I'm a rambling woman...
March 8, 2014 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Lately I've noticed it takes me a looong time to write emails- with a lot of time spent re-reading, editing, taking words out and putting them back in. I am self-conscious that my first pass is heavy on text - not good for conveying information efficiently to coworkers and supervisors. It's really getting in the way of my ability to be efficient at work and starting to show in my performance. What can I do to work on this?

In the past year I've moved into a new role that requires lots of "influencing" (vs. previous results-driven, technical work.) I spend a lot of time communicating via email. I've noticed that it takes me a looong time to write emails. Sometimes I open an email to write a response and spend 30min on it. Then I decide not to send it just yet, come back to it in an hour and spend another 30-45min on it.

I am self-conscious that I write in a very conversational (read: rambling) way- not effective for conveying ideas efficiently to people who have much better things to do than to read my wall of text.

It's not just at work, either- even in emails with friends, I find myself writing, re-reading, and editing for sometimes the better part of an hour or even going through multiple drafts. In one I just wrote, for example, I took the time to change the phrase "a couple weeks" to "a week or two". Even though those two are basically identical, I took probably five seconds to re-read the sentence and make a conscious decision to change it. This is obviously wasteful: I am not writing a novella, I am telling my friend I will see her soon.

So how do I cut this out? Obviously there's some underlying issues here: self-confidence in ability to get the point across the first time, my inability to focus on the important information and get to the point concisely, probably a healthy dose of perfectionism... I have a notoriously loose "filter" and my "social sense" was a learned skill in early adulthood, so I am constantly checking to make sure I haven't offended someone.

Unfortunately what I probably really need (CBT?) is off limits due to my current living/working situation- what can I do in the mean time? The thought of setting a timer for 5 minutes and hitting send frankly terrifies me because of aforementioned "filter" issues--and the fact that most of my "re-writing" time is when I (attempt to) take out 80% of the ramblings.

Appreciate any insight from fellow ramblers- tips, books, exercises that have worked for you. Thank you!
posted by ista to Work & Money (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Here's your post edited down to what we truly need to know, for an example:

I've moved into a new role that requires a lot of time communicating via email. I've noticed that it takes me a looong time to write emails. I am self-conscious that I write in a very conversational (read: rambling) way- not effective for conveying ideas efficiently to people who have much better things to do than to read my wall of text. Sometimes it can take me hours to craft an email.

So how do I cut this out?

I like bullet points or, if you'd prefer, a brief outline. What is the information you're trying to convey or what is the goal you're trying to accomplish by sending this message? Give me one sentence, maybe two. Then that's it. If people need to know more, they'll ask. If it can't be condensed to 2-3 lines of text, then you probably need to talk to them on the phone or pursue other avenues of conversation, excepting big things like a report.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:24 PM on March 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm like you. I tend to spell things out a tad too much and analyze my text. I fear hurting feelings as well and dread a typo. I don't care as much nowadays. The proof is in more poorly edited AskMe responses.

My advice:

Don't overanalyze. This isn't a major problem You don't need CBT for this sort of thing. Practice writing more concise emails and see what happens. Feel the fear and hit send. There is a big universe out there and your friends and colleagues are not going to notice or care. Don't overthink this.

For work you might try bullet style. I used to write in paragraph style when communicating with my boss about daily issues. She is incredibly busy, and does not have time to read my paragraph. Now, I just communicate in short sentences, bullet style.
posted by Fairchild at 1:27 PM on March 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Heh, this sounds like me when writing an email.

What I'd try to do is write an outline with the points you want to get across, add any relevant supporting information, do a quick re-read for clarity, then click send. You might find this article on writing for the web helpful as well.
posted by Aleyn at 1:28 PM on March 8, 2014

Try experimenting with writing your messages with one sentence of introduction followed by a bulleted list of main points. This will probably help you get used to forming your ideas more concisely, and even if you're rambling within each bullet, it will be easier for them to read. When you must write in paragraphs, make sure each one starts with a topic sentence, just like we learned in grade school.
posted by metasarah at 1:41 PM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe you are an inherently distracted or rambling person, but this really just seems like you need to tailor your writing for the needs of your audience. Technical communication isn't about style or voice or personal perspective. It is about conveying facts in as clearly a manner as possible. Before you send an email, think about the person who is going to read it. Do they need to know X? If not, leave it out. They can always reply with a question if you missed something.

