If you have a job, more than likely you’re writing and reading emails on a daily basis. When you read an email that is riddled with errors, or has too much information, or too little information, or is just too much of a hassle for what it’s worth, work becomes that much harder.
You don’t want to be someone that sends these types of emails. Research from all over the place shows that making errors significantly impacts how people perceive you. And it is very easy to make simple errors in emails.
This article will teach you how to write a business email with proper format, tone, and punctuation. Basically, you want to keep it simple and professional, and double check your writing before you hit send, but there are a lot more intricacies that go into these general rules. Read on to make sure your perception in your work environment is not tarnished by your email game.
We’ll start with how you start an email, the subject line. This is often overlooked in proper email etiquette. It’s the first thing the reader will see and thus will be the first impression of your email. Because of this, you want it to be right to the point, with as much detail you can provide in a compact title. This way, the recipient knows the exact purpose of the email.
- Bad Example: How’s it going John?
- Good Example: Follow-Up on Quarterly Budget Meeting
The correct subject line gets right to the point so the reader knows why to open the email.
Everyone hates it when they are unnecessarily on a long email chain. It just floods your inbox and notifications with pointless emails. This can happen when people incorrectly address their emails and other people misuse the reply button. Not knowing how to send an email to the correct recipients is a huge red flag of basic knowledge and professionalism. There are three basic options to be familiar with:
- To: This is the most basic and widely used recipient option. You use this as the main person you are trying to contact with the email. It is also best practice to fill this box with a properly spelled and capitalized name from a contact list, rather than just the email you have for that person. It shows that you care enough to have them as a contact in your list.
- CC: This stands for Carbon Copy. You use this feature when you need other people to see the email you just sent because the information is relevant to them as well. Use this within a smaller group of people who already know each other and their email addresses, as they won’t be private with just a CC.
- BCC: This stands for Blind Carbon Copy. This is used on larger email chains when people in the recipient list aren’t familiar with each other, or as a courtesy to a boss or employee to let them know you are contacting certain people. The person in the To box will not know the email has been sent to any of the people in the BCC box.
Having proper structure in your email makes life much easier for the reader. They should always know who it’s for, what it’s about, and who it’s from. The purpose of a business email is to convey, relay, or request relevant information, and a simple structure will facilitate this objective every time. Some general tips:
- Basic structure: You always want to have a salutation, a body, and a sign-off. Every time, no exceptions.
- Avoid one-liners: This follows the first rule. Never reply to an email with just “OK” or “Thanks.” The sender may not know exactly what you are agreeing to or responding to. The clearer you are, the easier things get.
- Use paragraphs: For emails longer than a few sentences, always use short paragraphs to separate thoughts or points in the message. This makes it easier for the recipient to find or refer to certain details within the email. Each paragraph should be no longer than 2-4 sentences.
This is obviously the meat of your message. The two basic rules to follow are to keep it concise and professional. You want the reader to know the exact purpose of what they’re reading without unnecessary fluff. An email with a clear purpose just makes it easier for everyone involved, and if you’re the one making things easier, your work perception can only improve. Some tips for better content:
- Get to the point: After the brief greeting, write why you’re sending the email, right away. There’s nothing more annoying in an email than having to guess what the exact purpose is. You want the conversation to be as efficient and valuable as possible.
- Be proactive: Provide information for the next steps in the email or tell them exactly what you want in their response. Use action terms and verbiage to convey your intent.
- Provide alternate dates: If you are giving them a time to meet or contact you, make sure you give them a specific alternative time that works for you as well. Here’s an example, “Can you call me at 4 to confirm the details? If not, I’m available tomorrow anytime from 8-9.”
- Ask yourself if an email is necessary: Sometimes, an email is not always the best way to contact the person intended. A call may be a much better option if there is more detail to be discussed or if you need a very quick response to something very simple and you know that person is available at the time. So before sending an email, just be sure to ask yourself if it is the optimal way to send the info.
- Remember confidentiality: Any information you send in an email can be revealed to another party, whether on purpose or not. So always remember that whatever you send should not be overly sensitive information that could adversely affect business relationships.
