“How to Write Great Emails”

Emails-kindle-coverClick HERE to buy

Only $4.57 (approx £3 – €4)

Now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle!


So why do we even need a book on emailing? Surely we already know how to write messages, add attachments and press ‘Send’. Well, indeed we do, but there is much more to effective email writing than that. Badly-written emails reflect on the writer and the company they represent. At worst, they can lead to lost sales, lost reputation and even legal action. Well-written emails can do the opposite – they can enhance your reputation, your company’s image and boost revenue.

This eBook includes detailed sections on how to best use email systems in general, how to avoid misuse, how to protect your company from costly law suits and what kind of confidentiality and disclaimer footers to use. The book then goes on to describe just what kind of language will leave the best impression on your customers, how to structure your messages so that people want to read them, and emailing best practices.

This book will give you the tools and knowledge to write effective, professional-looking emails which will improve both your own image and that of your company. The author has spent 14 years teaching English to groups and individuals and has given presentations to audiences large and small on the art of email writing. You need look no further!

Extract from the Introduction

The Challenge

A generation ago, most managers had a secretary, who had been to secretarial college and had been taught how to run an office. He (but most probably she) would keep everything under control. Mail would be received, sorted and evaluated in the outer office. Important stuff would be shown to the manager and (usually) he would decide on the next step. Life was awfully sexist back then.

The boss would then read the letters and dictate a reply, or simply tell the secretary the basics of the answer, so that she could type the reply, as they had been trained to do. This training would have included a lot of standard business-like phrases like:

Dear Sir,

With reference to your letter of the 4th July, requesting product information, we are writing to inform you that our product range has been updated. Please find enclosed our latest brochure and price list for your consideration.

Yours faithfully,

So what is wrong with this? It’s old-fashioned, sounds a bit pompous and puts distance between the customer and the company. In fact, a generation ago, in order to have credibility, companies had to speak in this rather elegant way. It showed professionalism and education, and they dressed to match. It was all to do with image, creating customer confidence. However, we customers have changed somewhat. We are not so impressed by fine offices, slick suits and fancy language any more. We have learned that, behind this smart facade, the product can still be, to put it simply, rubbish. These days we would prefer to deal with a person, rather than a company, a person who remembers our name and our problem. Someone we can relate to, so …

Within reason, write as you would speak – person to person.

Dear Mr Smith,

Thank you for your letter and for your interest in our products. We have quite a few new items which I think would interest you, so I am enclosing our latest brochure and price list for you.

If you have any questions at all, please call or email me at …..

My best regards,

Alex Scott

Now doesn’t that sound friendlier? We’ve lost the old-fashioned phrases like, with reference to, please find enclosed, we are writing to inform you, yours faithfully etc. They are phrases that you would never use if writing to a friend.

In fact, you can see examples of modern business English all around you. I just received my my bank statement through the post (no, I’m not paper-free yet), and I noticed that words like deposit and withdrawal have been replaced by the much friendlier money in and money out. Well done Barclays! Most of the forms we have to fill in for government agencies these days are written in plain English. I love plain English! I always try to use it.

As I said before, secretaries had been trained to construct and write letters in a certain way. This was considered to be the ‘correct’ way. However, computers started to arrive in offices just as secretaries were on their way out. Or perhaps it was the other way around, that the PC was actually designed to replace the secretary. Anyway, the bosses were now in a completely new position. They had to start using a keyboard, which many saw as a secretary’s job and, even worse, women’s work! They had to check their inbox, decide which messages were important, if and when to answer them. Then they would have to actually write answers to the messages. Strangely enough, they hadn’t been trained for any of this. The result was messy!

I first encountered email in about 1998, when I started work as an English language trainer at a business oriented school. In fact, prior to that, I hadn’t really used a computer, not for work anyway. It was indeed a whole new world, with a whole new vocabulary which hadn’t yet even entered the dictionaries. Some computer language is logical, some is not. Back then we didn’t have problems with words like inbox, reply, send, forward etc – they were logical.

However, not having had secretarial training, things like Cc and Bcc did not make initial sense to some of us. Actually, I had had secretarial training, back in 1972, but even I didn’t instantly get the connection between the Cc field and the number of sheets of paper I would have needed to put in the typewriter back in the hippie era. Now, of course, the situation is reversed and young people have no idea of the origins of Cc and Bcc.

Outside of email we were flooded with a mass of new words like software, hardware, virus and default settings. Default settings got me. Default I knew from banking. If I was in default, then I hadn’t paid my loan installments. So what had default have to do with settings? The dictionary didn’t help. I had to ask someone.

Back in the late 1990s we were all learning to cope with the whole idea of e-mail. To be honest, we were quite clueless as to how it worked, how it should be used or what not to do. Netiquette had not yet been invented.

I remember one instance very clearly. The HR manager (just as new to email as the rest of us) had sent a general message to all employees, all 300 of us, and put all the names into the ‘to’ field. We had to scroll down a long long way just to get past the list of recipients. I took a screen shot of that, fuzzed it over and used it in presentations on email etiquette!

Some, particularly smaller, companies were using free, or very cheap email systems with limited options. As teachers in the business world we needed some way to group our students into … well … groups. No problem, we got inventive and added group prefixes to the students’ names and bingo, you just typed in the prefix and up came the students of that group. We were learning to be organised in the same way that secretaries had been taught to be. It was an early lesson in filing and giving files the kinds of names which would be easy to remember and find. It can be just as difficult to find a file on a hard-disk as in an old-fashioned filing cabinet, if you can’t remember where you put it, or indeed what you called it.

