we are likely to skim or ignore large parts of what you wrote.
  • We assume you lack confidence in your points, and that you are trying to dress them up to make them seem more credible.
  • We assume that you believe we are either incapable of or unwilling to read and understand what you’ve written, and as a result we may feel untrusted or disrespected.
  • We assume you’re trying to sell us something, and we may approach your highlighted points with more skepticism than we should.

So if you shouldn’t highlight with these cues, what can you do in those (necessarily) long emails to make sure your main points get the attention they deserve?

Begin with good organization. You can choose from several approaches to present complex information; pick one that fits your topic and the nature of what you need to communicate. A sequential description (A led to B led to C which leaves us at D) may be good when a lot of background is needed, but it can distract when that background really is just filler. An executive summary may be useful for informing someone of a decision, but it might not work if you’re asking many people for input on a complex problem. Whatever structure you choose, make sure the structure supports the information and not the other way round. If you find yourself adding extra information, or twisting your words to fit a prescribed structure, then you’ve chosen the wrong structure.

Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.
Editing Pony sneers at ALL CAPS.

Put each key point at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Either make your point and then defend it, or provide the necessary information and conclude with the key point. If you feel an itch to highlight or bold something in the middle of a paragraph, restructure your paragraph.

Don’t forget the negative space. White space can create visual pauses, separate ideas, and refresh the reader’s attention. It’s also a signal to the reader that the previous point is done.

Bullet lists force brevity. Each bullet in a list should be concise and easy to digest at a glance. As a general rule, if your bullet is more than two sentences, it should be a paragraph instead of a bullet. Good bullet lists also provide a refreshing visual break in paragraphs of text.

Stay away from tables. People love to put complex information in tables, but inevitably a table will end up carrying empty cells. These are visual trip hazards; an empty cell feels like a mistake. So what do you think happens to empty cells? That’s right: they get filled with unnecessary words, distracting from our main points.

Write well. Use simple, direct sentences with strong nouns and verbs. Eliminate equivocations and adjectives. Learn to use commas properly, and for everyone’s sake spell things right. Read it over many times from the beginning for flow, clarity, and even cadence. Read it out loud. Fix awkward parts.

Finally, cultivate your own reputation for tight, efficient communication. We all dread hearing from people who always speak ten minutes longer than they’re allocated, but we like speakers who finish on time or early. If people know you as someone who doesn’t speak much but who says important things, you will find yourself using bold, italics, underline, highlighting, all caps, and exclamation points less and less.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.

State clearly; ask clearly

If you can’t make your email easy to understand and act on, don’t send it.

Most of work email is about one of three things:

Any questions?
  • Informing people of something important,
  • Asking someone to do something for you, or
  • Amusing your closest friends with clever snark.

If your email isn’t one of those, don’t send it. If it must be sent, then respect the recipients’ time by doing these three things.

Be clear and concise

Most people who think they are great communicators are, in fact, terrible writers. My wife (an experienced teacher of writing) and I were lamenting yesterday that school teaches kids that good writing requires more words–add description, adjectives, DETAILS! Dead wrong, especially in business writing. More on this in future posts, but about work emails I want to say just these two points today:

  • Stick to the central point(s). Eliminate backstory. Eliminate details that are already known to the recipients. Eliminate distractions. The longer your email, the less attention your main point will get.
  • Use clear, direct language and sentence structure. Your reader should understand your point on the first reading. This isn’t always possible for complex topics, but it should be your goal. Don’t strive to make your email understandable; strive to make it impossible to be misunderstood.
No “quick question” email has EVER had a quick answer.

Set up the right response

Before you send your email, know what you want, and who you want it from. Don’t send your email until you are clear on those two points and have made it obvious in the text. Bad emails fail this in two main ways:

  • Pussyfooting around the question, or burying it in the middle. Don’t make the recipient work to find your question, or to figure out what you need from them. If I have to dredge your question from a bog of muddy text, I’m going to think you don’t really know what you’re asking, or I’m going to suspect you’re trying to hide something. Make your question or request clear, and set it apart where I’ll see it.
  • Not asking anyone in particular. When your question goes to a group, often no one will respond because they hope someone else will. Perhaps you’re sending it to the group because it’s a complicated issue that needs input from multiple people and you don’t know where to start. I’ve found that either asking a pointed question of one individual on the list, or stating outright that I need help and don’t know where to start, gets things rolling.

Reread and rewrite

If you don’t take time to make your email easy for me to read and respond to, I am going to set it aside for later.

Did that sound arrogant and dismissive to you? Did you think, “That’s really rude. I would hate to be his coworker”?

When I get a wordy, rambling, ambiguous, or difficult email, I know the sender prioritized their own time over mine. They decided it was easier to make me decipher their word maze than to take a few extra minutes and clarify their message. They may have saved a few of their own minutes, but they cost me extra time and effort, which delays their answer.

Now imagine that multiplied by everyone on the distribution list. If six people get your email, that’s six times the deciphering effort. It’s far more efficient to the group for you to spend a couple extra minutes editing.

In other words

State clearly; ask clearly. Get to the point. Eliminate distractions. Guide the reader to your request, and make it obvious who needs to respond.

If you can’t do those things, you’ve got either lazy editing skills, or lazy thought. Either way, you’ll end up frustrated that no one is responding. If no one responds, reread what you sent before blaming them. Over time, your effort will be rewarded when your coworkers pay more attention to your emails than other people’s, without even realizing it.

The Editing Pony

The Editing Pony is a new blog series about good business writing. I’ll post periodic tips and gladly critique and rewrite emails or one-pagers for you in a blog post. Contact me to learn more.

Why a pony? A writer friend said she hadn’t edited in ages, but she was “getting back up on that pony.” Thus, the Editing Pony was conceived, to trample your words with ruthless, plush cuteness.