How to email well

We email a lot—learn how to do it well

E-mail is an ever-changing form of communication. The rules you learnt a few years ago may already be outdated. Follow this guide to ensure you send the right message between the lines.

​​General Rules

  • Keep it simple.
    Emails should be as short as possible without leaving out important information.
  • Mirror the sender’s tone.
    If you are replying to an email from a native speaker, try to use the same register or formality that they use.
  • Use paragraphs.
    This seems simple, but many people break this rule. Each paragraph should be one thought. It can be one sentence or many sentences, but avoid putting too much information into a paragraph. You can read more about paragraphs in English and how to use them on our sister-site Poligo. Be sure to not use line breaks—a style that is common in Japanese, but looks strange in English. Write like this:

    Do not write like this:
  • Use appropriate greetings and sign-offs.
    This is tricky, but fear not! I have included a detailed and current guide below.

Greetings - Formal

  • Dear  Best used for introductory e-mails, where you do not know the person you are speaking to. Play it safe, and use the person’s last name, preceded by either "Mr." or "Ms."
    For example: "Dear Mr./Ms. Rogers".
    Note: For politeness, we use "Ms." instead of "Mrs." or "Miss" unless we have been told otherwise.
  • To the [insert name] department  A trendy greeting, used when you are not contacting a specific person but a department instead.
    For example: "To the management department"; and "To human resources".
  • To whom it may concern – Similar to the above but considered outdated and less precise by some. Avoid this.

Greetings - Informal

  • Hi – Quite appropriate to use among colleagues and with managers with whom you are friendly. It is often followed by the subject’s first name.
    For example: "Hi Sarah"; and "Hi Steven". 
    Note: In countries with less formal work cultures like Australia and New Zealand, it is quite common for professionals from different companies to use "Hi" after the initial e-mail.
  • Hello – Similar to "Hi" but slightly more formal. It's useful to use "Hello" with someone whom you do not wish to appear too formal, yet still be polite.
    For example: "Hello Stephanie".
  • Greetings – A more formal alternative to "Hello". Rarely used but not unheard of.

The general rule with greetings is to start off formally, but base your future actions on how the recipient responds. If the recipient responds to your "Dear" with "Hi" then begin your response with "Hi". To do otherwise will appear rude, as though you are offended and trying to keep the correspondence formal.

Sign-offs

  • Thanks/Thanks in advance/Thank you – Used when you have something to thank the recipient for (i.e. when you have requested information). Note: Don't write "thanks in advance" when you are asking for something big. Your request might be too much, and it could create pressure or bad feelings. "Thanks" is acceptable for small requests.

A recent study by e-mail software specialist Boomerang found that e-mails containing a form of thanks in their sign-offs were up to 38% more likely to be replied to than those with other sign-offs.

  • Best – Very common in the business world and recommended by e-mail experts as chic, safe, and universally appropriate. This said, some professionals see "Best" as a grammatical mistake—an adjective without a noun. The recent Boomerang study also found it the least effective of all common sign-offs for eliciting a reply.
  • Regards – Safe, universally appropriate, and formal-sounding, albeit a little plain.
  • Best wishes/Kind regards – Similar to "Best" and "Regards", though conveying feelings of goodwill and affability.

When signing off, make sure to put a comma after the sign-off and write your name underneath. For initial e-mails, it is also customary to write your first and last name.
For example:  Warm regards,
                         James Tayler

By following the above guidelines and using the right greetings/sign-offs for your audience, you are bound to make a good impression of your virtual self.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope to see you in the future,
James

between the lines [idiom]—a meaning or nuance that's not explicitly stated. For example, "The email was polite, but—reading between the lines—he seems angry."