The exact same applies to emails, especially if you receive a lot of them. Creating logical folders to save them in can save you a lot of time when you need to find them. More advanced email systems have very good search facilities you can use to locate that lost message, but it is still easier just to file it properly in the first place. I use Google’s Gmail and use the labelling function extensively. Every one of my messages, in and out, must be labelled. If I can’t find an appropriate label, I make one. You can even give these labels colours to make them stand out from the crowd.

Well, enough about filing. Years have gone by and most people still haven’t had any training in what is a really important area of business – communication. How we communicate with our prospects, customers and colleagues is a key area for any company to master. The old days of hierarchical management are pretty much over and we live in a world of lean, flat management structures. We live in a world where our supervisors are there to help us do our work. They are not just there to tell us what to do and then only give negative feedback when things go wrong. We live in a world of meetings, teams and equality – and all of this requires effective communication skills.

Throughout this book my goal is to give you the knowledge and the tools to be a more effective communicator, particularly as regards the written word. This book concentrates on email, but the skills you will learn here will spill over into writing longer texts and even into the spoken word.

I am also going to avoid all cross-referencing, appendices and glossaries. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to be able to read a book from cover to cover, in a straight line. This book is not some learned research paper requiring extensive references at the back. It is not a newspaper, where it is common the start an article on Page One, and then continue on Page Six. Nor do I want to keep leading you from where you are now to another page, where whatever it is will be explained in more detail. I want you to be able to read it from one end to the other of its planned thirty or so pages, as if following a path.

This is the kind of style that I suggest you use with your writing. Keep it simple, make it pleasant to read, make it easy to follow. I was reading a book just the other day, a sort of biography put together by a journalist. OK, it was basically well-written, but two things bothered me. Firstly, it didn’t flow – it felt like it had been written in pieces, and compiled later. Secondly, it was littered with quotes from famous people – no problem here, except that the quotes, instead of being placed at the beginning or end of each section, were placed mid-text, creating a tiny dilemma. Should I stop reading the narrative to read the quote, or should I carry on with the narrative and return for the quote. It’s a small thing, but it’s now on my list of things not to do to my readers.

So, be nice to your reader. Write for them, not for you. This is the perfect point for me to mention a very important rule of writing – remember who you are writing to. Outside of business we do this quite naturally. We write differently to our mother, child, grandmother, friend, classmate etc. We don’t have to think hard about it, we just remember who they are. Now in business, we often don’t know the people we are writing to, which is one reason we used to write in business ‘code’, using those phrases I mentioned before, keeping our distance from them.

However, in the extremely international world we live in these days, it is far from sure that the person you are writing to is a native speaker of English. This means that you really need to use plain English. Using idioms, for example, is most likely to cause misunderstandings. Using more formal, Latin-based words may just leave your reader wishing that they were communicating with someone else. English probably has more words in it than any other language, a result of British imperialism and of having spent a lot of time and energy stomping around the globe and having a great deal of effect, welcome or otherwise, on other cultures. At the same time, English has absorbed thousands of words from these other cultures, which is one reason that we have, on average, three words for every idea.

I have spent many years teaching English to engineers, business people, bankers and public sector workers, and one of the biggest challenges all of these students had was the sheer size of the English vocabulary. What you need to do, as a writer, is to try and choose the words that your reader will understand. Take this trio of words – odd, peculiar, strange. Most of my students were Finnish, and had not come across odd (which is a word with Old Norse roots). Swedish speakers will probably recognise it as it is close to their own word udda. Peculiar comes from the Latin peculiaris, and was also unfamiliar to most of them. Which brings us to strange, which comes from the Old French estrange, everybody knew this one.

I had one student in Finland whose English skills were actually rather good. However, she needed private lessons for one particular reason. She worked for a large international company with its head office in the UK. She was in charge of bringing the working practices of her Finnish branch into line with those of the parent company and, to this end, she received masses of documents and emails in anything but simple English! I don’t mean that they were technical documents which needed to use fancy engineering terminology. I mean that the writer was actually writing for himself – he wanted to sound well-educated, he wanted to sound clever, he wanted to impress his reader with his huge vocabulary of Latin-based unusual words. The result was that he failed miserable at the task at hand, which was to communicate effectively with the reader!

My student didn’t want to appear stupid and reduce her credibility as an effective international partner, so naturally she didn’t want to write back and say that she didn’t understand half of what the writer was saying. She went for Plan B and hired me, at the company’s expense, to help her with the solution – which was basically to ‘translate’ English texts into English. She had no problem writing her replies, once she understood the long, complicated sentences which were crammed with long complicated words, plus idioms – just to make sure that even a native English reader would be challenged.

So, don’t fall into this trap of trying to sound elegant and clever. Write for your reader and try to choose the right words for them. Unfortunately, you actually have to un-learn some of the styles that perhaps you learned at school and university, where it was often necessary to sound clever, just to prove you could. However, unless you are still in an educational establishment, the chances are that you are reading this book in order to improve your writing performance at work.

Lastly, I have limited the length of this book to around thirty pages for a reason. This kind of publication fills the gap between the huge amount of business advice pages found on the Internet (some of which are very good, and some of which are just trying to attract advertisers) and full-scale printed books of several hundred pages. I hope to fill this middle ground with this comprehensive but concise, extremely portable document format eBook, which you can keep on your laptop, tablet computer or even handheld device, for easy reference, wherever you may be. I have also resisted the temptation to reduce all this information to a bulleted list of tips, although I shall summarise each section for easy reference.Following this introduction, the book will be split into two parts. Firstly I shall discuss how best to use the email systems we have, and what common mistakes to avoid. Secondly I shall give a detailed account of how a great email message is structured, and what kind of vocabulary to use.

Copyright © 2013 by Malcolm Pemberton
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.

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