Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Email Writing Tips

Here are some tips on how to write effective emails in a professional environment, especially first-time “cold emails.” I have accumulated these tips through writing thousands of emails to colleagues, professors, and employers over the past few years.

Busy people are overloaded with emails; they get hundreds per day. As a result, when they see each individual email, they either respond quickly, or not at all.

This professor's tweet eloquently sums up the phenomenon:

Your main goal in crafting a professional email should be to allow your recipient to respond as quickly as possible. Otherwise your email will likely be ignored.

Update in Nov 2013. Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: If someone cannot respond to your email within one minute, then they will probably never respond.

Should you even be emailing this person?

Before you write an email, especially to a person of some authority whom you've never contacted before, think about whether it is appropriate to contact this person at this time. Read his/her website to see if there is an FAQ that might answer your question, whether his/her assistant might be able to help you out, or whether he/she has an explicit "don't email me" policy.

Make the subject line clear and concise

When someone scans through new email, the first and only thing he/she initially reads is the subject line, so make sure that it clearly summarizes your email's intentions. Don't have the subject be "Hi" or "Hello there" unless the purpose of your email is to simply say hello, and even if it is just to say hello, make the subject a bit more descriptive, like "Hello from an old classmate". Remember to keep it short, though, because you never know how wide the text display on the person's email reader is—long subject lines will get truncated.

If your reply is not relevant at all to the subject line, start a new thread with a fresh subject line which more accurately reflects the email's actual contents. It's annoying to open an email thinking that it's about "Re: Deadline reminder" when it's actually really about "By the way, how do I log into our servers?"

Also, don't ever send an email with an empty subject line.

Use an appropriate greeting

The first line of your email should be a greeting, followed by an empty line and then your message body. If it is your first time emailing somebody, "Hi John," or simply "John," are greetings that I prefer. I think that "Dear John:" is too stuffy and awkward. What should you put before the recipient's name? Always strive to be as formal as possible, especially for first impressions. Use the most distinguished title for the recipient. For example, for a professor named John Smith, use "Prof. Smith" instead of "Dr. Smith". For someone with a medical or doctorate degree, use "Dr. Smith". Otherwise, use "Mr.", "Ms.", or whatever else is appropriate.

Beware of using first names unless you are already on a first-name basis with the recipient (or if you are of equal or greater social rank). If he/she replies to your initial message, chances are, he/she will sign the reply with his/her first name, like "Regards, John". Do not take this to mean that you now have permission to call him "John" in your next email. Still use "Prof. Smith" unless he explicitly says, "you can call me John." It never hurts to be a bit too formal at first.

Introduce yourself in one sentence

If this person doesn't know who you are, introduce yourself briefly using only one (not overly-long) sentence right after your greeting. Write only what is relevant to let this person know what he/she needs to know about you in order for your email to make sense. For example, maybe mention that you are on summer break and in town if you want to schedule an in-person meeting, but don't just say "My summer is awesome so far, I'm chillin' at home" if that's not relevant to your email's intentions.

If you have interacted with this person before, remind him/her in this first sentence so that he/she can quickly retrieve a mental image of you (e.g., "I'm Joe, the student who talked to you about my 3-D game project at the career fair last week."). Stop the introduction after the first sentence because by then your recipient should already know who you are.

The first (non-introductory) sentence is the most important - Give it all you've got

After you have introduced yourself if necessary, the next sentence is the most important one in the entire email. This is like your thesis sentence—say what you want to say right now!

Pretend that nobody will read past this sentence; can you still pretty much make your point clear? Don't be suspenseful and build up to a big climax at the end of your email. Busy people don't want to read several paragraphs without knowing what you want from them.

Put all important details at the top of the email body (or even better, in the Subject line)

Don't bury a key piece of information inside of a large paragraph and expect a busy person to quickly be able to extract it upon first reading. The larger the paragraph (and the more paragraphs there are), the more likely that the reader will miss a particular point you are trying to make while he/she is skimming your email.

For example, I once received a really long email telling me about administrative move-in procedures for on-campus graduate housing. My assigned apartment number was hidden deep inside the fourth paragraph. I had to read that email several times before I even realized that number was contained in it, and it was the most important piece of information in the entire message (the rest simply described procedures). I was actually waiting for an email to tell me that number, but the subject line didn't indicate that this particular email would have the information I wanted. It would've been much more clear if my assigned apartment number were written separately at the top of the email body or even in the subject line.

Keep the rest of the email short

After you've made your main point, the rest of the sentences in your email should provide additional supporting information. Unless there is an obvious need to write a long email, keep the email as short as possible.

I think 8 sentences should be more than enough for a general-purpose email. Don't overwhelm your reader with details unless he/she explicitly asked for them. Separate paragraphs with a blank line to improve readability; it's okay to have 1- or 2-sentence paragraphs when your entire email is around 8 sentences.

Busy people are not likely to read long emails in detail; they will most likely skim it or just keep it in their Inbox and read it at a later time. Your goal is to have the person read your email and hopefully respond to it within a short time period, so keep your email as short as possible to make it easier for your reader to comprehend.

If you must write a longer email, separate out the gory details from the summary

The longer an email looks, the less likely a busy person will read it in its entirety. Thus, if you must write a long email containing lots of details, make it so that the reader can get the most salient information up-front in the first paragraph, so that your email still has value even if he/she doesn't make it past your subject line and first paragraph.

Separate the details from the first paragraph using several blank lines, not just one. Or better yet, keep your email body short and write the gory details in a post-script (e.g., P.S. Here are some gory details ...).

The final sentence - Either provide something concrete to reply to or make it clear that a reply is not necessary

Is the purpose of your email to elicit a reply? If so, make sure that your purpose is clear in the final sentence. You need to provide something concrete and unambiguous for the recipient to reply to. Throw the ball back into his/her court with something like "Please let me know what appointment times work best for you." or "I am free Tuesday 11-2 or Thursday 1-5; let me know which is best for you."