I also wonder what your company's work culture is like. Do you feel you don't get a chance to express yourself at work? Could you write a rambly journal or a blog as an outlet?
posted by deathpanels at 1:53 PM on March 8, 2014

Use your subject line as the to:dr version. That way, your readers get the point the minute it hits their inbox, and they don't have to open it to see what the subject is. And don't keep long chains going--cutting/pasting/summarizing is better and endless "see below" emails.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:02 PM on March 8, 2014

The things that finally stopped me from doing this with work emails were 1. having an incredibly crunched schedule and 2. having to use a new email system that I greatly dislike, so I now avoid writing work emails as much as possible.

I try to reuse wording from previous emails whenever I can—e.g., if there's something I need to explain to someone for the fifth time, I will just wholesale copy and paste my previous answer, with minor updates. Or if I'm sending out emails to people to request something I need—photos, a piece of text—I'll try to reuse my wording from past queries. Or if I'm sending out an assignment, I'll try to structure it the same way each time. That helps me get the email sent out more quickly and helps set expectations for where certain information will be in my correspondence.

Bullet points and numbering, as others have suggested above, are great. And get serious about topic sentences, both in the subject line and in each of your paragraphs; make sure that you're structuring your emails such that related topics are clustered together in paragraphs.

Now, when I get long, earnestly explanatory emails from a younger work colleague, I just kind of sigh—on one hand, I appreciate that he cares enough to throw himself into a written explanation of his thoughts like that, the way I used to (and I do miss our company's previously lively email banter), but on the other hand, ugh, don't make me spend hours of my time parsing your arguments and thoughts and writing back. I just don't have time.
posted by limeonaire at 2:16 PM on March 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Try giving yourself a budget. Say, no more than three paragraphs of three sentences each. I didn't exactly pull those numbers out of my ass--I've noticed in my own writing that a lot of my e-mails tend to follow roughly that structure.

Being a careful writer is a good thing, but try to dedicate that care to avoiding wasted time—time wasted reading your e-mail, time wasted going back and forth about what you meant, that sort of thing. I tend to spend a lot of time on my e-mail too, and its the ones where I don't that wind up wasting more time in the end.

Also, if you're like me, you clarify your thoughts in the process of writing. That is totally OK. Don't worry too much about spending time writing if you sharpen your ideas as you go.
posted by adamrice at 2:20 PM on March 8, 2014

As a person with adult diagnosed dyslexia this sounds like me! Perhaps that might be something to look into?
posted by Middlemarch at 2:35 PM on March 8, 2014

People don't even read long emails, and in fact I could only stand to read the first sentence of your rambling question, so make emails one line if possible.
posted by w0mbat at 2:36 PM on March 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Are you sure this is a problem?

I also work in an influencer role, and also take a very long time to write emails. I agonize over them, often even very short emails, like three or four sentences.

But you know what? They work. People respond. Relationships are maintained. I influence. So I figure I'm doing something right and thank my lucky stars for that blessing.
posted by alms at 3:03 PM on March 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm, what if you try to notice each time you get the impulse to fix something up or change it, and at that moment force yourself to ask the question, "What if this is okay just as it is?"

