How to Write an Email like an Adult

This week I’ve been inundated with messages from colleagues who see the standard of emails being poor. Not from students, no – from other staff! You may have picked up on the passive aggressive undertones to previous articles on email behaviour from me; that this is one of my biggest pet peeves, I get so much email in a day that I see poor practice that would make your hair fall out (that’s my excuse anyway) so let’s try and address a number of issues.
This is a longer article than normal, and outside of my usual format – but for the best, I hope.

How to Write an Email like an Adult

One of the big problems with electronic communication is that whilst most of us were taught how to write a letter when we were at school, very few of us are of the age that we were taught to write an email. This is a problem for the way we communicate with each other, because most people have learned to communicate electronically with their friends using Facebook or text messages and now we’re sending messages to other professionals that make us sound like we’re about fourteen.
Worse still is that we’re showing this poor practice when we communicate with the students, and guess what? Not only do they think that type of communication is okay and replicate your behaviours but they don’t even think you’re cool because you can finish a sentence with LOL! What they think is that you’re trying to be hip. Guys, as Huey Lewis says – It’s hip to be square – so let’s tighten up our email style and demonstrate this practice to the students.

1. Use a descriptive subject line

One thing that makes me want to scream is people that send email without a subject line. Why would you do that? You know we’re all busy. If you’ve not adequately described your email in a short sentence beforehand then when I’m scanning which email to action next by title alone then yours is likely to be ignored. I’ve grown fascist in my own ways and students who send me emails without a subject line get the following message from me:
Which is very sarcastic, but you know me by now. The students do too. I will not action anything they have sent me unless they can be bothered to write me a proper email. Unfortunately you can’t really do that with staff…
It’s also worth remembering that the subject line of your email shouldn’t be the content of your email. If you send a message to a group of people with the message in the subject then in most cases, and most email programs, will just cut off your message half way through. Because of this titles should be short and sharp, with the content (however little it is) in the main body of the email itself. It certainly helps those of us with mobile devices as otherwise we can only see the first five or six words of the title.

2. Spell check your email

This was the one thing that colleagues hammered me with email about. People do not check their email for spelling before they send it. It’s really simple to do too. Click the spell check button, then you change any problems. In most email clients you can even force this to happen when you click send, so that you always have a nice spell checked email going out. Check the preferences of your email client and set this up as soon as you can, then you’ll look less like a prat when people are reading your hastily written emails.

3. Fonts

Arial. Size 12. Done.
Seriously though, you’re a professional so think very hard about your choice of font, colour and style for your communication. People read a lot into your presentation of your communication and if you’ve got size 20, bright green comic sans text then I immediately jump to the conclusion that you think you’re being cute and don’t know a thing about professionalism. Fonts are a very subjective thing so it’s best to stick to something that’s easy to read and looks professional. Fonts like Helvetica or Arial are great for reading on a screen as their lack of serifs (the pointy bits) make them look better on normal computer screens than fonts like Times New Roman.
It’s one thing to send a charming, overly bright, layout to very, very young children but as soon as someone becomes discerning this splattering of your personality becomes grating; especially if you’re not a design expert. Does the style reflect the content of the email? Imagine receiving a notice of expulsion in bright pink Comic Sans. They style implies a lot. What of other professionals receiving these emails from you? Do you think they appreciate having to claw through all the animated gifs and bright red text for the important technical information you’re sending them? The answer can be seen by every book ever written because you never see a professionally published book that’s written in comic sans.
You might be wondering about our students with additional needs. Isn’t a fun font better to engage them? Shouldn’t we make the font huge just in case they can’t see it properly? Well first of all, what you consider a ‘fun’ font can be interpreted in a lot of ways; comic sans, for instance, can be seen as demeaning and derogatory to students with learning difficulties because “that’s a kid’s font”. There’s also no need to set your font to a ridiculous size because you’re concerned about people with visual or reading issues being able to access your content. This is a computer. Students with those issues should easily be able to turn on the accessibility features of the operating system and zoom in or colour overlay things themselves. The key thing for you is that the font is sensible and readable, don’t concern yourself with the size because they can sort that out for themselves!

