Published January 2001

E-mail may be easy, but
it shouldn't be sloppy

As a little girl climbed onto Santa’s lap, Santa asked the proverbial, “And what would you like for Christmas?” The child stared at him open-mouthed and horrified for a minute, then gasped, “Didn’t you get my e-mail?!”

E-mail is an extraordinary communication medium. Its immediacy is astonishing and its demand overwhelming. But therein lies the rub — how to balance speed with professionalism. E-mail is a contradiction: can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Or, put another way, e-mail epitomizes the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good: Writing is back in style! E-mail has encouraged (or is it forced?) people to write again. In the business world, e-mail enables us to respond to customers’ concerns in record time, handle correspondence efficiently and move documents around the world in the blink of an eye.

The Bad: This medium can fool writers into thinking that informality translates into no punctuation, spelling, capitalization or grammar. A conversational tone is fine; the virtual lack of regard for standard English is not. What kind of professional image does this sender portray?

The presentation was this morning Iputtogether some scatted thoughts on paper late yesaterday afternoon and I hope that one of them will they are very borad concepts… If see then we need a serous 5 page proposal…FJIst got the form of the foundatino.

The Ugly: In our hurry to keep customers satisfied, we sometimes write without thinking through the consequences. Poorly written e-mails destroy your company’s image faster than a click of the mouse. Clients regularly call me after getting themselves in a fix because of an e-mail debacle. Customers complain that e-mails are rude, illiterate, disorganized or just plain incomprehensible. If we take a bit of care in composing our e-mails, we could avoid embarrassment and lost business.

Below are four e-mail tips to sharpen and focus your message.

Avoid verbose messages. Be clear, concise and to the point. Consider using the five W’s (who, what, when, where and why) when constructing your message.

Remember to whom you are sending your message. Tailor the formality of your writing style to the recipient — are you writing to your Aunt Martha or your biggest new client? Informal writing does not give you permission to ignore all writing conventions. As you know, e-mail does not go unseen: Most professionals print out important messages.

Bullet your key points and the required (or desired) action at the start of your message. Your reader can quickly scan and understand the heart of your correspondence. Repeat the points in the body of the message; this is where you can provide the details.

Pick up the phone! Some people have decided that e-mail is the only vehicle for communication. Wrong. Miscommunication often is remedied merely by a quick phone call rather than by a lengthy series of e-mails. In fact, all significant communication should occur face-to-face or over the phone. You can convey nuances in person that an e-mail would never capture.

Dr. Julie Miller has helped thousands of individuals and organizations transform their writing skills while reducing the amount of time spent on individual documents. She can be reached at 425-485-3221, by e-mail to, or visit her Web site,

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