Tips for writing clear work emails?
July 24, 2020 10:16 AM   Subscribe

I think I'm a reasonably clear writer but people I work with don't always take my feedback into account, particularly when I email them. Can you provide any tips? I can provide an example of my communication if helpful. Thanks!
posted by ferret branca to Work & Money (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think this question is clear and easy to understand, but that doesn't mean we can answer it due to lack of pertinent information. Perhaps there is a similar lack of information in the emails you send?
posted by saeculorum at 10:18 AM on July 24, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Begin your emails with a very short (preferably two sentences or less) conclusion and requested action.

A number of employees I've worked with are very clear writers who write multi paragraph emails following some sort of high school essay format with introduction, supporting evidence, and finally a conclusion. This is backwards. It requires the recipient to spend a significant amount of time and understanding getting to a conclusion that the recipient maybe already know or agree with. Hence, the recipient may end up ignoring the email.
posted by saeculorum at 10:24 AM on July 24, 2020 [19 favorites]

Seconding putting a short summary as the first paragraph. Ideally it should fit in the first screen or preview of the mobile device your employer uses.
posted by scruss at 10:29 AM on July 24, 2020

Best answer: Just a minor piece of the puzzle but one thing I always do is make it clear that

"I need these four pieces of information from you... if you could let me know
1. What time you want to meet
2. What's a good street address to meet you at
3. Anything I need to bring besides x, y, and z, and
4. What's a good number to reach you on tomorrow morning."

That makes it a lot easier to avoid than putting that stuff in paragraph form and hoping they caught the questions within.
posted by ftm at 10:30 AM on July 24, 2020 [12 favorites]

I almost never send emails longer than a few lines, and like the commenter above me, I often ask questions/make points in numbered or bulleted lists. If it's more complicated, I chat with the person on Slack or call, and follow up with an email summary on action steps if necessary.
posted by pinochiette at 10:32 AM on July 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

It's not clear what kinds of emails you are sending and what the action items are. Without context, seeing that your coworkers "don't take [your] feedback into account" could mean that they read the email and just... didn't care for your feedback, so ignored it.

When I have action items in an email to someone, I write those out first. Then I look for a way to request those nicely by writing short connectors between them if a bulleted list doesn't work. I usually bold the specific requests in the body of the email too.
posted by juniperesque at 10:41 AM on July 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

Could the issue be not with the clarity of your emails, but with the feedback itself? Perhaps they don't think it's helpful, or that what you are suggesting is optional, or they just don't agree with it.

Some kinds of feedback are better given in conversation rather than email. The Manager Tools model is one I like for this. Then you can follow up with email.

If you are asking them to change something in a report or something, that's a bit different, and previous answers give good recommendations on structuring emails for that.
posted by sizeable beetle at 10:41 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

When asked to review a document, I try to group my comments into the following general categories:

1) Here are some errors that need to be corrected. If you do not think they are errors, please show me why I am wrong and you are right.
2) Here are some changes that I feel would significantly improve the document, perhaps because the current language is unclear or misleading. If you don't want to take my edits, let's discuss the best way to address the issue.
3) Here are some edits that I think improve the document, but it's your writing, so I'll defer to your judgement on these. (Most of the comments fall into category 3).

This could apply not only to written documents but any work process. ("The dongle needs to be installed before the beezle, because too many thingamabobs are breaking with the current process. If that cannot be changed, please let me know why. Also, I think it would be easier for the installer to sit to the left of the beezle machine, but if you are comfortable with the current arrangement, I have no objection to leaving it as is.")
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:00 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the advice so far! I don't think there is a lack of information in my work emails like there is in my question.


I wrote basically the following as a follow-up to another email where I assigned portions of a memo:

"Hello team,

I am also going to cover point [X], and add a chart showing the impact of [Y].

Note: headers will say 2021 Plan but you should use 2020 numbers in your tables.