- Executive Summary: Hopefully, you aren’t sending a long email. Sometimes it is necessary though. If that is the case or if there is a long document attached, an executive summary can be a nice touch for the reader. You are just summing up the important details of the email or document so that they can get an idea of what the whole thing contains. You will want to put the executive summary after the greeting of the email and make it clear that it is an executive summary, not the entirety of the email.
The tone you write within an email is vital. You always want to keep it proper and professional while trying not to be too rigid. But when in doubt, rigid is much better than lackadaisical or casual. Basically, unless you have a deeply personal and close relationship with the recipient, always keep it professional. And even if you are close, remember that any email or information sent can be seen by others or possibly used as a reference in future issues. Most issues of proper tone involve avoiding certain pitfalls, but there are some things you should try to do as well. Here are some tips to help you:
- Email can represent your image: Always remember that your emails and thus your tone will influence the perception people have of you. In a business environment, it’s better to seem more professional than fun or easy-going, so make sure you write that way too.
- Copy recipient’s style: You can usually tell the level of professionalism a person has or expects by their writing style. So, if someone sends you an email that is very rigid and formal, it is best to copy that style in your response until you become more familiar with that individual.
- Call the person: When in total doubt of the tone you should write in, you can always call the person to familiarize yourself with their own tone. A call is almost never viewed as more of a hassle and can add a more personal touch or show more interest than an email, so it rarely hurts and can make future correspondence more accurate and meaningful.
- Don’t use too much humor: We all like to break the ice and make us seem more human. But humor can often get lost in writing or the reader simply didn’t get the joke. This will send the wrong message if misinterpreted. Unless you are more familiar with the recipient, avoid the jokes.
- Don’t use sarcasm or irony: One of the most misinterpreted tones of writing is sarcasm, even if it is painfully obvious to the writer. And a lot of times sarcasm is so far from the truth, if the reader doesn’t get it, the entire message of your email can be lost. So just play it safe and don’t use it.
- Less negative phrases: Sometimes an email relays bad news; there’s no avoiding it. But in all other circumstances, you should try and use fewer negative phrases or words like problem, issue, trouble, etc. It will seem like you are nervous or a negative person.
- Cut down on the adjectives: It’s deeply important that you don’t use an extreme amount of very good adjectives in your writing. That was an example of a bad sentence. Incessant use of adjectives is a boring and lazy way to write, and it can make a message seem more or less important than it actually is. Keep your verbiage simple and concise.
- Don’t email when you’re angry: This one may seem obvious but many people may not realize their tone when they’re even slightly angry. Sometimes tough and difficult things happen in business and you need to inform others. Just be sure to not write or especially send an email when you are reacting to whatever just happened. Take some time to compose yourself and then write and send the email.
The salutation is the first line of the email that the recipient reads and sets the tone for the email. These are the specific rules for formality and punctuation that you should always follow to avoid any misinterpretation:
- Punctuation: A comma is the safest bet, but if it is more formal you should use a colon. The least casual punctuation is a dash.
- Formal: If you’re first emailing a person or if it’s a more formal relationship, always use Dear followed by Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. and their first and last name. This is a safe and respectful way to address the recipient.
- vs Mrs.: There is a common misconception that Ms. is only used for unmarried women and Mrs. is used for married women. While Mrs. is used exclusively for married women, Ms. can be used in either circumstance. So, when in doubt, us Ms.
- Sir or Madam: You can use Sir or Madam as the salutation, but it can be viewed as much too formal and impersonal for most recipients.
- Properly Casual: There are many ways to correctly start an email in a casual way. You can use a person’s full name if you don’t already have a relationship with them. Or you can use just their first name if you’re on a first name basis with them. Proper greetings before the name can be Hi, Hello, Hey, Good Morning or Afternoon, or just their name.
- Never use these: Using any of these can send the wrong message so don’t ever use them. Some examples are Yo, Hey, Hi Friend, All, or To whom it may concern.
The way you end your email provides a last impression and ways to contact you that are easily presented. It should work with the tone and message of the email and be satisfying for the reader. It is then usually followed by an email signature. Some tips are as follows:
- Formal: If it’s a formal situation, keep it simple with Thank you, Thank you for your time, or Have a good or great day. Sincerely can be used but some view it as outdated.
