How to write e-mails correctly

Today, the email is an ever-present phenomenon both in our private lives and our daily business. As a text service provider, we receive and handle hundreds of e-mails per day — on our own and our customers’ behalf. We’d like to give you the benefit of our experience, and share a few good tips with you.

You simply won’t find any hard-and-fast rules for writing e-mails correctly. The approach you should take will vary, depending on the particular situation and the intended recipient. It’s certainly true that in different countries, different conventions may apply. In any case, one should handle the matter with due care and consideration.

How to write an e-mail address correctly

Composing e-mails starts with choosing the right e-mail address for yourself. Along with the subject heading, your address will be the first thing that the recipient sees. That is why it must be carefully selected — especially for business correspondence. The best choice of e-mail address is along these lines:

  • firstname.surname@firm.xy

For functional addresses, you can also choose other meaningful descriptors, for example:

  • enquiries@company.xy
  • orders@company.xy
  • accounts@company.xy
  • support@company.xy
  • complaints@company.xy

Or to put it another way:

  • Don’t use a meaningless nickname or a fantasy name like “jester84” or “bubbles66” in your e-mail address. This sounds off-putting and unprofessional. There is a danger that your creative name-play may give the wrong impression of how you spend your spare time.

  • Try to avoid using diminutives. You might need to shorten your first name if your name in full is too long.

  • For your business, we don’t recommend using a free, web-based e-mail service provider, which means having an address such as company@yahoo.xy, or company @gmail.xy. This too can appear unprofessional and be bad for the firm’s image.

The Subject Line

Make the wording of your subject line informative, while being as short and pithy as possible, so the recipient will see what it’s about straightaway. Avoid misleading or overly vague headings like “Question” or “Enquiry”. It’s preferable to write “Question about product XY” or “Order of product XY”.

Most e-mail programs place the prefix “RE”, or from a German mail client “AW”, at the start of the subject line, when an email is being answered. This is very handy for the recipient, as it shows the incoming e-mail to be on the same subject as the one that went out. Many e-mail administrative programmes will even allow you to sort your mail by subject heading, making it much easier to keep track of the dialogue. This is why when you answer, you should not without good reason erase the subject line you were given.

If the subject changes, however, you should always match the subject heading to the content. It makes it so much easier for you and the other person to locate each other’s messages in the constant stream of mails received.

One Subject per E-mail

This isn’t always possible or expedient. As a general rule, however, you should ensure that you only deal with one subject per e-mail, and ask just the one question. You’ll get answered more quickly, and you’ll make the management of your e-mailing much easier for both you and the person you’re messaging.

The reason for this is that if you pack two entirely unconnected subjects into one e-mail, you will at best be waiting for an answer until the recipient is able to respond to both questions or comment on both subjects. And in the case of some subjects, that can take a long time. At worst, you’ll receive an answer to just one of the questions or none at all, because the rest has been overlooked or forgotten.

E-mail Formatting

Business mails are best sent without any formatting at all. Ideally, choose Plain Text in your e-mail application as the format for sending messages. Technically speaking, this means that in the e-mail body, the text content only is sent. All pictures and other documents requiring specific formatting can only ever go as an attachment.

Plain Text format has other advantages too:

  • Most professional recipients will only accept e-mails in their Plain Text form. Images are blocked. The effort you have expended on layout will have been at best all in vain.

  • In the worst possible case, however, you can run the risk of overdoing the effect and dazzling the reader with too many frills. The recipient is put off by this, confused, more quickly tired of reading, and quite likely to trash the message as spam.

  • By using plain text, you also minimise the potential for infection by viruses and other harmful code.

  • Above all, you will make your message easier to read when it’s received. It is no coincidence that normal business letters have by now been standardised down to the last detail. This lets both sender and recipient know just where they are, every time.

Under no circumstances, however, should you try to copy standard letter-writing formulae. The e-mail is fully-fledged medium of communication with its own conventions. Date, sender and subject all have their own set places in the header section. The mailing address and other contact details form part of the signature at the end.

Whether you send off your message in plain text or HTML format, the recognised typography and layout rules for electronic documents still apply: use an easily readable black font of an appropriate size (11 or 12 pt. depending on the style) on a white background, leaving a line between paragraphs, and maintaining a consistent and uniform appearance.

In e-mails covering large amounts of material, it is useful to pick out (just!) the odd word in bold for emphasis, to give the reader a better handle on the text. In most cases, however, longer passages are better sent as attachments.

The Salutation

Each e-mail should contain the correct salutation. In official e-mails, you should start with “Dear Mr Smith”, “Dear Ms Brown”, etc. If a more relaxed approach is in order — especially in response to an e-mail you have received — you can also begin with e.g. “Hello Miss Williams”/“Hello Mrs Brown”/“Hello Mr Smith”. This more informal style of salutation is increasingly the norm, even with correspondents as yet unknown to you. Where appropriate, you can also use greetings like “Good morning, Mrs Jones” or “Good afternoon, Mr Taylor”, bearing in mind that the message may not necessarily be opened and read at the time of day when it was sent.