I get back: Someone who does their own chart showing the impact of [Y] who uses 2021 numbers in one case and 2020 numbers in another. Someone else who uses 2021 numbers only.
posted by ferret branca at 11:29 AM on July 24, 2020

Response by poster: Also (clearly I am having a communication problem in my question, of course): I don't mean feedback like suggestions or critiques, I mean more like "change something in a report." Like my example above, something like "please write a paragraph on X and have it done by the end of the day." Or, "when you are updating a chart, make sure you use data from Y source." They don't always do what I asked.
posted by ferret branca at 11:33 AM on July 24, 2020

I read your email above as saying you would use the 2020 numbers yourself. You used a very passive construction with the “you” buried in the middle of the line, when I think you meant:

Important: in your tables, please ensure you use 2020 numbers but label the chart 2021.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:45 AM on July 24, 2020 [9 favorites]

Also, that’s not feedback. It’s instructions. For my younger staff, labelling what they have to do is pretty important.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:46 AM on July 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

People are sloppy about reading email. I have to do the
Tell 'em what you're going to tell them.
Tell them.
tell 'em what you told 'em.
and even then.

I am also going to cover point [X], and add a chart showing the impact of [Y].

Important: The headers will say "2021 Plan" but you should use 2020 numbers in your tables.

posted by theora55 at 11:50 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Among the great writing advice from David Ogilvy is the guidance that, "If you want action, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want."

If email isn't resulting in the outcome you want, switch communication methods.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:02 PM on July 24, 2020

My suggestion is don’t ask people to make changes/updates, when what you really want is to direct them to do so. Don’t word firm direction as if it’s an optional change.

Bullets vs paragraphs, and color coding to indicate who needs to execute feedback help.

Emails with more than two paragraphs need to be reworked or turned into a phone call.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 12:29 PM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Use a clear subject line. The recipient should get a clear idea of what you want from just the subject. They (and you) should be able to find this email, in a sea of others, a year from now, based on the subject. "Re: RE: re: help" is a hanging offense.

Don't bury the lede. Put your central thesis in the first paragraph, and preferably in the first sentence. Get directly to the point.

Send the message To: people who need to respond to it and/or act on it. Cc: people who have a reason to care about the information but who don't qualify for a To:. Never "reply all" without thinking carefully about why each individual recipient needs to read your particular email.

When replying, quote the minimum amount of the original message necessary to establish context, and put your reply after the quoted text. (Responding with a top-posted one-word answer followed by the entire thread quoted back to the dawn of time is another hanging offense.)

It is often a mistake to put more than one question or request in a single email. Busy recipients tend to ignore all but your first point. (If you have several closely-related asks, it may be OK.)

Use clear, concise writing to get your point across. Don't rely on fancy formatting or typographical tomfoolery. Plain text is king. A picture is worth 1K words, but hardly any sets of 1K words can be adequately described with pictures. If you use emojis in a business email, you need to get in the sea.

> [...] or turned into a phone call.

A dissenting opinion: please don't. Flow is law. Synchronous communication breaks flow.
posted by sourcequench at 2:26 PM on July 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm confused about a couple of things, tbh

I am also going to cover point [X], and add a chart showing the impact of [Y].

You are going to cover point [X]. And? Are they suppose to do something about that or are you just informing them that you are going to cover it?

Add a chart showing the impact of [Y]. Who? Are you doing that or should they do that? The sentence construction doesn't make that clear to me.

Note: headers will say 2021 Plan but you should use 2020 numbers in your tables.

I'd write this sentence in the opposite order. Give the instructions first and supporting information second.

Please use 2020 numbers in your tables (even though the headers say 2021 Plan)
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:48 PM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

People today are bombarded with information and also getting used to shorter bites of info in texts, slack, teams and twitter. It’s key to keep your messages short and to focus on one single topic or action item. If you must have supporting content, sandwich it between the intro and a restatement of the ask in the conclusion. Be clear who is expected to act.

For something more involved like a plan or roadmap write a memo and/or schedule a meeting. Having more than one action item in an email just doesn’t work anymore.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:57 PM on July 24, 2020

Response by poster: [I took out some identifying details in my example, which was a follow-up to another email where I had assigned tasks to myself and three other people. I was in fact informing them that I would address the point and chart, with the expectation that they would not then do those tasks themselves. My line of text actually said, "Note: headers will now show 2021 numbers but [Lou] and [Jan]'s tables will still use 2020 numbers." Which I think should have made it clear who should use what. Will stop threadsitting. Thank you all again. I can tell that no matter how well I think I am explaining myself I am digging myself deeper into the hole of being unclear in real time.]
posted by ferret branca at 3:21 PM on July 24, 2020

Repeating your main point helps a lot, I think.