- Informal: You can use any of the above sign-offs in addition to Thanks, Thanks again, Cheers, Talk Soon, Looking forward to hearing from you, as well as several others. Just make sure it isn’t one from the following bullet.
- No-Nos: Anything that is too cold or too warm is the area you want to avoid. Things such as Warmly, Respectfully, Cordially, or just your name shouldn’t be used.
- Signature: An email signature can provide a lot of information and professionalism. You just don’t want to have so much information there that it’s hard to decipher or find the relevant stuff. A simple rule to follow is to provide your name on the first line, title and or company on the second, and phone number on the third. You don’t need your email address there, and you don’t want it to be a large image or file. You can include a small logo or a link to your LinkedIn profile or relevant social media accounts if they fit and look reasonable.
Now we’re on to the small stuff, punctuation. Bad jokes aside, punctuation is so often misused, it sometimes doesn’t get recognized. But for those recipients who do catch it, it sends a bad signal to them about your attention to detail or maybe even your intelligence level. So, make sure you get it right. Some common errors are:
- Terminal punctuation: It is very important to end each sentence and line with terminal punctuation such as a period, exclamation point, or question mark. If you don’t, it seems as though you didn’t complete your statement or thought.
- Wrong Example: I need your notes for the meeting
- Correct Example: I need your notes for the meeting.
- Exclamation point: Many people use too many exclamation points believing it will get better their point across. It is very common in texts but shouldn’t be in emails. They can make you seem bossy or overly urgent. Use them sparingly.
- Question mark: Another form of punctuation you should use sparingly. If you have a legitimate question you should absolutely use one. But too many make you seem confused or interrogative.
- Semicolon: A semicolon is used to separate two complete and related sentences together; it isn’t used like a comma. That is the correct use in the previous sentence. If a comma was used, it would have been misused.
- Comma: One of the most common errors in writing is adding a comma where there shouldn’t be one. There are three basic and typical uses for commas, and if you follow them you will generally be using them correctly.
- Use in lists: Use a comma when typing a list to separate points, items, or content.
- Use with conjunctions: Use a comma when separating two separate clauses with a conjunction such as and, or, but, so, etc. Example: I went to the meeting, but I didn’t take any notes.
- Use in dependent clauses: If you start a sentence with a dependent clause, you need to use a comma to complete the thought. The previous sentence is a correct example of comma use in a dependent clause.
People make mistakes in grammar all of the time, but unless you study it for a living or are extremely picky about it, most will go unnoticed. Many of the traditional rules have gone by the wayside and aren’t even recognized anymore. You just want to make sure you don’t make any of the common grammar faux pas when writing an email. Grammarly is a good free tool to use if you are not confident in your ability to use grammar correctly. Some examples of common errors are:
- Tenses: English is a complex language with all its rules, many of them overlapping. But you want to make sure you use the correct tense in an email. There are three general types, past, present, and future. Emails can involve all three, so make sure it sounds correct when typing it. You could say I went to the meeting, I am going to the meeting, or I will go to the meeting. The correct tense provides accurate information for the recipient.
- Conditionals/If clauses: There a lot of rules about tenses when using time clauses that involve if, when, until, unless, etc. Some correct examples are as follows:
- We can’t get the documents until they send them.
- If he goes to the meeting, he will have to take notes.
- I will forward the email when I receive it.
- They’re, Their, There: Commonly misused in all mediums, this is a big one. They’re is a conjunction of they and are. Their is a possessive term. And there is location based. They’re using their phones to get there. That is the correct use of all three versions.
- Its vs It’s: Its is the possessive term, and it’s is a conjunction of it and is. If you wouldn’t say it is before the word, then its is the correct term to use.
- Your vs You’re: This is about the same as the previous tip. Your is a possessive term, and you’re is a conjunction of you and are. If you wouldn’t say you are before the next word, your is correct usage.
- Effect vs Affect: In general, effect is used as a noun and affect is used as a verb. There is the rare usage of effect as a verb, such as he is effecting change, but in most cases use affect as the verb.
