Why emails must be well-written and error-free – UPDATE

UPDATE: some people have noticed that *this* post contained some errors (Gulp. Oops. Sorry). We all make mistakes, and there is always room for some errors. So, I would like to propose that we stick by the argument that we “strive for” error-free emails! (and blog posts).


dear prof can u help me with a Q about the crs work…. Its really important and would be gr8 if u could let me know when i could come by and see u in your office”

I get emails like this all the time. Most often, emails sent with shorthand, all in small-caps, without punctuation come from undergraduate students. Sometimes they are from graduate students, and very occasionally, from colleagues.  Quite often, emails from prospective graduate students are riddled with errors and make no sense. This is not the way to make a positive first impression.

Rite gud emails pls

Email remains the last vestige of anything reassembling ‘official correspondence’ between a writer and a reader. As such, any ‘first contact’ over email, or whenever you are not sure of the relationship with the receiver*, you must proofread and strive for clear, error-free emails. It matters. Here’s why, from my perspective as an Academic:

 1) Triage: I’m overwhelmed with emails. Every one of my colleagues is overwhelmed with emails. Triage is often based on a series of quick decisions, and if an prospective student can’t string together a sentence, that email will likely be deleted**. If a student asks questions about course content, I guarantee that the well crafted email will get a response faster than the one that was sent without being proofread. Well-written emails are seldom ignored or deleted quickly.

2) Don’t risk it: Being polite, formal and clear in your writing will not hurt your chances of a positive interaction with someone. Being too casual and sloppy can hurt your chances of a positive interaction. It’s not a chance worth taking.

3) You get what you give: A well written, clear and error-free email will raise the bar. It tells me the sender is serious, and I will respond with the same level of seriousness.  Quality gets you quality, and you will not be taken as seriously if you do not take the time to think about what you are going to write, draft it, proofread, think about it, edit, and then send it.

4) Know your audience: most Academics are somewhat “old school”. We hang on to things from the past. We like books and remember the days of hard-copy newsletters, fax machines and the sound of the dial-up modem. When writing to people of that ilk, take the time to craft an email like it’s an old-fashioned letter, sent with a stamp.  I guarantee it will get noticed.

End of rant.

* email communication can quickly slide into the informal/casual and shorthand provided you have an established relationship between the sender and the reader. If there is a certain amount of familiarity, I see nothing wrong with quick and sometimes sloppy short-hand.

** writing problems are sometimes because of language (i.e., writing in something other than your first language). From my experience, it’s usually quite easy to separate a language issue from sloppiness or carelessness. If you are writing to someone in a language you are less familiar with, I suggest being clear about this. Tell your reader that you are writing in a second (or third language), be honest and genuine, but do pay careful attention so that your email is not sloppy.

(oh, and by the way, here’s a post about common writing errors!)


18 thoughts on “Why emails must be well-written and error-free – UPDATE

  1. Good post.. I don’t think it matters how old you are – technology is great and mighty useful, but it shouldn’t be taken as a carte blanche to throw grammar (especially of your native language!) and manners out the window. Of course, many of the younger generation don’t even learn how to write at school anymore – swiping and touchscreen skills are apparently more essential for the modern developing human…so are they truly careless/rude, or have they just grown up to think this is okay?

    • Absolutely – regardless of technology – solid communication skills are key, and the written word remains critically important. Technology should only be a ‘facilitator’ and never replace the skill of the written word. Thanks for the comment!!

  2. This is a great list. I would also add: be brief. More than three or four lines in an email (or worse, a paragraph) and I’m sending you to the ‘read it later’ bin. Say what you want in the first line; leave the details for later. If you have more than 2 questions call me or come see me.

    • Good point, Chris – i think it depends on the topic, but yes, overly long emails for single questions isn’t a good strategy. Being concise is an art, and I’m always impressed with people who can get the message across with few words. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Being the contentious sort, I think I would like to disagree with some of your Wright Goods. Shakespeare split infinitives and so have many good writers since. As long as clarity isn’t befuddled, then there is no harm and no foul. Besides, split infinitives, as per your example, can be more effective than the boring alternative.

    Also, I think that when you use ‘data’ as an abstract noun, it can and should be singular because it refers to a set of values, not to the data points themselves. Maybe when your data is a set of counts or if there is some ambiguity (i.e. [note the comma has evaporated] that the data may consist of more than one set) then plural makes sense, but in general the singular is clear, in common usage and has the support of numerous authorities. No one really uses ‘datum’ any more do they? I think ‘agenda’ is a similar usage. Here’s a good discussion of data is: http://grammarist.com/usage/data/

    That and which give me a headache, but my understanding is that either are okay for a restrictive relative clause, but only ‘which’ will do for an unrestrictive relative clause. So if the information in the clause is ancillary/parenthetical, use ‘, which’.

