In the first part of this article, we discussed some of the orgins and functions of communicating by email. This article will focus on social conventions and expectations of using email as a communicative medium for both business and personal expression.
Keeping eMail Messages Brief
Reading from an electronic display is distinctly different from print documents in several respects. Apart from the physical differences (projected vs. reflected light) and proximity to a power source, most electronic documentation is meant to be read quickly with an emphasis on conciseness.
Use a Simple Structure.
Succinctly state your topic, briefly summarize background information, and then state your main point and any supporting material.
Exclude any information that is not directly related to your topic
Try to adhere to one topic per message. If you want to write about three different things, send three different messages.
When you quote from a previous e-mail message (easy to do with most e-mail programs), include only the relevant lines, not the entire earlier message.1
Compared to desktop publishing software, most email software is limited when it comes to options for improving legibility and creating emphasis. This is still not a valid reason for using all capital letters to create emphasis: Using all caps is the rhetorical equivalent of shouting. That’s why there is a caps lock button.
Most programs allow for the use of a bold typeface or italics, as well as the ability to change character size. To set the record straight:
The typeface taken together with its point size is the font.
To write for on-screen reading:
- Write short paragraphs
- Put blank lines between paragraphs
- Use bulleted lists and numbered lists (like this one)
To Emoticon or Not?
While it can be a temptation to include a quick smiley face at the end of a sentence whose dry humor might fall flat on the screen or otherwise be open to interpretation, consider recasting the sentence to avoid (or at least cut down on) ambiguity.
Research has shown that emoticon users tend to use such devices with close personal contacts, and even then, not everyone is hip to what a semicolon followed by a closed parenthesis signifies.4 Even unicode characters and purpose-made icons are not always rendered clearly or can be read clearly by all readers.
And 🙁 is indeed frowned upon in professional communications. If in doubt, leave it out.
Some eMail Don’ts
Due to the ease with which email can be diseminated, never include anything in an email message that you aren’t prepared for a larger audience to read.2,3 For the same reason, be careful about mixing personal and work-related topics in the same e-mail message. Never write something about a person that you wouldn’t say directly to that person.
Email is a great communicative tool, but not if the topic is emotionally charged. In that event, it is better talk to the person directly.
And while this should go without saying, here it is: Never include confidential information in an email message.
More eMail Faux Pas
1. Sending before you it was ready to be sent. Type the recipient’s e-mail address only at the point the message is ready to be sent.
2. Forgetting an attachment. If an email message includes includes an attachment, upload the file to the e-mail before writing the message. It’s also a good time to make sure the attachment is the correct version before sending it to avoid multiple versions and uneccesary headaches.
3. Expecting a quick response. Don’t send an e-mail and expect it will meet with an instant response, or even instant readership. Recipients will answer at their convenience.
5. Skipping new messages and replying to earlier ones. The situation may have changed from email a to email b to email c. Find out if that’s the case first, and, if so, respond to email c.
6. Overrelying on email as a communications medium. If the topic is truly urgent or is an emergency, choose another medium that often brings quicker results, such as the telephone or that most ancient of methods — in person.
1. Anderson, Paul V. (2007) Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, 6th Ed.
2. Canavor, N. & Meirowitz, C. (2006). Working Words: Are You Guilty of Sloppy Emails? It Can Cost You. Communication World Bulletin. Retrieved from
3. Hayhoe, G. (2007, August 22). Six Tips for Effective E-Mail. Professional Communication Society Podcast. Podcast retrieved from http://ewh.ieee.org/soc/pcs/index.php?q=node/41
4. Krohn, F. (2004). A Generational Approach to Using Emoticons as Nonverbal Communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 34 (4), 321-328 The Impacts of Emoticons on Message Interpretation in Computer-Mediated Communication Robb, P. (2008) E-tiquette. Office Pro, 68 (1), 24-27