Your tone above isn't conversational or rambling, so what if, when you start thinking that it is, you were to ask yourself, "What if that's actually just in my head?" I'd like to add that it's kind of unlikely that you are actually overly conversational or rambling because it's not very usual that our worst fears about ourselves and the ones we worry about most earnestly are true. Usually the things that are wrong with us are things we are kind of blindsided to, like worrying too much about insignificant things ;-) If you're spending an undue amount of time choosing between "in the next couple of weeks" or "in a week or two" my take is that you are probably splitting hairs too much.
posted by mermily at 3:23 PM on March 8, 2014

If people are reading on mobile, they won't read past the first page. Anything they have to scroll for is wasted effort on your part.
posted by scruss at 5:43 PM on March 8, 2014

It sounds like you're doing it _right_. People who spend less time on things don't get the best results, and you will become faster over time. Experts, often, are those who know _how much time_ it really takes to do things properly.

Those one-line e-mails people sometimes send? They either a) rely on context, built up over time and along with relationships, or b) lead to misunderstandings, problems, or many follow-up messages.
posted by amtho at 6:35 PM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you want your emails to be friendly and likeable and this may be appropriate to the culture where you work. What are other emails like?

Maybe look for a few phrases that can convey your kind wishes without expanding the message portion. Another trick I use is a friendly first liner, then short headings with terse detail under them, followed by a super friendly sign off * depending on the audience.

Is there a concise helpful work friend who you can ask to quickly give your email the once over until you get the hang of self-editing it to you and your company's style.

* "I hope that helps! Please let me know if you have any questions!

Kind regards."
posted by RoadScholar at 6:52 PM on March 8, 2014

Nthing bullets.

That said, my process is writing + 2 read throughs. On each read through I tighten the language.
posted by jpe at 7:47 PM on March 8, 2014

Hooboy! I feel you on this one, as someone who just wrote an Ask Metafilter question so detailed that nobody answered it.

It depends what kind of email you're writing; I place a lot of orders for things, so of course I'm pretty specific in those ( I'm also super specific in my Ask Metafilter questions, because I want people to have ALL THE INFORMATIONS, but that doesn't work as well).

However, in most of my other work emails, I've found this process helpful:
1.) Figure out your bullet points (lists of instructions, priorities, main points) and write those first.
2.) Fill in the other information before and after your bullet points.

I often spend too much energy trying to introduce the entire email, instead of just writing it (I think I just did the same thing with this Metafilter comment!). Write the main bullet points first and sometimes they take care of themselves, and you can just tag on a quick "here's the info about ____." and be done with it.

Being clear and specific is valuable in communication; I value the fact that I don't send sloppy emails, and I think your edits are in good faith, but reducing the amount of material to edit is going to be a good first start. Bold text as headlines for different parts of the email can help if you require several paragraphs about different things; at least then the reader has something to move them through the text.

Basically, I try not to be like Perd Haply from Parks & Rec:
"I'm about to ask you a question right now, and that question is this."
"This is where the controversy of this story gets even more controversial."
"There you have it, where it is the thing Leslie Knope just said about this situation."
"The statement that this reporter has is a question."
"Issue number one is the first issue we're going to talk about."
"Let's begin the show by starting it."

posted by redsparkler at 7:53 PM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My suggestion: write quickly and freely to begn with, then read through twice to edit.

When you're reading through for the first time, don't change small things like words or phrases, and don't cut out single words. Read broadly and look at the larger picture —cut out whole paragraphs, say 5 sentences in one, reorder the paragraphs, that sort of thing.

Then do the second read and edit the details.

Don't worry about how long it takes you at the beginning, but try to make it quicker. Once you get the hang of it, it should get very quick. Don't try to make each email perfect, just try to get better at writing and editing your writing quickly.
posted by miaow at 8:00 PM on March 8, 2014

Best answer: This is me. One year, one of my goals from my 'professional development manager' was emails no longer than 140 characters or/and three bullets. Unpossible (for me) but over time here are some things I've realized that actually do help me.

If I were summarizing this post for my peers and superiors, it would look like this:
Because most folk are going to either read this on their phone or skim and move on, I'd recommend no more than four sentences, three key points/takeaways, and if you write to process then create an executive summary once you're done following the above considerations and delete the rest.

