How To Write An Email (No, Seriously)

photo by Daria Kobayashi RItch

photo by Daria Kobayashi RItch

The following is an adapted excerpt from Work Life: A Survival Guide to the Modern Office (Dovetail, $20) by Molly Erman, communications director for New Lab, and reflects a decade of her experiences at The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Artisan Books, and Alfred A. Knopf.


Hi - see below and get back to me ASAP. EOD LATEST, URGENT. Thx.

Receiving emails like this give me this vague hot-scalp kind of feeling that, I’m pretty sure, is all my hair graying from the root and then falling out. The word ASAP deadens my emotions. Using bold type for emphasis? Really not necessary: I can read the words just fine without the use of additional command keys. None of this kind of digital fire drill makes me want to be helpful. Instead, it just makes me feel stressed—and kinda resentful (...can you not at least go through the trouble of spelling out the word “thanks?”)

At work, most of us communicate primarily (and some days almost exclusively) through email. Contrary to what some trigger-finger types with a hankering for abbreviation might think, this correspondence—and how you treat people when doing it—matters. It defines the way we do business, relate to our colleagues, and rally backup assistance when we need it.

On that note, let’s circle back (corporate office lingo is another subject for another time) to that soul-dimming missive above. A revised version:

Hi - I need some trusted help with what’s becoming an urgent situation. Could you have a look at the below—today? (Sooner the better, if possible, with thanks in advance.) Happy to jump on the phone to explain further, let me know if you’re free for a quick call.

Though it still conveys similar urgency, this edit makes me feel like a trusted coworker with a respected opinion, and motivates me to get involved.

Retaining some humanity in this medium is just one of the golden rules for effective emailing that spares your team from wilting from pressure and swallowed rage. Here are a few more:

  1. Use clear, explanative subject lines (“For your review: time-sensitive doc”)

  2. Keep your message concise and polite—you’ve only got about 10 seconds of your reader’s undivided attention, so the first two lines matter.

  3. Say thx—er, thanks, often

  4. Let’s forever ban the use of “ASAP” for something less cap-locked; let’s try “soonest”

  5. Use exclamation points sparingly, otherwise you look crazy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Continue conversations on a single chain: introducing multiple topic threads confuses the reader.

  7. ...Don’t forget that emails are easily forwarded. Sensitive issues are best discussed in person.

  8. Mind the time: clearing out your inbox on Saturday morning may feel satisfying, but it threatens your team’s personal time. (Nothing like receiving a “so where’d we land with this?” inquiry alongside your omelet.)  Let non-urgent emails linger in your drafts folder, then press send on Monday AM—when their inboxes are fair game.

Need to work on your emails even harder? Here are a few more pieces of advice on the matter from Work Life: Avoid Angry Emailing and Don't Forget The Phone. And catch Molly's advice on "How to Leave Your Job and Make ‘Em Miss You (Even If You’ve Been Fired)" previously published on Girlboss here.

-Molly Erman