When I teach writing courses to business professionals, I often get asked questions about the “rules” for writing e-mails. These students want to communicate professionally, which is why they are in my classes, and this includes how they present themselves and deliver their content in e-mails.
In response to the question about e-mail “rules,” I answer that I don’t know of any. What I do offer, however, are guidelines for business and personal letters, modified for the e-mail format. These guidelines follow two basic principles.
1. Business e-mails and personal e-mails serve different purposes.
2. Business e-mails are formal correspondences.
With these two principles in mind, here are 6 guidelines for writing e-mail.
Personal e-mails: Use the recipient’s first name followed by comma. Just using the name is sufficient. I don’t recommend using “Dear.” Because of the informal nature, you may wish, instead, to start with some other greeting, such as “Good morning” or “Hi.”
Formal, business e-mails: Use the recipient’s first name followed by a colon, just like in a business letter. Use the same greeting line information that you would use in a formal business letter. Here, you may wish to use “Dear” followed by the name. Interestingly, “Dear” gives the e-mail a formal touch.
Personal e-mails: You can generally omit closing lines. Finish the content of the message and follow it with your signature information.
Formal, business e-mails: Follow the content of the body with some form of tag line, such as “I look forward to hearing from you” or “Please let me know if you have any questions.” You can leave out letter closings, such as “Sincerely,” or you can include them. Either way is acceptable.
Use short paragraphs to make on-screen reading easier. Readers may have difficulty following the content if you have more than 4 or 5 lines of text. Put a blank line between paragraphs. Also, don’t indent the first line—you don’t need to because you’re adding the blank lines.
Mechanics are important. They include spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word usage. The recipient of a personal e-mail may forgive you for errors; the recipient of a business e-mail will not and should not. These are as important in your e-mail as in a business letter. Mechanics also may affect meaning, which means they are critical for communicating accurately.
At a minimum, include your name. For business e-mails, also include your e-mail address (even though it is already included in the e-mail routing information), your phone number, and the URL for your main business website. In short, include all the information the recipient needs to contact you and get information about your organization.
Personal e-mails: Pretty much anything goes. Personal e-mails are about you, and they represent you to your social network.
Formal, business e-mails: You need a formal appearance. This means no artistic fonts (which may be hard to read and may not be present on the recipient’s computer), no background images (which may make the text difficult to read), and no brightly colored text (for the same reason). The point is that business e-mails are formal documents, not art projects. They represent your organization, not you.
If the content is very long, longer than one screen, for example, consider writing a synopsis in the e-mail body and attaching a formal business letter with detailed content. Use a PDF if possible.
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