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The Essential Guide to Crafting a Work Email

Jul. 24, 2015 Harvard Business Review

You, like me, probably rattle off emails quickly, all day (and sometimes all night) long. And that means the people receiving your emails are doing exactly the same thing. Whether this is good or bad for us, generally speaking, is an open question. But until we all get better at dealing with email overflow, how do you make sure the ones you send get noticed – and for reasons other than an unfortunate Freudian typo?

First, the basics. They may seem obvious, but they’re easy to forget.


– Enough with the lower-case “i” and lack of periods. Even the little things, like using proper capitalization and punctuation, can help your messages stand out in an inbox full of acronyms, fragments, and misspellings. And as business writing expert Bryan A. Garner says, “It takes less time to write a clear message the first time around than it does to follow up to explain what you meant to say.”

– However, there are occasions when an emoji or typo may be appropriate. A smiley face could work if you’re mimicking the style of the person you’re communicating with, says Harvard Business School PhD student Andrew Brodsky. And a strategic typo might be smart if your message requires a high degree of authenticity (to make it seem like you’re not carefully crafting your message), especially if you’re in a position of power. But before hitting sned (see what I did there?) make sure you ask yourself whether it’s “important in the situation to seem more emotionally authentic (by making errors) or competent (by making no errors)”?

– Can people actually read your green cursive font? Probably not. Remember that an email is, aside from a piece of communication, a designed experience. A distracting font, or more than three types of fonts, can take away from your message (or cause someone to hit “delete”). Some good choices include Arial, Helvetica, Lucida Sans, Palatino, and Verdana, according to social entrepreneur Dan Pallotta.

– Don’t forget a subject line that’s short and descriptive. If you need the recipient to do something as a result of your email, include a clear call to action.


– No one will read huge blocks of text, says Pallotta. You can break them up by visually highlighting key messages, explains Bridgespan Group’s Katie Smith Milway, or stick to the rule of composing a single screen of reading or less.

– But even if you trim the fat, keep the meat intact, instructs Garner. “Consider your message from their perspective. They aren’t as immersed in your project as you are, and they probably have many other things going on. So remind them where things stood when you last sent an update, and describe what’s happened since then.”

– Above all else, get to the point quickly. No need to butter anyone up (though an authentic complement here or there is probably OK) in order to get the job done.

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