I’m updating some old posts from an old blog. Here are some of the basic rules of email I’ve picked up over the last 28 years of writing emails, running mailing lists, and professionally working on HTML newsletter design for major media properties.
My 12 Rules for Good Emails
1: Above all, be brief.
Pretend you’re paying by the word. Keep paragraphs short, no first line indent, with a blank line between them (business writing format).
2: Don’t get fancy with whitespace.
There are a bunch of reasons any whitespace you try to create within a paragraph or the whole mail may not render the way you expect. Keep spacing simple.
3: DON’T USE ALL CAPS EXCEPT FOR SECTION TITLES OR EMPHASIS
If it’s long enough that you’re having to break things up into sections with titles and you’re writing the email in plain text (no fonts, font sizes, or bold print), use all caps for visual distinction. Otherwise, LIMIT IT to just the things you really feel need emphasis.
4: Don’t get fancy with backgrounds,
Backgrounds can cause text to be unreadable when they overlap in ways you didn’t expect. And because it’s email, it is almost guaranteed to display in ways you didn’t expect unless you’re well versed in the vagaries of email clients and have done extensive testing.
5: Be respectful with attachment sizes.
People may be receiving your emails on phones with slow or metered data. One of the biggest issues can be when people attach MASSIVE IMAGES that should really have 1/10th the dimensions and 1/100th the file size.
6: Don’t get fancy with fonts.
Odd fonts might not display at all or not in the way you expect when your mail is viewed on other machines and mail clients. Plus the wrong font or too many different fonts can cause your mail to look childish or unprofessional.
7: Send the text that’s in your PDF too.
My kid’s school puts together its newsletter in Word or some typesetting software, publishes it to a PDF, then sends it out via email. You know what it’s like to try to read that on a smartphone?
95% of that information is not made more useful by being extra-formatted, but the only way to access the information is to download a multi-megabyte attachment and load it up in a reader to see 4k worth of text which adds friction for your recipient and reduces open rates.
To paraphrase a Lewis Black joke about a college class held at 8 a.m.: “are you trying to keep this information a secret?”
Send out a text-only version, then you can have the attachment for the people who want to see the full-blown presentation.
8: Avoid unnecessary notices AND be careful to whom you send things.
Don’t put one of those “privileged and confidential” notices at the bottom of an email unless the content is actually important enough to warrant it. When my sister sends me an email from her work account about a family issue, it looks silly to have all this pointless legalese at the bottom. I’m not her client or her lawyer, and my only obligation to confidentiality is governed by how well we’re getting along.
You shouldn’t think the notice protects you if you make a mistake. When you send something confidential to the wrong person, you can’t obligate them to correct or not exploit your mistake unless there is a professional or contractual obligation to which they have agreed.
9: BCC large lists!
CC is “carbon copy” and copies the mail to everyone on that line, but the list of addresses on that line is visible to everyone on it.
BCC is “blind carbon copy” and copies the mail to everyone on that line, but no one can see that line except the sender.
If a doctor’s office sends out a notice to all patients who had a specific procedure and puts all the patient email addresses on the CC line, they have just committed a HIPAA violation because every patient can see the address of every other other patient, creating a privacy boondoggle.
It also limits the consequences of the next rule…
10: Don’t reply to all by default.
You would think that huge tech companies like Microsoft or Amazon have smart people working there who would never commit this faux pas. You would be wrong.
There have been numerous incidents where someone sent an email to a HUGE internal list or carbon copied one, so that not only did 50,000 people receive the email, they received ALL the responses asking to take them off the list, and ALL the responses telling people to stop replying to the whole list.
Behind the scenes, people have been fired or disciplined for replying to all in these circumstances, especially if their reply is unprofessionally coarse and angry, which is an argument for the next rule…
11: Tone matters.
Try to use the right tone.
- Personal – the way you’d write to a friend, personable, whatever language is your thing, exclamation points, emoticons, etc. You be you.
- Business informal – the way you’d write to a friend at work or when you’re organizing the office softball team. Friendly, but little or no slang, restrained use of emoticons and exclamation points because other people might read it.
- Business semi-formal – the way you’d write to your new manager before you got to know them. There are style guides for this. Avoid slang, exclamation points, emoticons, and personal observations.
- Business formal – think presenting a business proposal to stuffy old investors formal. This is rare and generally for special circumstances… like presenting a business proposal to investors.
In business informal, it is okay to reply to an email with one word if that’s all that’s needed. For example, if you’re a manager and an employee asks for you to approve their vacation request, you can simply write “Approved” instead of “Dear Elizabeth, I have read your proposal and it is within the parameters of HR policy, therefore I have approved it.” That said, if you believe people will read a disapproving tone into a one-word email, you might want to say “Approved. Have fun!”
When communicating with peers or people below you at work, exclamation points have become not only acceptable, but a recent study said that not using them can be considered damning the recipient with faint praise or a lack of enthusiasm. The study said this held true even more when the sender of the email was a woman, regardless of the gender of the recipient.
12: Avoid sending HTML emails unless you know what you’re doing.
Mail clients will change or “fix” things they don’t like about your emails. For example, Gmail will clobber all global styles and turn all spaces in URLs to plus symbols instead of %20 (an entity code for spaces). Meanwhile Excel’s HTML renderer is not Edge. It’s Microsoft Word. I worked on templates for newsletters for major media properties. I had to check each against up to 30 email clients, then write software to massage the HTML imported from CSS feeds and ad booking systems. And we still got errors.
If someone opens your email with images turned off by default in their mail client and your whole email is images, if you haven’t used good alt-text in the construction, they have absolutely no idea what you’re trying to say. Some will load images to find out. Some will think you’re an idiot and just block you. Graphics-heavy emails without enough text or alt text to convey the core points are a sign of people who don’t know how to do their jobs.