Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How to write understandable e-mails

Today I came across this article at on how to write effective business emails:

I could not agree more - it really happens very often that I want to pull my red pen out and start correcting emails right there on the screen. The article dwells on some grammar aspects of business writing, but that is not what most often annoys me... what really gets me going is the utten inability to express what someone wants to say in a crisp, clear and concise manner that would be understandable to a nine-year-old, be it in English, Spanish, Japanese or Swahili.

Besides the ones mentioned in the article, the bad habits that email writers often fall into are:
  • excessive wordiness: hiding the essential important information in a sea of meaningless or non-critical words and fancy phrases;
  • blinking words: words and phrases that sound nice but don't mean anything. For instance, in a sentence "We really need some good leadership here" it is totally unclear who "we" are, what "good" means, what sort of "leadership" is missing, and where this ambiguous "here" is;
  • capital letters: in business communication CAPITALIZATION means SHOUTING!!!
  • colors: if you work for a Fortune 500 company don't make it look like you are a lemonade stand employee;
  • jargon and abbreviations: yes, I know, all managers truly need to use those three-letter monstrocities (anything beyond three letters gets too complicated for the simplistic business world) and they thrive on throwing in shop-talk words that sound like jibberish for the outsiders, but then that is exactly what your message becomes - jibberish;
  • fancy language: I agree, words like "ensconce" and "terpsichorean" sound sophisticated and make you feel sapient and important (I suffer from this illness too), but nobody is going to open their Webster to check what you mean, so most likely your email will travel straight to Trash (by the way, I get my daily linguistic delicatessen from
The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You (Bk Business)If you are not the best writer in the Universe, do not give way to despair. There is a ton of marterials that will help you to organize your thoughts in a way that will be understandable by the majority of your audience, and that is alreayd 80% of success. Add a bit of flavour, get your pronouns and split infinitives rights and you have your perfect email. I can recommend a book called The Hamster Revolution, which apart from giving some practical advice on how to sort your email and manage the Inbox, proposes the ABC of composing messages:
  • Action
  • Body
  • Conslusion
Start with what you want to get, give the rationale in the body and a few words to conclude. I believe there is nothing wrong with following a template in this case, since business communication is not a creative writing contest - all you need is being understood.


  1. Sometimes I wonder if putting all the buzzwords and jargon and not being understood .. is the point. Make the other person think that it's their fault for not understanding you. :)

  2. Haha... next time I´ll write a post in Russian and it will your fault if you don´t come up with a sensible comment :)



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