When I write things where I'm asking someone to do something, I usually repeat myself three or four times – once in the very first sentence, once in a longer explanation with some supporting reasoning, and one more time by referencing backwards to the thing when talking about the next step. People are usually short for time and skimming things, but people skim in different ways, so I try to touch on the same point in multiple ways.

Then, if it's the right situation, I'll follow up a few days later with another repeat reference to the thing, along with some additional supporting reasoning for doing it.
posted by lucidium at 3:32 PM on July 24, 2020

Best answer: Your second update makes me even more confused about what is supposed to be happening here. I have two thoughts:

1) Email is a shit way to manage a project (in my experience). Do you have any project management tools you can use to keep track of who is doing what?

2) Everything you're saying sounds super passive. e.g. "Bob and Jan's tables will still use 2020 numbers". Did you include that to inform all of the non-Bob-Jan people of an interesting fact, or is your intention to direct Bob and Jan to use 2020 numbers? If the latter, don't couch it as a vague observation, instead tell people what you want them to do.

My blunt-ass version would look something like this:
Hi team,

Some updates on the project plan:

- Don't do X and Y. I am going to take those on myself. Please just focus on Z.

Bob and Jan
- Please use 2020 numbers in your tables [Note: the headers have 2021, but just ignore that]

posted by bethnull at 3:34 PM on July 24, 2020 [17 favorites]

My first draft would look a lot like yours but the version I actually sent would look very much like bethnull’s. Any work email I write, I reread it multiple times and usually try to chop it down by at least half, for clarity and succinctness. The time I spend doing this is more than repaid by the time I don’t spend going back to fix things I was unclear about the first time.
posted by Stacey at 3:54 PM on July 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

My experiences like yours led me to limit myself to one idea per email. People often dont read beyond the first paragraph.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:10 PM on July 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

I agree with another poster, try calling or talking to them, if it isn't a lot of people this is going out to. I mean, take or leave advice bc obvsly we dont know you and or the whole story.. but imo, if ppl can read negative gone into an email, they will
posted by elgee at 8:17 PM on July 24, 2020

bethnull's example is good, but doesn't follow the advice I'm most familiar with: "BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front"

You start the email with a single sentence containing the task to be done or the question to be answered. If there are multiple recipients, you should be crystal clear who is doing the work, because everyone will assume it was someone else's job, or at least pretend to. In this case it would be:
Bob, Jan:
Please use the 2020 numbers in your tables for task Z

I will handle X and Y.
Any extra information or background material can go below that (or not at all). If the situation merits multiple paragraphs, I recommend following Nielsen's advice:
  • bullet point lists
  • bold key phrases
  • inverted pyramid style
  • short paragraphs and brief sentences
Finally, if you are replying to a thread, I recommending excerpting the original material, quoting sparingly. Make it clear what you are responding to, or clarifying, if following up on your own email.

Finally, bear in mind they might not even read your email. Some folks are super bad at email, some folks are good but only check three times a day.
posted by pwnguin at 11:47 PM on July 25, 2020

So, I have worked in multiple different organizations, and in some of them, people DID read longer emails.

I think you should seriously look at bethnull's and pwnguin's rewrites, but also, look at effective emails within your team (sent by other people) that do cause other people to change what they're doing. See what your specific team seems to find informative, easy to read, and motivating. Maybe they have a favorite structure, or everyone has a shared vocabulary of key words that mean "pay attention" or "immediately" or "this decision has been made".

As you read those other conversations, you may find that it matters less what's written and it matters more who writes it -- that someone else has more structural power or is better-liked, so people listen to them more regardless of how carelessly they write instructions. If so, that's useful data too.
posted by brainwane at 3:58 AM on July 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I know sometimes I've been mistakenly tempted to start two different conversations in the same email and it's always a mistake. If you have to talk to Bob about the Fleeber numbers and an issue with the Potrzebie meeting, you should send two emails to Bob. That way both can be threaded separately, forwarded separately, and he won't miss the Potrzebie stuff. If you're worried that it's spammy, just explain in the first email in a postscript. like, "by the way, I'll be sending a note about Potrzebie separately to begin that discussion."
posted by condour75 at 8:20 AM on July 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

(and yes, what SemiSalt said. I'm proof that people don't read beyond the first paragraph)
posted by condour75 at 8:22 AM on July 26, 2020

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