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How To Write A Good E-Mail

Haynes King. Katie's Letter.
(Haynes King. Katie's Letter. Source)

1) Respect Morality. The invention of the computer has not made Morality obsolete. Under this important rule, many small rules can be found: don't insult your correspondant, say "Please" and "Thank you", identify yourself properly so people know who they are dealing with, etc. Actually, this first rule implicitely contains all the other rules for writing a good e-mail. See a good book on Morality, like Part 3 of the CCC.

2) Respect common sense. If you send an e-mail, that means you have a goal in mind, a kind of "mission" for your e-mail. But why rush to send that e-mail, if your haste makes you write a bad e-mail, an e-mail that will fail to accomplish its mission?

Think before you write. Write what you have to say, then wait. After a while, re-read what you wrote, and think again. Waiting 24 hours before sending an e-mail is an excellent way of receiving advice from God in your heavenly Inbox. (In other words, you often get good inspirations if you sleep on it.) E-mail is one of the most beautiful means of communication, because you can take the time to think!

3) Respect the English language. A good e-mail must let you communicate your ideas. See some good books about that topic: dictionary, grammar, style guide, etc.

4) Respect your reader's precious time. Each time you send an e-mail, you are imposing an expense on your reader ("Time is money"). There are many ways to "be less expensive":

4.1) Be brief.

4.2) Summarize your whole e-mail in the "Subject" line. Ah! A well-crafted "Subject" line is a sure way to a man's heart! Write your "Subject" line after you've written your whole e-mail, that way you'll know what to summarize. Moreover, sometimes you can re-use somebody else's "Subject" line in a reply, but far less often than most people think.

Another good reason to provide a good "Subject" line is to help people protect themselves against viruses. Computer viruses can only automatically generate bland "Subject" lines, like "Hey, check out these pictures!", or "For your information", etc. They can't invent something clear and personalized like: "The new Encyclical by Pope Elvis 1 you asked for yesterday after Mass", etc. When I get a large e-mail which blocks my inbox (because I have a slow dial-up link), I go on my mail server where I can only see the "Subject" line, the sender's name, and the size of the e-mail. If the e-mail has a large attachment and the "Subject" line is vague, I delete it.

4.3) Give a minimal but sufficient context. Answering an e-mail, by definition, means you are providing answers to questions. You must therefore copy in your reply part of the original e-mail, preceded by a distinctive sign (like ">>"). Copy enough to give context. (Here below, you have a good example of minimal but sufficient context.)

Out of laziness, some people copy the whole original e-mail, and scatter their answers here and there. That forces the reader to look for the answers, and then pull apart the preceding text to find the questions. The bigger the haystack you send, the more your reader will waste time looking for the needle.

4.4) Don't bombard your readers. If you have nothing important to say, shut up. Don't "Forward" to the whole universe all the garbage that accumulates in your inbox. Don't overestimate the importance and urgency of what you have to say. Wait for your first e-mail to be answered before sending other ones.

5) Respect the more technical computer advice. Among others:

5.1) Always ask permission before sending a large attached file. See: Can I send you large attachments by e-mail?

5.2) Don't use HTML in your e-mails. See: Why do you dislike HTML in e-mails?

5.3) Don't reveal people's e-mail addresses without their permission. See: What is this "BCC" you're always telling me to use for e-mails?

5.4) Don't make excessively long lines.
A good e-mail in plain text should not have lines of text that go much beyond

... about that! (the word "beyond" is about at the maximum length for an e-mail).

5.5) Don't use all caps. Using all upper case letters MAKES IT LOOK LIKE YOU'RE SCREAMING IN PEOPLE'S FACES!

6) If you have a mailing list. A mailing list is to send many e-mails at the same time, so you have to respect all the rules for a good e-mail, but even more carefully than usual, because one small mistake on your part will make many people suffer! You must also respect some additional rules:

6.1) Ask permission before adding someone to your list. It's insulting to be added to a mailing list without one's permission.

6.2) Promptly and cheerfully remove people from your list, when they ask you. Then, come and re-read this text carefully; you've probably disregarded one or more rules described here.

6.3) No attached files, never. Not in a mailing. Put that on your web site, and send only the hyperlink to the document, rather than the whole document itself.

Etc., etc...

(For other advice on how to write a good e-mail, see among others RFC1866.)



-----Original Message-----
From: Stefan Jetchick
Sent: 2007-June-11 07:47
To: reader.careful@internet.world
Subject: Complaint about a poorly-written e-mail

Good day Mr. Careful,

>> but then, what should I do to satisfy your
>> requirements concerning e-mails?

I tried to answer that question here:

	"How To Write A Good E-Mail"

>> At some point of time [...] we have to be able to live,
>> and you can't expect everybody to write perfect e-mails!

No, but when I write to you, I make an effort, and
that hasn't killed me yet!


Perhaps you too could make this effort?


Stefan Jetchick

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