3. Write it like a letter

Because it is. Email. Electronic Mail. It’s meant to be just an electronic delivery system for letters, so if you’re writing a letter make the slightest of nods to the format you should be adhering to. Do not write it all on a single line, don’t launch straight into it and do not every simply not even bother writing your name on it. These minor deviations from the message you are trying to deliver turns an informal email into one to take notice of, it gives you enough time and breathing space to process it as well as it being seen much more like a communication that matters.
Our students and our peers are trained to see most electronic text based communication as transient, what forms of communication tend to be massively informal and inconsequential? Facebook chat? Text messages? Yeah, and neither of those is written like a letter. Centuries of work on the letter writing format shouldn’t be lost because we’ve stopped using pens, it’s like that for a reason: to encourage the reader to engage with the text and understand the weight and importance of the message. As educators we need to model these behaviours and styles to students and colleagues who are being bombarded with the most informal text based communication they can get, by doing this we can help to support literacy and keep our culture alive for another generation.
Start with a greeting (salutation), Hello, Dear Sir, whatever – a nice friendly one is ‘Hi David’, a sterner one could be ‘Students’, and a proper formal one could be ‘Dear Mr. Morgan’. Whatever you decide is appropriate for the situation make sure you do it, launching straight into an email makes you look more like you couldn’t be bothered rather than the honest truth which is that you were rushing. The greeting is a great place to engage your reader because they can tell how personal the email is, writing ‘Hi Johnny’ at the top of an email let’s Johnny know that this is specifically for him and not just a mass email to your class.
Write the content in paragraphs, make sure it reads properly and makes sense. It’s this bit that holds the content that you are communicating so make it good.
Finally, end with a polite closing so that the person reading it knows that you have finished and that they can ignore your enormous signature bit, you know, the bit with all the quotes in it? A polite closing can be ‘Regards’, ‘Cheers’, ‘Peace out’ – whatever, just make sure it’s appropriate to the person you’re sending it to. You wouldn’t say ‘Love and Hugs’ to your boss, or (hopefully) not to that Year 8 class on a Friday.

4. Is it really urgent?

If your email isn’t really an urgent matter than needs to be dealt with there and then or else someone could die, then why not leave that urgent button alone?
Please. Leave it alone.
Only ever use it in a real urgent situation: for instance, I went to print something for a meeting and suddenly my pinter was out of ink. I needed that print out for the meeting desperately so I sent the email to reprographics using the urgent tag and lo and behold it was done for me. Urgently. That’s what that button should be for, not for every single email you send.
It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf, if you make every email, no matter how inane, seem to be ‘Urgent’ then when you do have cause to send an urgent email people will ignore it. If we over use the urgent tag then it loses all its power.
So think; is it really urgent?

5. Signatures

I know my email signature is a bit daft, but you know what – it’s concise and is obviously different from the rest of my message. Is yours? Most people’s email signature is a list of contact details, a pretentious quote about something-or-other and then a reminder not to print out the email to save the environment. Seriously, who prints out an email? What are they, insane? You’re wasting space there – you really are – all your signature really needs to be is some offline contact details just in case the person you’re conversing with has to make immediate contact with you or can’t seem to get an email message to go through.
Is your quote relevant? Will anyone receiving a message from you think anything else other than “well, THAT’S pretentious” – because that’s not the opinion you want to elicit from anyone when you’re asking them to do you a favour or turn in homework. I’m naturally pretentious but I don’t use signature quotes for that very reason. Well, I say that, but I once used “See, I can have a pretentious footer quote too” – David Morgan, as mine. But it was probably offensive.
Look at it this way; is your email signature bigger than most of the emails you’re sending out at the moment? When you look through your sent items is a sentence of content being overwhelmed by fifty lines of interesting and amusing quotes? Finally here, DO NOT put your email address in your signature. If they’re received an email from you then it’s hard coded into the email itself and they’ve already got it!

6. Textspeak

 You are likely not a fifteen-year-old girl. So why would you write like one? Sure, the odd LOL can slip out when we’re writing because we probably use it a lot in text messages, but it’s not appropriate to use every line in an email.
LOL, by the way, means Laugh Out Loud (not lots of love) and is an interesting societal tick as it doesn’t actually mean “I just laughed at that” – it’s really a nice concise way of illustrating that you recognise something is funny without having to say so. I like LOL, it’s got a real world function not filled by anything else in the virtual world.
What about shortening words? O rly? w8 a sec. This is infuriating, it really is. The only reason that we invented textspeak was because we had to fit entire sentences into the 120-something character limit of a single text message, when that disappeared it was habit, but still quicker when you were typing on one of those old phone keyboards. No one I know really uses textspeak any more because now we have full keyboards on our phones, and certainly if you’re sat in front of a full keyboard you have no excuse for not typing the words out properly.
My Dad does though. My father. Mr Morgan senior. Because he thinks that’s cool.
That’s what you look like when you use textspeak, someone trying too hard to be cool. Ignoring the fact that if you use it you’re modelling a behaviour that we’re all trying to suppress in schools for literacy reasons. If it’s a proper email, one worth writing, then just tap out the extra few letters because you’re not really saving any time, all you are doing is making yourself look like you can’t write a correct sentence.
We’re professionals, communicating with other professionals, members of the public and modelling best practice behaviour for students. We need to show that in every way, especially with the language we use in our communications.
You have dignity and respect. You don’t want impressionable people to think that you are stupid.

