Writing good emails

06 May, 2016

A simple guide to writing emails that don’t suck.

The first sentence should be the action you want them to take, or the critical knowledge.

Things like “Please send me the address to send the package” or “Email system will be down from 9pm until 11pm for maintenance”. Explain why you need the information, how the recipients can find that information, more details and so on later, but always put the part that is most important at the very very top.

Many people explain why they’re sending an email, what they’re going to do with the information, their cat’s life story, and so on first. That means burying the important stuff in the third sentence of the second paragraph where most people are only scanning for key words.

If someone tells you that “I didnt see it in the email” when ‘it’ was in the first sentence, that’s a pretty clear sign that they weren’t reading ANY of the email. Details can come later, if they’re still interested in the whys and wherefores, or need help to do what you asked.

Give a deadline for responses, and a reminder to respond on time

Say when you need a response by, so when you need information to complete a task by 5PM Monday afternoon, you really need a response well before then so you can set up for it in most cases, not 4.30PM Monday.

If you email 20 people and you hear back from five, email the other 15 before your deadline. If their lack of response will have an impact on something else, tell them what that is. Don’t wait for the deadline to hit and then go “OMG I need it now why haven’t you responded”, people get busy, and have different priorities. This is just a gentle reminder that your request is getting more important and, if they’ve ignored you twice, it’s on them that they didn’t respond.

Tell people the message in the context of how it impacts them

Saying “between five and six tomorrow afternoon, we’ll be installing a new modulator on the elevator control” means nothing to anyone (because I just strung a few vaguely technical words together), but saying “The lifts will be out of service tomorrow evening” is much simpler.

Don’t worry about talking about the behind-the-scenes changes, how you set it up, or what the change will do for you. Just tell the reader “this is what you will see that is different.”

Ask for feedback

Most organisations will have some people who are willing to help you out and give you feedback on changes, improvements, etc. you probably have a few in your own organisation. When the bigger changes happen, they’ll generally give useful feedback, so respond to them as well, even if its “thanks, I’ll look into it”. They’re often good guinea pigs, too. If you change the way something works, wait a week or two and ask for feedback, the number of things you’ll catch that you can improve just from that will be amazing and therefore the work you’re outputting will improve.

This is also a great one where you’ve fixed a problem, if, say someone’s PC was crashing say every second day and you ask if it’s crashed since you fixed it 2 weeks earlier, they probably forgot they ever had an issue, but now that you mention it, yeah its fixed. Then you know they’re not going “Fucking IT they said they fixed it and its still happening” and instead realise you’ve fixed the problem.

This also allows you to clear headspace of “I hope this problem is fixed”. Another good one here is “It should be fixed, if it happens again let me know” as then you hear sooner. For stuff that’s been a recurring issue, it might help to put a reminder in the calendar to follow up in a little while.

Target emails (where possible)

Most people don’t actually like getting email. Limit what you’re sending to the bare minimum of recipients. If you’re emailing everyone about an issue that only affects 10% of the organisation, you’re going to be ignored, or at least just quickly scanned over.

Putting the important thing at the top helps as if you say that something is going to happen 4.30 and last for an hour, on a day they will be leaving at 3, the reader can close the email because they don’t care.


Doing those few things will make a big difference to other people’s perceptions, as then you give people every opportunity to meet what you need, give feedback and improve systems and if they try and “blame you cause they never told me” you can throw them straight under the bus with “it was literally the first sentence in the email, I asked for responses if there were problems and there weren’t any.”

People get a lot of emails, in most cases its not “Urgh, another email from him?” its more “Urgh… another email.” People are busy, people generally have a lot of pressures and things they need to focus on, sending clearer emails allows you to get the right information to the right people better.