Writing effective e-mails VI: Getting the basic elements right

The subject line

Don’t just use the subject line of an e-mail you’re replying to. Often, after e-mails have gone back and forth between people for a while, the subject matter changes. People only tangentially involved with the initial subject may have already started ignoring the conversation, and may therefore completely miss a message that is important to both your and their interests. This is less likely to happen if you update the subject line.

How to start

It can often be daunting when you are writing an e-mail to know how to start it. Do you start with “Dear Dr Kumar,” or do you launch straight into your message? In making the decision, the first thing to consider is whether the message is to a group or an individual, and how serious is the subject. Use the “Dear Dr Kumar,” form when you are writing to someone on their own, to someone you don’t know well, to someone to whom you have something serious to say, or when when the e-mail contains important instructions or information that are likely to be kept for a while.

Do you use the person’s given name, or title and family name? The answer is partly cultural and partly based on status: it will depend on where you live, and where you (and the person you are writing to) are in your particular hierarchy. If they are higher up than you (for instance, if you are a student writing to a lecturer), then you should write “Dear Dr Kumar,” (if you write anything at all). Once you get to know the person well, then it may be OK to call them by their given name. The best way to see whether this is appropriate is to see how they sign their e-mails to you. If they refer to themselves as Vijay then (if you’re comfortable with it yourself) you can to.

If you don’t know their name or title, it may be better to miss them out altogether and just launch into the body of the e-mail. Also, if you’re writing to a lot of people , “Hi Everyone,” might be OK, but it’s not ideal if the subject is formal.

Correct titles/Properly spelled names

The previous section assumes that you know the person’s name and title or honorific (if you’re writing to just one person). Unless you are forced to write to someone who is genuinely unknown (like an info@ e-mail address), then you really must try to get the person’s name right if you are going to use it. It’s very easy (usually) to do this. First, if you’ve e-mailed back and forth before, check to see whether they have an e-mail signature. You can get their name and title from there. For Western names, you would either use the given name only, or the title and family name (so Vijay or Dr Kumar) in the ‘Dear’ line of a letter or e-mail. If you can’t find a signature, find the person via a search engine or professional networking site. Also, at the very least, if you have their e-mail address that will usually give you a clue about how to spell their given name, family name, or both.

Note that it is unprofessional to get someone’s name or title wrong when you should already know it: especially if they’ve done all the work for you by providing an e-mail signature and sign off showing exactly how they like to be addressed. If you mangle their name/title, they may see it is a sign of disrespect. Often, to get the spelling, accents, and special characters right, all you have to do is to cut and paste it from the last message. If you choose not to bother, that says something about you. If it’s an important e-mail and you haven’t got their signature, you may be able to find solid information about them in a few seconds on the web or LinkedIn. You should get in the habit of always checking if you don’t know.

Sometimes, you will not be able to find the title for the person to whom you are writing, even after a few web searches. If this is the case and it is nevertheless important that you write in a formal tone, one trick is to promote them. So, for instance, in the academic world, if you are not sure whether someone is a Dr or a Prof, you should assume they are a Prof (at least in the UK, where Prof is higher status). In the research/technical world, assume they are a Dr. No-one is ever offended by being given a higher-status title that they haven’t (yet) earned. Many people are offended by being denied a title they spent years working to attain. The other benefit of using the titles Dr and Prof is that they are not related to gender (which is sometimes hard to tell from a name).

If you are fairly confident that Dr or Prof is inappropriate, and you either don’t know or wouldn’t feel comfortable using a given name, then you should (in English) use Mr for men and Ms for women. Ms is the exact female equivalent of Mr. It is not appropriate to use Miss or Mrs unless you know for sure that this is what the woman prefers (for instance, because they use it in their own e-mail signature). The title Miss is only appropriately used for unmarried women, the title Mrs for those who are married, widowed, or divorced. Since, in a professional context, it is not really appropriate for you to know (or care) about the marital status of the person to whom you are writing, Ms (which covers all untitled women) is the appropriate choice if they have not expressed a preference.

The one context in which it’s OK to use Miss is if you are writing very formally to a female child: one too young to get married. Even then, I would suggest it would be more advisable to use Ms with anyone above the age of 12. Likewise, you could conceivably use Master for male children under the age of 12. It’s not unheard of these days, but it’s quite rare and in most circumstances would be considered anachronistic. In any case, you would generally use given names when writing to children.

Note that there are many people who do not see their gender as falling neatly into either male or female. Where it matters to them, they will generally be very clear about how they want to be addressed in their signature or elsewhere, and you should take your cue from them. They may ask you to use the gender-neutral Mx (pronounced mix or mux), use their first name, or something else. The main thing is just to respect their request whether it is explicit (they specifically tell you what they want) or implicit (in the way they sign off from their own e-mail).

If you can’t tell from the name whether someone is male or female, you don’t know (or wouldn’t feel comfortable using) their given name, it would be really inappropriate to call them Dr or Prof, and it is necessary to write to them formally, then you can simply miss out the “Dear” line from the start of your e-mail. Though this may seem unprofessional, it is far better than getting the recipient’s name wrong.

Formality

Just because it’s electronic, doesn’t mean the rules of writing go out the window in an e-mail. Although not everyone cares, many professionals will look down on others who send e-mails with poor punctuation, grammar, missing capital letters, and so forth. If you want something from someone, you them to take you seriously. So show that you take yourself seriously by writing the e-mail properly.

Also we often think we can relax in an e-mail because we are writing to a friendly colleague who doesn’t care about the formalities. But what if that colleague has to forward it onto someone else for further action? What if we’ve made casual (perhaps negative?) comments about other team members in the e-mail, which end up being forwarded back to them?

You should treat every e-mail as if it is going to be seen by your boss, your client, and every person you mention in it. If you’re not willing to send it on that basis, that’s your cue to edit.

Attachments

Just three things to remember here. First, give them sensible names and remember to attach them. If you’re applying for a job and send two files called Application.pdf and CV.pdf, then the person you’re writing to is going to have to do a full-text search in order to find your particular documents. Call them SmithCV.pdf and SmithApplication.pdf and it’s a lot more obvious what’s in them. Finally, remember not to attach too large a file: unless you know their service will accept it, best to avoid an attachment of more than, say 10Mb. Use a file-sending service instead.

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