Email is probably one of the greatest invention in recent history. Not only does it have a major impact on the way we communicate with one another, it has also become an indispensable working and social tool for many of us. However, the explosive growth of email has also created some problems, primarily due to the fact that it is a relatively new medium, where there have been no strict guidelines or online culture, particularly in the working world.

Given the ease of writing emails, many people tend to forget or neglect the importance of some basic writing etiquette, especially when it comes to work-related formal emails. As email is commonly used between friends and family, we often forget that email communication, in the work and business context, is the electronic version of sending business letters. As a result, miscommunication has arisen, feelings hurt and time unnecessarily wasted.

Like all forms of written communication, how the recipient perceives the sender will depend on a lot on how the email was written, whether it is the tone, style or content.

Some common problems are

  • Unclear or ambiguous message
  • Poor organisation of content
  • Irrelevant information
  • Inappropriate tone
  • Grammar and spelling errors

Email writing

1. Organise your message.

Like writing a formal letter, think through how you will organise your message. 

  • What is the objective of your email?
  • Get straight to the point.
  • Be concise.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient to get a sense of how your email will come across.
  • Remember that you are not talking to a computer, but writing a formal note to a real live person at the other end.

2. Title your message properly.

The subject heading of your email should clearly indicate the gist of your email. It should not be too long or too vague, so that the recipient is able to infer the purpose of your email. This also gives your recipient the flexibility of prioritising the emails in his inbox, a courtesy which he will appreciate.

3. Be polite in your salutations.

You are writing to either a stranger or in a working context. Be professional, and not presume familiarity. Be formal in your salutation ("Dear Sir/Mdm or Dear Mr.__ / Mrs. ___") and valediction ("Yours sincerely or Yours faithfully").

4. Frontload your message.

The recipient should be able to understand the main idea of your email after reading the first paragraph. It also helps yourself as your reader does not have to search high and low within the text, wondering what exactly your main purpose was.

5. Use simple and plain English.

There is a time and place for Shakespearean and flowery language. This is not the time. Your recipient will appreciate a simple, coherent and well-structured email.

6. Use the proper tone.

This is not a casual conversation between friends or family. Be polite in your tone. It is basic courtesy. Do not allow the ease and convenience to lull yourself into a false sense of security.


7. Always assume that your email can be forwarded to anyone else.

It is important not to infuse your email with an emotional tone.  Notwithstanding the prevent-forwarding function, there is always a way that your email could be distributed to an audience larger than you can ever expect. Unfortunately, people with an ulterior motive will hesitate to use unethical means to undermine another person.

Always adopt a professional tone in your email. Writing something in black and white can always come across differently from just saying it. Due to the lack of contextual clues in written communications (unlike oral communications), misunderstandings can easily arise. 

8. Be careful in your reply.

A common mistake is to forget the difference between "Reply" and "Reply to All", the latter of which can send what is initially meant to be between two individuals to a mass audience instead.

It is always useful to keep the email thread in your replies, so that your recipient can refer to previous exchanges. 

9. Check for grammar and spelling errors. Do not use upper case letters.

Taking the effort to check for simple grammatical errors reflects well on the sender. Upper case letters should not be used as they are considered the equivalent of shouting. For formal emails, it is best to avoid excessive punctuation like "!!!???" as they are considered poor manners.

10. Be prompt in your response.

While you need not be at the beck and call of your emails, like all formal communications, it is only polite to reply to another email within a short period of time, even if it is just a holding reply. People do appreciate that their emails have been acknowledged, rather than be kept wondering if they have been lost in the black hole of cyberspace. 

Remember that email is just a medium of communication. It is not the be-all and end-all of things.

If all things fail and such an option exists, just pick up the phone to call the person to convey the message in a friendly tone. Alternatively, have a face-to-face meeting with the person. Amazingly, in today's working world, people prefer to send emails to one another, despite being seated in close proximity. Sometimes, a simple conversation would have negated the need to write long-winded emails or prevent so many misunderstandings or hurt feelings.

This is because, unlike in oral communications, there are no body language or cues for the recipient to infer from. Any implied messages or intentions would have to be carefully worked inside the email message, including the language and the tone used or the way the text is organised. This is why formal emails have to be more carefully planned and written to avoid any misunderstanding and unintended ambiguity.

Given the above, in order to ensure that the recipient (i.e. reader) can fully understand one's message, the onus is on the originator (i.e. writer) to organise his discourse in such a way that the recipient can fully comprehend his message. This means that the recipient can either understand the gist of the message or easily extract parts of it for future reference.