mnmlist: the art of brief emails

It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. ~Robert Southey

Emails, to some of us, are like a plague. They spread rapidly, infect you until you’re covered in sores and can’t do anything useful, and ultimately fill the streets with corpses.

OK, maybe emails aren’t exactly like the plague.

But they can take up your entire day if you let them. Enter the art of brevity.

Master the art of writing concise emails, and you communicate essential information without taking up much time – yours or the recipients’ time. You also encourage the responder to be brief, with your own brevity. And by eliminating chatter, you also become a better writer.

Some tips for writing brief emails:

  • Skip the subject line. Controversial, as many people believe the subject line is key for someone scanning their inbox. Personally, I look at the sender to determine if I’m going to read the email, and I can usually read the 1st line in Gmail, just from the inbox. So the subject line become irrelevant. Just skip straight to the message and forget meta data. The content is the meta data. If the recipient knows you, he’ll open the email. Note: this is actually considered rude by some, so be aware of your recipient’s expectations. With friends, family and close coworkers, skipping the subject line is fine. With more formal emails, you’ll want a subject line, and you might not follow every single one of the following rules.
  • Keep it to a few sentences. I’ve long been an advocate of the 5 sentences rule and in fact, if you can keep it to 2-3 sentences, that’s even better. Setting a limit forces you to keep it brief – just like a haiku.
  • Skip the greeting. Sure, polite etiquette dictates you have a greeting. But mostly we email friends or coworkers or family, and really, do they care about your greeting? Their time is valuable. Dive into the message.
  • Skip the sig. I hate long signatures, especially for someone who I talk to regularly. I already know all your info – why keep sending it? Just sign off, as briefly as possible. My sig is usually: -leo, but if I really know the person I’ll skip that as well.
  • Narrow the topic. If you find yourself needing to write long emails, it’s usually because you’re trying to talk about too many things. This tends to lead to problems – the recipient might skip over certain parts, for example. Stick to one topic for now, and get to the point.
  • Edit. I know, you want to write it and send it and forget it. Well, that’s rude, to the recipient. You’re saying they don’t deserve a good email. I’m not saying you need to spend hours making every email perfect, but if you can take 10 seconds to go back over an email, remove unnecessary sentences and words, you’ll be doing your recipient (and yourself) a favor.
  • Consider not sending. Sometimes, an email is unnecessary. Before sending, or even before writing, consider whether they really need a “thank you” or “got it” or other such message. Sometimes it’s fine, but if the person sends you a “got it’ email, do you need to reply back “thank you”? Just move on.

If you know people who need to read this post, please email it to them. Briefly.

If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought. ~Dennis Roth