“With writing, I think you need to find some strange balance between confidence and humility. You need to start from a place of confidence, from the belief that you have a story worth telling and know how to tell it—you have to set out from this place with gusto. Then immediately open yourself to humility and the certainty of some kind of failure.” Will McGrath
“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly. There will be many mistakes, many things to take out and others that need to be added.” Anne Lamott
Writing emails has always intimidated me, but work-related emails are the scariest. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at it over the past year. I spend a good bit of time sending emails for my current job (which is pretty typical for many positions, I think). I’ve discovered some basic techniques that I really wish someone had shared with me sooner, so I’m going to share them with you. Whether your writing to a client, a professor, or a potential interviewer, I hope these tips are as helpful to you as they have been to me!
One of the keys to writing a professional-sounding email is to maintain the proper tone. How do you know what the proper tone is? Good question. If you are in a work situation, follow any guidelines provided by your company. How does your supervisor sign emails? “Sincerely”? “Best regards”? “Thanks”? If you’re corresponding with someone who is higher in the company than you are (or for a non-work situation, older or in a position of authority such as a teacher) it’s often best to let the other person set the tone of the conversation. It’s generally better to error on the side of formality if you’re in doubt. Remember as well that you will probably use a different tone when asking a coworker a quick question than you would if you were corresponding with a client or the president of the company.
Avoid abbreviations and misspellings, and be cautious about your use of contractions. This will help preserve a more professional tone in your emails. Additionally, don’t start an email off by writing “Hey.” I’ve been told this is one of the most common mistakes college student make when they are attempting to write professional emails. Depending on the situation, “Hello,” “Good morning [afternoon, etc.],” and “Dear [full name or Ms./Mr. last name]” can be good choices to start an email. If you are unsure of someone’s gender, it’s safer to use the full name when addressing the person, rather than using “Ms” or “Mrs.” or “Mr.” and being wrong. To conclude, try “Sincerely,” “Best regards” or “Thank you.”
Strive for clarity of wording and clarity of purpose. After the recipient has read your email, will he or she know why you have sent it? If you want the person to take a specific course of action, say that (politely, of course). In certain situations, it may be helpful to give a time frame for this. Example: “Please respond by Wednesday afternoon so we will be able to make reservations.” You get the idea. Always be polite and keep the other person’s needs in mind.
Sometimes writing a professional sounding email is a matter of nuance. A few words can change the tone of an email from helpful and polite to rushed and slightly annoyed. There is a difference between “cannot” and “will not,” for example. Sometimes what you don’t say is as important as what you do. If someone has asked you to do something you are unable to do, providing an alternate course of action in your email is probably better than saying you can’t do it. Focus on the positive (what you can/will do) rather than the negative.
If you have any pointers about writing professionally, please share them in the comments!