In your salutation, make sure you get the gender right! Usually, but not always, it is obvious from the first name. If in doubt, for instance if in the case of a foreign name, it’s worth making the effort to check up on the Internet whether a particular first name is masculine or feminine. If your research doesn’t solve the problem, you can give an excellent impression in your first e-mail, by apologising and making a point of asking about this.

In this kind of communication, the salutation should definitely include the recipient’s name — correctly spelt. Avoid impersonal forms of address such as “Dear Sir/Madam” or a bare “Hello”. This makes the message look like a mass mailing, and gives a poor impression.

Signing off

The same applies to how you sign off. It might be considered to be impolite to type “Rgds” for “Regards” or “Thx” for “Thanks”. Either write it out in full, or preferably expand it very slightly, e.g. “Kind regards” or “Many thanks”.

Furthermore, the formula “Greetings from Hamburg” can be perceived as quite inappropriate, if the name of the town and the fact that you’re staying there bear no relevance to the content of your message. You could, on the other hand, gain some bonus points if you sign off with a mention of the recipient’s town: “Best regards to you in Edinburgh”. This also lends your e-mail a touch of individuality. Of course, this may work well in the initial message, but it makes no sense to keep repeating it.

How long does it need to be and how short can you make it?

Time is money, as they say. One shouldn’t claim the recipient’s attention for longer than is strictly necessary. The more briefly and concisely you are able to express yourself, the greater the probability of receiving a swift and clear reply.

Should lengthier comments on a subject be necessary, it is recommendable to attach a separate text file. If the recipient is unfamiliar to you, this should still only be by prior agreement.

Correct Spelling and Good Style

Before sending off your e-mail, proof-read it at least once. You’ll be amazed to find how many typographical errors and stylistic blunders are still lurking in there. Some of our tips on the subject of correcting your text are available here. For particularly important e-mails such as marketing messages and candidates’ applications, it is advisable to ask a friend or colleague to look it over for you, or even to commission the services of a professional.

To send the recipient a carefully written, carefully proof-read message is not just a matter of courtesy, but is also in your own interest as the sender. The easier and more enjoyable you make the task of reading your e-mail, the sooner you will get a reply, and the more likely that reply will be to accord with your wishes.

Keeping your messaging history

In particular, people who write many e-mails and exchange messages with many correspondents at the same time, know how useful it is to be able to look back over the messaging history either as an attachment or following on from the signature. Otherwise, you may find yourself ploughing through old mail in order to work out what it’s all about.

The messaging history should therefore be treated exactly in accordance with the subject line: while the flow of messages on a subject continues, the subject heading relevant to it remains the same. When the subject changes, the subject line is changed. The messaging history then needs erasing, to free up more memory as well as for the sake of clarity.

The Signature

In business mail, an informative signature is a must. Aside from all the details that might be necessary for legal reasons, your signature should always include your full name, your address, your e-mail and web addresses, and your telephone number.

This applies not just to the initial e-mail you send to someone, but to every e-mail. No one will spend hours trying to discover how to call you back or to look up more about you on your website.

Information required by law

Please remember that, depending the type of business entity concerned and the country you live in, commercial and business e-mail correspondence is subject to similar disclosure and imprint obligations as for ordinary letters and websites. In case of doubt, you should seek further information, as you may otherwise find yourself liable to pay costs, if pursued by the competition or by extra-zealous lawyers.

Adding an attachment

As with the subject line, you need to take that your attachments have a meaningful file name. Names such as “attachment.pdf” or “application.docx” are not very informative. Bear in mind that your recipient may get a very large number of e-mails with that kind of attachment, and is then supposed to download and store them. Where the file has such a meaningless name, this would entail manually renaming the files, in order to be able to locate them later — a very time-consuming task.

A word about downloading: try to keep files as small as possible. Many files (image files, PDFs) can be compressed for online use, so that the other person can enjoy being able to access them on the smartphone too. If in doubt, you should also enquire beforehand how large an attachment the recipient’s e-mail server will accept. The limit is often in the order of 10 or 20 MB. There may be an alternative possibility for passing on your documents that would suit the recipient better (uploading via the website, cloud services etc.).

The quantity of files that you attach should also be reduced to a minimum. Files of the same type, such as text files or PDFs, can be relatively easily stored together in one file. This makes them easier for the other person to deal with — for which you will undoubtedly be rewarded with a swifter reply.

Private e-mails and e-mailing as a private individual

Not all the above advice holds true for private correspondence. But here too you can earn the occasional ‘Brownie point’ by following these basic principles. Certainly, however, when you contact firms and organisations by e-mail in a private capacity, these tips will all be entirely applicable.

For example, if you wish to commission us to write a text for you and are considering what to put in your e-mail enquiry, you will genuinely help facilitate communication all round by taking these fundamentals as a guide.

Evgenij Unker

4 January 2013, last updated 30 March 2015

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