    I’m not sure why we can’t use contractions in scientific writing: we use e.g., i.e., journal abbreviations (which I am against), etc.

    • Thanks for the comments – they are great points, and thanks for the link, also. I do think some of that list is based on what I view ‘best practices’ and on personal style. That being said, I think I have to give up on the ‘data’ issue….

      • Indeed, we might want to give up trying to get students to write “data are” rather than “data is.” Corpus linguistics (explanation at http://www.cl2011.org.uk/) tells us that “With ‘data,’ singular and plural concord are about equally common” (Biber et al., 1999, p. 181) and “The foreign plurals ‘data’ and ‘media’ have become dissociated from their original singular forms ‘datum’ and ‘medium’ and are variably treated as plural and singular nouns” (p. 287).

        English has no official body that governs “acceptable” language. Usage dictates what is/becomes acceptable.

        Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad, E. Finegan. (1999). The Longman grammar of spoken and written English. London: Longman.

    • Google scholar “data is” or “data are” or “this data” or “these data” and limit the search to papers in sources with “Ecology” in the title and dates 2000-2014 and you will find that the plural usage far outnumbers the singular usage. This is why the singular usage sounds ignorant in a professional journal, despite its common usage in newspapers or wherever.

  4. Regarding “Don’t risk it: Being polite, formal and clear …”: The problem is that students often have a different frame of reference. What they perceive to be polite, formal and clear is not necessarily what “old schoolers” perceive to be polite, formal and clear. Same comment for the third point: “You get what you give.” Students sometimes perceive their writing to be clear and well-written, but to others it might not be. “Well-written” and “clear” are relative terms. How does one bridge the gap between the different frames of reference?

    • Wonderful comment, Carolyn: thank you. Yes, these terms are relative. Bridging the gap? Excellent question, and I don’t have an answer…one part of the answer, however, might be ensuring some guidelines for ‘best practices’ with emails ought to appear in part of the educational process. My feeling is that many people view emails more like Facebook posts rather than as an important form of written communication.

  5. A great tip I learned–and quickly taught all my students and employees–is BLUF.
    Bottom Line Up Front.

    Greeting, then a sentence that tells me what your email is about and what you need.
    Then, “here’s the details/excuses/etc”

    It’s one of those transferrable skills kids are supposed to pick up in college :p

  6. Pingback: Friday Recommended Reads #16 | Small Pond Science

  7. Great post. I am the undergraduate chair in my department. As undergrad chair, I get a tremendous number of emails from students who are asking for my help on a variety of matters. After growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of professional emails I was receiving, I finally created a new ‘signature’ that I can add in my response to any email I decide requires this. Here is my signature line that I sometimes use:

    Signature for non-professional emails:

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the email you sent me suffers from at least one faux pas (violates accepted social norms, standard customs, and/or the rules of etiquette). As your undergraduate advisor, part of my role is to train you in how to become a professional biologist. So, at the risk of sounding like a nagging parent, you are going to have to improve your email writing style. Below are some points that you should ensure you have completed PRIOR to sending an email:

    -Refer to me as Dr. Bertram or Professor Bertram

    -Use proper punctuation, spelling, grammar, and capitalization

    -Write in a professional manner, ensuring the email is concise but informative, and provides sufficient detail so that I may be able to respond quickly and efficiently

    -Please reconfirm your appointment time once I agree to it to ensure that it works for both of us. If you don’t reconfirm, I may book someone else in your place or not be there

    -When you arrive, please bring a printout of your most recent audit with you

    -Please bring a written list of your questions and concerns

    I strongly encourage you to follow these general guidelines when contacting ANY professor unless they have explicitly instructed you otherwise.

    Please note that if I haven’t answered your inquiry and only sent this response, I am awaiting a professional email. Once I receive one I will respond to you as quickly as I can.


    Dr. Bertram

      • Please feel free to use it.
        I have found a professional email that is written when I am not overly annoyed and I can respond with in one click is far superior to either (a) writing the nasty response that I sometimes want to, (b) ignoring the situation, or (c) trying to reinvent the wheel by writing a positive letter when I am feeling annoyed.

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