7. Sending files

I’ve covered this in previous articles, but sending files in an email is a bit of an art. Size and type of attachment are important, most emails over 2Mb in size do not reach their recipients as they’re too big so sort that out first, the type is important because if you don’t select carefully then the recipient may not be able to open the file at all. One thing I would remind you is that if you’re sending a file then you still need to add some content to the email itself, even if you’re just saying “Here’s that file you asked for”, because that’s just courtesy. You probably wouldn’t drop a file on someone’s desk without popping a sticky note on it to say it was from you, so make sure you do the same with email.

8. Quick emails

 I can see the rolling eyes from here. You’ll be thinking ‘well, that’s all well and good for him, but I’m busy, sometimes I don’t have time to write a full email’ and yes, fair enough, I’ve sometimes been tapping a keyboard as I’ve been trying to leave the room for a meeting. It does happen. There are there solutions to this:
* Take your time, if an email’s worth sending then it’s worth writing well.
* Write it on your mobile device and send it from there, you can always do a draft on your phone and tidy it up later if you need to.
* Apologise up front, “Sorry, having to send this quick. Can you send me that data please? “ – because then I know you’re rushing and will happily forgive you many of the sins expressed in this article.

9. Elipses, Symbols and Smileys

 What’s an ellipses? Well … is an ellipses. Highlight it. It’s a single character. What it is not is three full stops. Or four. Or five. Email shouldn’t replicate the pauses you make in natural conversation because that’s what a comma is for. An ellipses should represent you trailing off as if to make a point and should be used sparingly, if you litter your email with ellipses then your message reads like thinking is a little difficult for you. If you want to use an ellipses then do so; but please use the correct symbol and not three full stops! To get to the ellipses simply press alt + 0133 on windows, or alt + ; on a Mac.
There are myriad other symbols that people misuse, from the type of Quote marks they use, to replacing the word ‘at’ with an @ symbol. It’s even possible to include the degree (°) symbol really easily, in Windows have a look through the character map before you try and make up similar looking symbols because we’re striving for accuracy, and you have a wealth of symbols at your disposal. They all have a meaning and a use. Why not check out this brilliant guide to symbols on the computer to become as Picky and pernickety with it as I am!
Exclamation marks are another thing. This symbol ! means that you’ve exclaimed something, you’re making a big deal of it. Four of them makes it seem like you’re trying to make something seem more exciting than it is. You only need one exclamation mark. Please, just the one.
Smileys are great for expressing emotion in a message, a quick 😉 illustrates that you were joking or trying to be amusing, but just like textspeak if you over use them then they come across as you trying too hard to be cool. I know you use emoji and smileys when you’re texting, and you probably spam Facebook with them, but use them sparingly when conversing with colleagues and more so when using electronic communication with students. That way a smiley has more impact, it isn’t just noise in a message to be ignored because ‘Miss always uses smileys’. We also implicitly teach students what a formal email looks like so they don’t start emailing their future bosses with things like “not coming in today, am ill ;p’. Would you try doing that with your Principal?
Also, try not to use the poo emoji. It’s very hard to forget once you’ve seen it.

10. Proof reading

 The number one thing you can do before you click that send button is re-read your email. Does it make sense? Does it read properly to you? Proof reading is not really an IT based skill, but it’s something you should do because email is such a quick way to respond to someone that you can benefit from slowing down a little and checking that you’re sending what you want to send. More than this, it’ll give you time to reflect if your angry and intensely sarcastic rebuttal to something was warranted or if you’re simple feeling tech-rage. There’s nothing worse than ending up in an email argument simply because you didn’t proof read your email and it sounded angrier than you meant it to.
So, that’s it. That’s most of all there is to being a professional when your using digital, text-based communication systems. Especially if you’re working with email, students and colleagues; because your electronic persona is summarised more succinctly in the presentation and style of your written communication than ever in today’s world. It’s much better to sound a bit more formal and well thought out than the general populace because, It is hip to be square.
If you’re still treating email like a text message then you’re getting I.T. wrong. And if you are then maybe you need my book. Which is good because it’s on sale and was recently reviewed by Teach Secondary magazine!


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