A friend was recently looking for advice on writing emails. Here are some of the basic rules of email I’ve picked up over the last 25 years of writing emails, running mailing lists, and professionally working on HTML newsletter design for major media properties.
Above all, be brief. Pretend you’re paying by the word. Keep paragraphs short, no first line indent, with a blank line between them (business writing format).
There are a bunch of reasons any whitespace you try to create within a paragraph may not render the way you expect. Keep spacing simple.
DON’T USE ALL CAPS UNLESS IT’S A SECTION TITLE
Don’t use backgrounds. Don’t use non-default fonts (stick with arial or whatever your mail client’s default is… Comic Sans will immediately put you in the “unprofessional” category)
Be respectful on attachment sizes because people may be receiving your emails on phones with slow or metered data.
Don’t send a PDF attachment simply so you can put fancy formatting on the info (like my kid’s school does, meaning I never read the newsletter).
Don’t put one of those “privileged and confidential” notices at the bottom of an email unless the content is actually important enough to warrant it.
Don’t reply all by default.
Avoid “me too” or “+1” reply to all emails. If someone is counting those types of responses, send them just to that person.
- Personal – the way you’d write to a friend, personable, whatever language is your thing, exclamation points, emoticons, etc. You be you.
- Business informal – the way you’d write to a friend at work or when you’re organizing the office softball team. Friendly, but little or no slang, restrained use of emoticons and exclamation points.
- Business semi-formal – the way you’d write to your new manager before you got to know them. This is a personal business letter, There are style guides for this. Avoid slang, exclamation points, and emoticons.
- Business formal – the way you’d write in a business document meant to be read by many stakeholders who didn’t know you. Think presenting a business proposal to investors formal. This is rare and generally for special circumstances… like presenting a business proposal to investors.
In business informal, it is okay to reply to an email with one word if that’s all that’s needed. For example, if you’re a manager and an employee asks for you to approve their vacation request, you can simply write “Approved” instead of “Dear Elizabeth, I have read your proposal and it is within the parameters of HR policy, therefore I have approved it.” That said, if you believe people will read a disapproving tone into a one-word email, you might want to say “Approved. Have fun!”
When communicating with peers or people below you at work, exclamation points have become not only acceptable, but a recent study said that not using them can be considered damning the recipient with faint praise or a lack of enthusiasm. The study said this held true even more when the sender of the email was a woman, regardless of the gender of the recipient.
HTML email can vary greatly from mail client to mail client. For example, Gmail will clobber all global styles while Excel’s HTML renderer is not Edge/IE. It’s Microsoft Word. If you’re trying to do ANYTHING fancy on a regular basis, run it through a multi-client testing service first.
When sending HTML email be VERY conscious of graphic sizes. Again, people may be looking at your email on slow or metered connections.
When sending HTML email all the accessibility requirements of the web apply. If someone has graphics turned off and is not displaying your graphics, if there are no alt tags, they’ll just get blank spaces. If your entire message is in those graphics, they won’t see it. This is a mistake a LOT of inexperienced marketers make with their emails while lots email clients avoid displaying graphics by default. You still need enough messaging in the email text or alt tags to convince users to click to display your graphics.
And that’s all (for now). If you have any good points to add, put them in the comments.