The execs I work with are inevitably reading and responding from their cell phones. One of them now links to an explanation of why his emails are no longer than four sentences (google 'why is this email four sentences' and I think you'll find the link, and there are three and two sentence versions as well). People simply won't read it if it's longer so it's a waste of my time to spend time on more.

Three key repeatable points in your message tops. More than that and they won't remember it or won't be able to prioritize for you what is most important for them to remember. One exec I know recommends when dealing with people only a single issue at a time, when that's understood/resolved move on to the next most important one.

And sometimes I need to process what I'm trying to tell someone, so I write that first long draft, and then go to the top of it and create an executive summary with the first two rules in mind. Because seriously, sometimes it takes me a bit to figure out *which* four sentences I need to tell someone...

Now, yes, you probably got a little more reading the more in depth stuff, but try reading this on your phone. Try reading it and knowing that you're possibly being asked for a decision you may not have much time to dally and consider all the angles on and you're in between meetings for five minutes only because one let out early incidentally.

Sometimes I totally still fail at taking my own advice, but I've come a long, long, long way!
posted by susanbeeswax at 1:08 AM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Now tell me -- did you really read more than those first two paragraphs? :)
posted by susanbeeswax at 1:09 AM on March 9, 2014

Best answer: Nthing that you're doing it right! I am the same way. It's frustrating that it's such a process, but ultimately you're doing it out of respect for other people's time.

A couple things (mantras, even) that help me get down to business:
- "What am I trying to say?" Once a paragraph gets to be about three sentences long, I'll ask myself this. Usually I'm then prompted to paraphrase into something like, "I'm wondering if X meeting needs to be weekly or could be monthly." Frequently, I can then just delete those three sentences and put the paraphrase in there instead.
- "What information do I need?" You're probably writing the email to either a) ask for information you don't have or b) provide info the other person asked for. Maybe both. But where I've gotten into trouble is taking the time to then justify or rationalize my questions/answers. ("I'm asking this because...") Most likely, the recipient doesn't need to know this. If they do, they'll ask.

You're already aware that shorter emails are easier on the other person; I think the trick is going to be "catching" yourself earlier in the process of typing out the long explanation. Those two "guiding" questions have helped me a little there.

And finally: you might simply write your way through problems. I do this, too. It's not the worst way to be—you have a written record of your thought process! Maybe keeping a sort of "work journal" where you keep track of what you've spent time writing on would help to spot a few patterns?
posted by saramour at 11:05 AM on March 9, 2014

long emails suck. i hate it when i get them from people. occasionally they are necessary of course, but it is rare that they are NEEDED.

bullet points are your new best friend.

take out all the floofery, meaning you don't need all the old school business letter formality crap.

tackle ONE TOPIC/SUBJECT per email. that's it. that way people can file them away in the relevant folders/tags and can deal with one thing at a time. if you need to talk to bob about 3 topics/projects, send him 3 emails. it really does make life easier for everyone.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:14 AM on March 9, 2014

One thing you can do - check your first drafts to see if you are consistently putting the main point last.

So-called rambling people tend to set up the context and history, counter assumed arguements, identify things that prevent what might otherwise seem optimal, and then, end by writing "so we should go to Taco Bell for lunch on Thursday."

Good luck.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:07 AM on March 10, 2014

Response by poster: THanks all. Yes: this question is an example where I wrote too much (and made a conscious decision not to edit it down!)

Marked several "best answers" - my takeaways:
1. I use writing to process - potential to save my first draft for personal reference then edit down to bullets
2. Start with bullets - asking "what is the information I really want to convey here?" and ADDING information AS NEEDED rather than trying to cut out the fat later
3. Consider the culture at my work - bracketing terse/concise wording with friendly greetings and sign-offs
4. Two read-throughs - first to cut/paste/rearrange, second for wording. That's it

and maybe the best-

5. Don't get anxiety over people judging my emails but instead be proud of enthusiasm I bring to my work!
posted by ista at 1:26 PM on March 10, 2014

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