How to write a good e-mail

When it comes to e-mail, I’ve noticed a trend that I need to address. Lately, I’ve come to receive e-mails which fall better into category of texts. No “hello”, “no goodbye”, no “thank you”, no introduction and no ending. There is however one line which contains one question which usually implies I need to do something.

Although an untrained eye may find an advantage in how much time a short e-mail saves on both parties, the incentive to skip answering such e-mails is high. I need to state that although I am critical of this practice I do answer these e-mails. Despite the urge to press delete.

The problem with short e-mails is that usually they lack the necessary information to take action. I usually need to write back and ask for clarifications. In this way the back and forth ends up consuming more time. Putting in the time to write an informative e-mail can prove valuable especially when you need something from the recipient.

Yes, I know we live in the world of attention economy, where we need to be brief and on point and be productive and do it all at once and fast because everything is moving fast. Maybe our attention span is decreased by the use of social media platforms and by engaging online. Maybe the “digital natives” [on which I should come back at a future date] are familiar with short texts which solve problems. And so this is what they know and thus this is how they do.

Well, I am actually not a big supporter of the :”the world is changing and we need to keep up with it” approach. I am more of a “the world is changing and we need to experience, evaluate, reflect on the results and implement what works” kind of woman.

E-mails are a form of a letter, an electronic one. It has three components:

  1. The section for the recipients’ e-mails addresses:
    • Use TO for all those who need to take action on your e-mail;
    • Use CC for all those who don’t need to take action, but should just be informed on the communication;
    • Use BCC when you want someone to be kept in the loop without those in TO or CC know – I advise you to use this wisely.
  2. The subject section:
    1. Write in a few words what is the subject of the e-mail. I prefer to write the name of the project and then the type of e-mail (question concerning …, report for …., booking of…, etc.)
  3. The body of the e-mail: this is where the magic is happening. First of all, there needs to be an introduction, a middle and an ending.
    1. In the introduction you say hello, who you are and what is it that you want;
    2. You then explain the context and the back story, giving the needed information so that the person to whom you address your e-mail can provide a satisfactory answer;
    3. You close by commenting on the expected response, saying thank you and signing the e-mail – don’t forget to include your name.

Especially when you want to ask a question because you need clarifications, the e-mail needs to brief and considerate. Yes, I may be too polite. Yes, I may be a little too concerned with protocol and how things are usually done. But polite, concise and considerate will answer your question and thus solve your problems.

So, before checking the example below, here are my recommendations:

  • don’t make an e-mail too long. Keep it brief by presenting the minimum information required for making a decision. If the e-mail is too long, it would be better to send an attachment or to set up a short call which will be followed by an e-mail with the decisions made. Always, always, send an e-mail after decision making phone calls – this is the way to avoid the he said she said talk that sometimes happens when things aren’t going as planned;
  • use paragraphs and leave spaces between them;
  • highlight the most important things, like dates, places, main problem;
  • place your question first and then provide the details, I read this online a while back and can’t reference it as I don’t know where I read it. The premise is that the recipient needs to immediately know what the sender wants. There is no point in asking “How was your vacation?” or “How are you feeling during these times?” first. Ask what you need first and then, at the end, before closing, ask the personal question. Sure, ask the personal question only if the relationship allows for you to do that. Don’t worry about appearing impolite – everybody knows the reason for the e-mail is to ask the date of the report and not how the vacation was. You can be considerate and place that at the end;
  • write in the subject line what the e-mail is about, such as question about participating in debate; question about how to write something; question about how to do something – by reading the subject line, the receiver should know what to expect from your e-mail;
  • don’t wait until the deadline to find excuses for the lack of progress. If you know you have other priorities, send an e-mail when you realise you can’t make the deadline. Ask what can be done by proposing several options;
  • most times include a proposal or a solution in the e-mail. Don’t just ask questions, but show that you tried to come up with an answer yourself and that you are just looking for confirmation or advice on what you already did;
  • make sure the recipients’ e-mail addresses are typed in correctly. Place them in to, cc or bcc after you drafted the e-mail, wrote the subject line and re-read the text;
  • always proof the e-mail before pressing SEND;
  • take at least two days to draft important e-mails. When the e-mail is important, draft it in day one. Edit it and send it in day two. Take at least two days for drafting it. Once sent, it’s sent and there isn’t much which can be done once sent;
  • mention the date by when you need an answer. Don’t assume people know all you know;
  • when you made a mistake, write back with the correction;
  • use the Urgent word in subject line when it’s urgent. When it’s something you need to be answered very fast, by which I mean in one or two days, write URGENT in the subject line. Don’t abuse it – if the recipient will not find the first couple of e-mails labelled urgent to actually be urgent, they will ignore them in the future. If you need an answer in a few hours, it may be better to call to let them know you’ll send an e-mail which is urgent.

What else would you add on this list of recommendations? Let me know in the comments below.

An example of what I mean by all of the above is below:

Dear Ms./Mrs./Mr. X // (Stimată/Stimate doamnă/domnule X)

My name is Y and I am a student in your course AB. I am writing to ask you [insert here the question] …. // Mă numesc Y și sunt student/ă dvs. la cursul AB. Vă scriu să vă întreb .[introdu aici întrebarea]….

At the moment, I know this / I did this … // În acest moment, știu că / am făcut .

Thank you for sending an answer at your earliest convenience. I need the answer by DATE when the PAPER is due. // Mulțumesc anticipat pentru răspunsul dumneavoastră. Menționez că am nevoie de el până la data ZZ/MM/AAAA când este termenul limită pentru lucrare.

Best regards, / Cu stimă,


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