Writing effective emails and etiquette

December 2018
by Roger Ashmus, Simon Fraser University

Emailing is probably the most essential form of online communication in the workplace today. We use it to share data and information with our supervisors, colleagues, collaborators, and generally use it as the first form of contact with a company/professor when job hunting. Because of this, writing an effective email can save time, and learning a bit of email etiquette could help make a good first impression.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking…you already write effective emails. I would argue, however, that there are many people that feel the same, but could use some help in this area. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to take a step back to confirm this. To help, here are some tips to writing an effective email and etiquette.

Writing an effective email:

1) Avoid the use of oversimplified subject lines. In general, they should be concise, but informative. Asking to take time off in December? Perhaps use “[insert dates] vacation request.”  Emailing a professor for a postdoc position? Maybe use “postdoc inquiry – [your name].”

2) Use a proper salutation to address the person. There are a number of greetings to choose from. Some common ones include “Dear” for formal emails (most commonly used when contacting someone you don’t know personally for the first time), “Hi” or “Good morning/afternoon” for slightly less formal greetings, and “Hey” for an informal greeting. My suggestion is to only use “Hey” for people you are close to. In this context, it’s best to follow with the actual name of the person you are writing. Leaving this out makes the email less personable.

3) Keep the content clear and concise. I can’t stress this enough. If you are responding to an email with a question/request/concern, make sure you answer or address it. If you are initiating the email, make sure you are clear about the purpose of the email. Sometimes sharing too much information can confuse your reader enough where they miss the purpose of your email. In the context of writing the initial email, there are two ways to do this 1) Share some information before getting to the point of the email or 2) Get straight to the point of the email and then follow-up with some information.

Let’s say you’re emailing a professor about a position. The first approach might include who you are (name, current position), your research/work experience, and your interest within their group and then your inquiry about a position. The second approach might start off with you inquiring about the position and then going into all the details as above. While I prefer the latter, I believe either approach is generally accepted as long as it is clear what the purpose of the email is.

4) Use a closing remark. Similar to the greeting, there are a number ways to end the body of the email (aside from your name and contact and in some cases a signature block). The recipient will likely determine the type of closing remark you use. Some of the common ones I use are “Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.” and “Please let me know as soon as you can.” Being polite by using “please” and “thank you” is generally a good gesture.

Other emailing etiquette suggestions:

1) It is courteous to email the person back regardless of whether their email warrants a response. Taking the time to respond lets the person know that you have received and read their email.

2) If you are sharing a large file (maybe >5 Mb in size), you may want to provide a link to access the file(s) from an online storage service (i.e. Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive, Google Drive). Many people use their cellphones to read emails and if they do not have the cellular service configured to their liking (e.g., they are roaming), they may not want to use their data to download a large file and in some cases may not even be able to open (i.e. ChemDraw file). In general, sending a low resolution PDF file is a best practice.

3) If sending a file, use a descriptive name and include a suffix (e.g., pdf, doc, etc). For example, sending your CV, maybe use ‘[your name]-CV.pdf’. Sending your CV title “CV.pdf” or worse “untitled.pdf” will likely not help your cause.

4) Keep humour to a minimum and avoid the use of slang.

While there are a number of other recommendations for writing an effective email and etiquette, these are the ones that I find to be the most important. If you already apply these, great. If not, I recommend getting into the habit of writing more effective emails. There are several resources that provide advice and share examples of emails for different scenarios.

Roger Ashmus is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Laboratory of Chemical Biology (Vocadlo Group) at Simon Fraser University. He is part of the 2018-2019 GlycoNet Trainee Association – Executive Committee, 2018-2019 GlycoNet Training Committee, and multiple committees involved in safety and researchers’ development.

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