Email is a great tool if used properly. Unfortunately, that’s a big “if”. I’ve written this list to compile what I feel are the worst misuses of email. Hopefully you aren’t an offender, but if you are, consider yourself warned. I won’t be coming after you, but some of your friends might.
Violation #1 – Not Responding to Emails that Need Replies
If I ask for a response, give me a response! If I don’t get a reply back to my email, even if you are just writing to say you can’t help me, I’ll think my message wasn’t read at all. With overzealous spam filters and email gremlins, it isn’t uncommon for mail to hit the trash before it is read.
I could never understand people who commit this crime, but some plausible reasons (but not excuses) for not replying to obvious requests include:
- Don’t have the time.
- Can’t help/don’t know the answer.
- Don’t know the answer or have the information yet.
The first is a case of laziness. It takes 15 seconds to write a reply to an email, even if it just states that you got their message but can’t reply. Letting the person know you don’t have time to reply is better than ignoring them entirely.
With the second case and third cases you should still send an email, even if you can’t give a meaningful response. Just a short note to let them know that you read their message. If you can’t answer, tell them. It will save the wait and let that person ask someone else. If you can’t answer now, give an estimated time when you might be able to reply.
Violation #2 – Sending Emails Without a Point
I probably get a few dozen emails a day. Even at this relatively low level, I still scan my messages looking to categorize them for a response. If the person you’re emailing gets 100+ messages a day, they probably pay even less attention to individual mail items.
Because I can’t spend all day reading email, I hate receiving emails that aren’t clear on their purpose. For myself, I automatically group all my email into a several categories:
- Introductions – reply needed
- Requests – reply needed
- Thanks/Signing Off – no reply needed
- Mass Info Mailings – no reply needed
- Mass Request Mailings – reply needed
- Follow-up Questions – reply needed
So, if you send me an email that looks like it doesn’t have a question, I probably won’t respond. This can happen when you bury your actual question within a paragraph of unimportant information. Separate out your questions and make it clear in the subject line what type of email this is. You’ll save me time and yourself the headache of waiting for a response.
Violation #3 – Emails With Broken Grammar
My grammar isn’t perfect. I can understand an occasional sentence fragment or misplaced comma. But that doesn’t mean you can leave entire sentences without capital letters, or misspell every word. The rules of grammar were formalized because they make your writing easier to read.
Here are a few mistakes and how to avoid them:
- Capitalize Sentences. The first word in a sentence should have a capital. Reading emails written entirely in lowercase is a headache.
- Use Periods. Don’t just send the first word salad you can come up with. Separate ideas into different sentences.
- If You Wouldn’t Say It, Don’t Write It. If it sounds wrong when you write it on paper, it’s probably a mistake in text. I hate trying to reply to people when I don’t understand what they’ve written.
Violation #4 – Writing All in One Paragraph
A good rule of thumb to use is that your paragraphs should be under six sentences. Your emails are readable when most of the paragraphs are 3-5 lines. Writing everything in one block limits my ability to scan for key points. Paragraphs also help by spacing apart ideas, when you write in one block those divisions are easier to miss.
Another, but less common, sin is writing everything as one sentence paragraphs. This is fine for a short email with just a few thoughts. But it can get annoying when you’re trying to read a few pages of disjointed writing.
Use small paragraphs for emphasis (1-2 sentences), long paragraphs for details (4-6 sentences).
Violation #5 – Attempts at Humor
The person at the other side of an email doesn’t know you’re trying to be funny. Sarcasm, wit and jests are all based on timing and your tone of voice. When you place them into text, the humor is replaced with confusion. I’ve had to re-read a lot of emails because they try to overuse humor and wind up missing the point.
Using emoticons doesn’t help either. Adding a winking or smiling face to the end of an email isn’t a substitute for all the complexity of human facial expressions. Humor can work in an email, but it takes a particular style of writing to work. Most people don’t write that way, so I recommend trying to avoid the jokes and get to the point.
Violation #6 – Sacrificing Communication for Productivity
Email can be a chore. If you get a lot of mail each day, you need to develop some systems to streamline those messages. Unfortunately, if you take some of these tips too far, the time you save isn’t worth the price. Remember that the point of email is to communicate, not just to empty your inbox.
There are many ways you can violate this rule, but one is by having a bad autoresponder. There are legitimate uses for autoresponders. But often they are just irritating. An autoresponder doesn’t tell me another human has actually read my message. The response clutters up my inbox without telling me whether I’ll ever hear back from that person.
The worst violators of email tend to be the people who use it infrequently. I know people who receive hundreds of emails a day and never violate one of these rules. I also know people who receive several emails a week and still manage to break a few. So having a full inbox isn’t an excuse for writing emails that make people hate you.