- Too, two, to: These three are rarely misused, but just in case you didn’t know, here are examples of all three being used correctly. We have too many meetings; we have two meetings this week; I am going to the meeting tomorrow.
Emojis, Shortcuts, and Slang
The general rule for using any of these is don’t. But if you are familiar with the person or each of you are well within the industry there can be some exceptions.
- Emojis: Don’t use them. It’s as simple as that.
- Shortcuts, jargon, and slang: If it is standard within the industry to use certain slang terms or jargon, and you are emailing within this industry, it is generally fine to use these terms. You can also use them if you are very familiar with the recipient.
Sentence Casing and Spelling
You always want to capitalize the beginning of each sentence and proper nouns. Another tip is to never use all caps or too many capitalizations. It makes the email seem too urgent and all caps can get your email mistaken as spam.
For spelling it’s is simple, spell check and proofread your emails. Always. Even if it is a very short email, it is worth the time to double check your work and send the email with correct spelling.
Fonts and Format
The general rule for fonts is to keep it simple and basic. Use standard font and font size, always black, and only use bold and italics sparingly to highlight an important term, never a string of words. The reason for all this is that is just makes everything easier. You don’t need to stand out with a unique email font. No one really cares.
You want to keep your format standard as well, but the only time this usually comes into play is when copying and pasting text from another source. When you do this, you want to clear the imported font using (Ctrl + Shift + N) on a PC or (Command + \) on a Mac.
Hyperlinks and Attachments
When inserting a hyperlink into your email you want to shorten it. A full-length hyperlink is unsightly and takes up too much space within the text. You want to shorten the link using a tool such as a browser extension.
This link is wrong: https://support.google.com/faqs/answer/190768?hl=en.
This link is correct: https://bit.ly/1tA49eU.
For attachments, you want to remember three main tips:
- Make sure somewhere in the email you inform the reader that there is an attachment at the end. This should also include an indication if the attachment is larger than usual. An example of proper use is: Please see the attached PDF for the notes. It is about 28 MB.
- Another important tip is to be sure you have attached the correct document. You can do this by opening it before you send the email or making sure the name of the document is the one you intended to send.
There are a few important rules when forwarding emails.
- Sensitive information: Remember that some emails contain sensitive information not intended to be seen by others.
- Summarize: If you are forwarding a long email chain, it is best if you take the time to summarize the important parts for the new recipient. You can also include a brief note about the forwarded chain in the subject line.
Out of Office Emails
Out of Office emails, or OOO for short, are used to send automatic responses when you are unavailable to let the sender know you won’t be replying soon to their email. A few basic tips for these:
- Include how long you will be unavailable by saying when you’ll be back in the office.
- Include contact information for a person for urgent matters but make sure this person knows they are included on your OOO email.
- Make sure to use OOO in the email title so the recipient knows exactly what to expect.
- Don’t create an OOO for just one day, and don’t include too much detail in your email like a specific location or the personal reason for being out of the office.
Replying to emails is just as important as sending them. You need to know when and how to reply to keep the email professionalism on point. Some tips to help you:
- Reply vs Reply All: This is a big one. Reply sends a response to just the person who sent the email and is the default option to use. Reply All sends the response to the sender and everyone in the CC field. This should only be used when it is necessary to inform everyone in the chain of the information you’re providing.
- Response Time: There are three basic categories to determine when you should respond to an email:
- Close or immediate team members: Try to respond ASAP, and always within 12 hours
- General work colleagues: Respond anywhere from 12-24 hours
- External emails: Respond whenever you have time, but try to keep it within 72 hours
- Always Respond: This is the most important tip about replying and the last tip of the article. Always respond to every professional email. It is a common courtesy and sends the right message about your level of care and attention. Even if it is a brief response, it still counts for something.
That was a lot of information to absorb and remember, but it will help you up your business reputation and relationships. The keys to always remember are to keep it to the point, double check your spelling and grammar, and try to keep the tone and structure within the range of business casual, always taking into account the specific recipient. Thanks and have a good day.