If you do not expect a reply and merely want to share some information with your recipient, then simply summarize the information in the final sentence (e.g., "I look forward to seeing you tomorrow at 1pm in my office.").

Anytime that you don't receive a reply from a busy person you've just emailed, take a second look at your email and see if you've made it glaringly clear that you were expecting a reply.

Make your concluding phrase and signature context-appropriate

If I am expecting a reply, I usually write a simple "Thanks." after the final sentence. If the person is doing me a favor, I write something stronger, like "Thanks a lot." or "Thanks in advance." If I am not expecting a reply, I might end with "Take care." or "Best wishes."

I usually sign with only my first name, "Philip", but in a more formal occasion, I will use my first and last names, "Philip Guo". You can include other contact information such as cell phone number if it is relevant, but if not, I would leave it out in order to prevent verbosity.

Don't have a pretentious auto-generated email signature

I find it almost comical to read short, horridly-unprofessional emails with a fancy 10-line signature tacked onto the end, like:

hi my name iz johnny, plz tell me how to
get into a goot grad skool, i have a good
gpa and gre scorez. lol. thx bye guy!

John Q. Smith
Undergraduate Student
High Honors Program
Podunk Institute of Science and Technology
Tel:  555-666-1212
Tel2: 555-999-1313
AIM: jsmith2009
gchat: jsmith2009

Less is more. That horrendously-long auto-generated signature detracts from the body of your email (which is perhaps a good thing, if you write like a 13-year-old girl text messaging her friends).

If you must re-send a message, do so apologetically

If you've emailed someone and he/she hasn't responded in a reasonable amount of time, then it might be appropriate to re-send your original message as a gentle reminder. Perhaps the recipient was simply too busy to respond to you when you first sent it, and then your email got buried beneath more recent incoming emails.

The worst thing to do is to pester an already-busy person by re-sending your email with a note like "Have you had time to address my email yet? If not, here it is again." Even if worded politely, it still comes off as, I'm important and worthy of your attention, and you haven't given it to me yet, but you should!

A more tactful reminder would be to somehow pin the blame on yourself. For instance, you could blame either your email software or your own computer illiteracy, like "My email server has been acting up lately, so I'm not sure whether my previous message was went properly; here it is again just in case. Thanks!" Even if it's a white lie, at least it takes the blame off of the recipient, thus making him/her more receptive to your (annoying by default) re-sent email.

If you want someone to do something for you, minimize what he/she needs to do

This tip is obviously relevant beyond emails, but whenever you are asking someone to do you a favor, you should make it as easy as possible for them to do it for you. Make as many preparations as possible yourself, and then offer to do everything in your power to make their job as simple and painless as possible.

Make your requests straightforward and concrete. Busy people don't have time to interpret vagueness or to spend even more time crafting a response to you asking for clarification of what exactly you want them to do for you.

Write in proper English, not like ur txt msging ur friendz, lolz!

Seriously. Your bosses and professors aren't your friends, so don't message them like you would to your bff. They will not be amused. Really.

Don't EVER misspell your recipient's name, EVER

Well, you shouldn't misspell anything in your email, but if you had to choose one word not to misspell, it should be your recipient's name. A person's name is the most important word to him/her, so don't disrespect it.

One brain-dead way to prevent this stupid mistake is to simply copy-and-paste the person's name into your email, either from a previous email he/she has sent to you or from a personal web site.

When replying, mix your replies with blocks of quoted text from the original message

When replying to someone's message, you should strive to address every point he/she raised, and the best way to do so is to start with a 'quoted' copy of the original message, work your way down, and then insert blank lines and your reply text underneath the appropriate blocks of the original text. Many email programs can do this for you automatically. To save space, finish by excising all original text that isn't relevant for your reply (e.g., "Hi, this is Bill. I'm currently on vacation, but I have some questions:").

I usually like to write my own greeting and a quick "See below for my responses ..." line above all of the original quoted message. Don't forget to conclude and sign in order to indicate whether you want a reply or not (e.g., "Let me know if you have any more questions.").

When writing to more than one person, use the "To:" and "Cc:" fields appropriately and make it clear who (if anyone) you expect to reply to your email

Usually it is implied that if you have included someone in the "To:" field, then he/she is an intended recipient and should reply if possible. If someone is in the "Cc:" field, then the email is merely an FYI ('for your information') for him/her, and he/she is not expected to reply. If you are sending a mass informational email, then you don't really expect anyone to respond so you don't need to elicit a reply with your final sentence. If you want a particular person to reply to a specific part of your email, make that clear (e.g., "Sarah, could you forward me last week's budget?"), or if you want everyone to reply, you can say something like "I would appreciate everyone's feedback about my ideas."

When an email has more than one recipient, there is the danger of nobody replying because everyone thinks that someone else has already replied. That is why "Reply to All" might be a good idea to show that you have already replied so that somebody else does not later duplicate the information you have just provided.

If possible, do not attach large files

The bane of many people's mailboxes are large email attachments, because they take up so much more space than plaintext email messages. Large attachments slow people down and might cause their email storage space to exceed the provided quota, which might lead to delayed or lost emails.

Over the course of your work, you will probably find yourself attaching word processor documents, spreadsheets, or slideshow presentations. Presentations in particular can take up lots of space (several megabytes) because they often contain lots of images. If possible, try to upload your presentation somewhere on the web and provide a link to it in your email. If you are at a university, you should have some amount of webspace, and if you are in a company, you should have space on some internal file server.

Make sure you don't have a silly username

In other words, don't be like this poor guy:

Created: 2006-06-23
Last modified: 2013-11-23