Several years ago, I read a blog post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits that I found to be both intriguing and challenging. It was about our tendency to write emails that are too long, and Leo suggested that we strive for:
- No more than five sentences,
- No more than one or two questions, and
- Clarity of the main point.
••• The Why •••
At first, I wanted to defend the necessity of my lengthy email prose. It seemed impossible to write anything of substance with so few words. But soon, I began to see the truth in writing emails that were simple and focused, encouraged a quicker response, and ultimately respected the reader’s time.
According to an online survey, US workers spend over 6 hours a day checking personal and professional email. One-quarter of our lives, reading emails.
Despite knowing this, I continue to write long emails more often than I’d like to admit. Not necessarily because I love to write, but because it takes time and effort to do so concisely. Mark Twain once famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Like with all good things, we must act with intention.
••• 5 Tips •••
So, here are 5 tips to guide your email writing practice (and mine, too):
- Define your purpose. Why are you writing this email? What do you need to know or share? Be clear on the purpose of your email so your message remains focused. If you are writing the same person about two separate matters, consider sending two emails.
- Be concise. According to research, the ideal subject length is 3 to 4 words, and the ideal email length is 50 to 125 words. If the content is too complicated and requires a lengthy email, consider discussing the issue over the phone or in-person. As much as we all love to hide behind our screens, the efficiency of technology is lost if we don’t use it wisely.
- Write simply. Avoid lengthy words, sentences, or paragraphs. If your email is longer than recommended (and still the best means of communication), break up the content using lists, headers, and a little white space. Anything that will create for easier reading.
- Be direct yet congenial. Get to the point, but don’t forget basic pleasantries. Flowery or excessively formal verbiage often overwhelms the essentials of a message, so aim for focused yet friendly language.
- Revise and proofread. Take the time to revise your emails for maximum efficiency. Eliminate excessive or irrelevant language. Once you are done, always proofread.
Now, how would you spend those 6 hours a day instead of reading emails?