6 Tips for More Effective Email

We’ve covered tips for managing email overload, but the reality is that many of us are partially responsible for our own email insanity. If we sent fewer email messages and made sure that the ones we do send are clear and effective, then we’d have fewer incoming messages to read, filter, delete, forward, and so on. Here’s how to write more effective emails.

Use a descriptive subject line

One of my pet peeves is when someone sends an email titled “hey” or “greetings” or worse, without any subject line at all. How will I know if your email is time-sensitive or if it might impact the project I’m currently working on? I don’t. Including relevant details in your subject line saves time and often save you from having to answer questions from confused recipients. For instance, titling an email “Staff Retreat Scheduled for June 5, 10am-6pm” is more effective than “Staff Retreat” or something silly like “It’s that time again!!” In some cases, you can relay the entire message in your subject line and save the recipient from opening the message at all. In that case, it’s courteous to include EOM (for end of message) in the subject line so they’ll know not to open the email.

Add the recipient last

How many times have you accidentally hit send before you finished typing or attached the document you meant to send? I’m guessing it happens more often then you’d like to admit. If you add the email’s recipient(s) last, you’ll never have to send a follow-up message saying “gosh, I’m sorry, here’s the rest of that email.” When I’m composing a response to someone’s message, and I want to take my time crafting a response, I’ll sometimes alter their email address slightly (perhaps adding a “.” at the end) so that if I accidently press send, Gmail will prompt me to fix the address.

Keep it simple

Nobody likes a long, meandering email message, especially if they’re reading it on a smartphone. If you find yourself going off-topic, then hit the delete button and remove anything that detracts from your primary message. Also use short paragraphs or bullet points, since they’re easily scannable and force you to stay on topic. If you were typing on an iPhone or Blackberry, you wouldn’t write a lot of fluff or exposition, so pretend you’re using a mobile device (minus the abbreviations and potential typos – you don’t want to look sloppy or lazy).  When in doubt, remember that increased simplicity often equals increased productivity.

Make recommendations

You know that classic snippet of dialogue with the old married couple where one says, “What would you like to do today, honey?” And the other says, “I don’t know – what you like do today?” Sending emails like that only prolongs the decision-making process. Depending on the situation (for instance, if it’s a job interview, you’ll let the recruiter or HR person take the lead), you can suggest meeting times and places to get the ball rolling. For instance, “our team needs to meet so we can update each other on X project – please let me know if you’re available next Tuesday at 1oam” is more effective than “when are you guys around?” If the suggested time doesn’t work for people, ask them to propose other times when they are available.

Avoid snappy comebacks

Unlike phone calls or meetings, email doesn’t give you cues like tone of voice or body language, so it’s easy to misconstrue someone’s message and assume that they’re blaming you for something or that someone is mad. Never engage in flame wars, though. It’s too easy to type an angry retort or a juicy bit of gossip and accidently hit reply all when your message was intended for one specific person. I know people who have lost their jobs over ill-advised email messages landing in the wrong inbox.

Avoid spammy words/phrases.

This isn’t such a big issue when you’re emailing someone you already have an email relationship with, but when you’re contacting a potential client or submitting your resume and cover letter for a job opening, you’ll want to avoid words and phrases that could be mistaken for spam. Otherwise, your carefully crafted email could wind up in the recipient’s spam folder. The list is constantly changing as spammers get increasingly sophisticated, but Microsoft Outlook published a pretty thorough guide earlier this year.

What about you? What email strategies have you found to be effective?

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Susan Johnston is a freelance writer/blogger who has contributed to publications including The Boston Globe, Mint.com’s blog, WomenEntrepreneur.com, and Yahoo! HotJobs. Her own blog, UrbanMuseWriter.com, covers tips on productivity, brainstorming, and more for fellow writers.


  1. Great tips.

    I agree, we have to manage our emails more smartly to save our time and others time, as emails will only increase as a mode of communication.

    I also agree with the second point, as this has happened to me more than once. It has also happened to me while sending messages through my mobile (sms), and so I add the recipient last.

    But in Gmail, I can undo the send, if I want to, up to 20 secs.

    And I found this really funny:

    ‘or something silly like “It’s that time again!!’



  2. Jay on the 21st June

    Great tips, thanks!

    Re’ – “Add the recipient last” -I sometimes draft the email/response in a word processor such as TextEdit or MS Word. Not only do you avoid the “accidental send”, but it also ensures that your message will not be deleted in case of an error when trying to send or Outlook crashing.

    Re’ – “Keep it simple” – Completely agree! I also like to break up the message (when applicable) with Bullet points instead of long drawn out sentences. Also, don’t be afraid to break up walls of text with paragraphs. All this makes it easier for people to skim the message and digest content, see:

    – Keep messages simple
    – Use bullet points, when applicable
    – Easier to read read on the go
    – You get no points for crafty, Shakespearean messages

    Another tip and this one’s for Executive/Office Assistants especially:
    Don’t use background images, crazy fonts or colors. It’s unprofessional, annoying and unnecessary.
    Besides, chances are your message will be read on a smartphone or webmail. So, all your pretty little purple comic sans signatures, animated gifs and parchment paper background won’t carry over anyhow.

  3. Ashley Hill on the 21st June

    These are all great ideas, and same with Nabeel’s comment about Gmail. I run several websites and have emails for each, so not only do I have them all go to my Gmail account, but I make sure to create labels for each account.

    The labels ensure things are organized, and if I’m working on a specific job, I can filter the emails to only show that label.

    One thing I need to work on is the descriptive subject. I find I send a lot of emails out with the subject line ‘Hey’ instead of what the email’s about…I think I’ll try leaving that blank as well until I’m ready to add the recipient and send off the email.

  4. Belinda on the 21st June

    Excellent tips! I find a descriptive subject line not only help the recipient know what my email is about, it helps me find specific emails that I have sent. If I am replying to the same person, about a new topic, I try and update the subject line as well.

    Another thing I try and keep on top of is filing, whether it’s folders or tagging. By keeping my inbox purely for items that I need to action, I can more easily keep on top of tasks. Once something is taken care of I move it into another area and it’s not cluttering up my space.

  5. Andy Moles on the 22nd June

    Hi Susan, Thanks for these useful tips! Do check out the link for more tips on Email management: http://blog.taroby.org/email-management-tips-dealing-with-spam/2010/05/20/

  6. Muhammad Ghazali on the 22nd June

    Cool tips! Thank you

  7. Jeff Dickey on the 24th June

    Yes, it’s great to see a post nicely summarizing “common sense” and then realizing how uncommon it truly is. “Sender last” is a great idea, particularly for those people still enduring Microsoft Lookout; MS Entourage, Apple Mail and Thunderbird all have various ways of enabling optional, easy-to-work-with “are you sure?” confirmations that have saved my own bacon numerous times. (Hard to believe that Entourage and Outlook are from the same company; the former, though far from perfect, has been the most reliably crash-proof email package I’ve used in 30 years.)

    “Make recommendations” should almost be a mandatory ribbon running along the top of the composition window. Especially for freelancers and consulting shops, reporting bad news to clients without giving (preferably multiple) practical potential courses of action is often relationship-killing. You don’t want the client thinking “this stupid consultant always has problems,” but rather “this brilliant consultant always finds the problems with the original plan and recommends better/faster/cheaper (pick at least two) solutions.” That can’t really be automated; operator intervention is required. 🙂

  8. Alison Rowan on the 17th August

    The tip of adding the recipient last is probably the single best piece of email advice you could give. Since adopting this rule, it’s saved me more than once!

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