When do you learn how to write a professional email?
Back when I was an undergraduate, I helped a professor coordinate with one of his collaborators on a project. The professor asked me to email his collaborator to get things started. I was intimidated at the thought of cold-emailing a professor I had never met. I asked the professor I was helping out for advice on how to start the email. He looked at me, incredulous, as though I must be a complete idiot, and in a patronizing voice he answered only “Dear [collaborator’s name]…”. At the time, I was embarrassed I asked, but why should I have been? Why would the professor expect me to know how to write a professional email at that stage in my career?
(Don’t worry, dear reader. Looking back, I know that the story I just relayed to you reflects poorly on the professor, and not on me. It was a mentoring failure on his part.)
If you don’t have an email mentor in your life and you don’t know where to begin, this post is for you.
I certainly never learned how to communicate effectively over email as part of my formal education, and yet it’s a skill that most everyone needs to pick up at some point in their lives. I figured it out as I went along, incorporating writing styles from the emails I read that sounded nice, and picking up helpful rules of thumb from good mentors over the years. I made an email faux pas or two and learned from my mistakes when the recipient bristled at something I said, or at what I didn’t say. Now I’m quite comfortable with my ability to write professional emails, even to strangers. But why did I have to figure it out (mostly) on my own? And why didn’t I feel comfortable writing them until my mid 20s? Shouldn’t we be taught important life skills like this before we need to use them (e.g., to ask a potential employer about a job posting)?
In my professional social media circles the question tends to come up after someone openly mocks the author of an email they received (usually a professor mocking a student). That behavior is problematic for a whole slew of reasons that I won’t touch in this post. Instead, my goal is to share the professional email template that I’ve converged on over the years, along with some more general guidelines I follow.
But first: you might be wondering why you should care about this. Writing an email might seem like a very simple, straightforward enterprise, but it’s rather easy to make writing missteps that undermine your goal. The template and guidelines I outline below will help you write professional and clear emails.
Why should I do extra work to make my email sound professional?
There are certain social conventions you can follow that will help your email sound more professional, and with practice they will become second nature. The more professional you come across in writing, the more likely it is that the recipient will take you seriously, and will not ignore your email. That’s particularly important if you’re writing to a stranger and want to make a good first impression. Remember that email can’t convey the tone of voice that might otherwise prevent what you’re saying from coming across as curt, or as less professional. Adding the extra pleasantries and politeness helps mitigate the limitations of written communication.
You might be thinking, “Hold on, that seems unfair. My email should be evaluated on its merits!” And you’re not wrong. There’s a lot of baggage wrapped up with professionalism (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) and the subjective way in which professionalism is invoked enables discrimination. Standards of professionalism in America are biased toward middle- and upper-class white culture, and — echoing the sentiments I outlined in the introduction — if you don’t already know those standards, nobody teaches them to you. So, to answer earlier you’s question: yes. It is unfair. My goal is to help you write clear and professional emails to help you communicate using the current standards, however unfair they are, so that you’re less likely to be penalized for your communication style. Ideally, my advice will become obsolete, and we will only hold on to the elements of professionalism that are about respecting one another in the workplace.
Why should I care about being clear?
You know exactly what you need from the recipient, but unless you make a point to state your needs clearly, there’s no guarantee that the recipient will infer what you want from what you’ve written. Because clear emails are by definition less ambiguous, they are easy to respond to, and so are more likely to get a timely response (or any response at all). If an email is unclear, the recipient might be more likely to put it on the back burner until they have the time and bandwidth for the lengthy exchange that may be required to get everyone on the same page.
Let’s say you’re a student and you decide to email your instructor because you don’t understand a homework assignment. If you simply say, “I don’t understand the homework”, that doesn’t give the recipient much to go on. Instead, be as specific as you can. For example, “The wording of question 3 is ambiguous to me. Is it asking for x, or for y?” The latter question will be much easier for the recipient to address.
The Core Components of an Email
I wrote an example (read: fake) email, in a quote block below, to illustrate what I consider to be the core components of an email. (Note that I don’t actually know of a Dr. Smith who studies statistical learning, and any reference to a real Dr. Smith is purely coincidental.)
Dear Dr. Smith,
I hope this email finds you well. My name is Gwendolyn Rehrig, and I’m a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis. I’m writing to you today to request your expert guidance on the topic of statistical learning. Recently, it has been brought to my attention that statistical learning may be relevant to my own research on sentence production. I’ve spent the last few weeks combing through the literature, and at this point I would like to sit down with an expert, such as yourself, to make sure I’ve interpreted the literature correctly as it applies to my current research. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to bring you on to the project as a collaborator. Would you be open to meeting with me to address my questions in the near future? If so, please let me know when would work best for you. I will be out of town next month and would prefer to talk before then if possible. Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
Dr. Gwendolyn Rehrig
I’ll discuss each component of the example email in turn.
1. The Greeting
Dear Dr. Smith,
“Really? You think I don’t know how to write a greeting?!” Well, I’m sure you do, but there’s a good chance it’s more complicated to navigate than you think. My professional experience comes from academia, so I’m sensitive to what will read as professional or not in that context. Not all of it will apply outside of academia, but it could still be good information to know.
The main issue is what salutation, if any, you should use. If the person you’re emailing has a PhD or a MD degree, you should use “Dr.” before their name (e.g., “Dear Dr. Smith”). Usually you can find this information on a professional contact page. If you can’t find that information or you aren’t sure, it’s generally fine to write their full name (e.g., “Dear Anne Smith”). If this is your first email exchange with the recipient, don’t use nicknames or omit the last name.
Now I want to talk about the can of worms that are binary-gendered salutations in our society: the Mr., Miss/Mrs./Ms. categorization. An obvious issue with gendered salutations is that you might misgender the person, especially if their first name is not clearly gendered, or if their gender differs from the gender one would assume based on their name. If you’ve ever been misgendered, you know how hurtful it can be. For Miss/Mrs./Ms. there is the awkward requirement that you know the martial status of the woman you’re writing to, which is part of why I prefer to avoid it whenever possible. There is also the gender-neutral salutation Mx., which is becoming more common, but is not yet widely used. Another issue, which those outside of academia and medicine may not know about, is that using a salutation of the Mr./Miss/Mrs./Ms./Mx. variety to address a person who has a PhD or MD can constitute a microaggression. In many cases it’s an innocent mistake, but nevertheless there are people who habitually use the wrong salutation in a way that suggests they do not recognize the recipient’s credentials, intentionally or otherwise, and there is a chance the recipient will take it as such. Microaggressions like this are unfortunately common, and women and nonbinary people are more likely to be decredentialed, which carries other negative connotations. When in doubt, my advice is to go with the recipient’s full name and omit the salutation.
2. The Pleasantry
I hope this email finds you well.
My go-to for this, as shown in the example email, is “I hope this email finds you well”, because it works whether you know the recipient already or are just introducing yourself. If your email is a response to another email (an existing discourse, as it were) then you can alternatively use “Thank you for ___” where you can fill the blank with “your email”, “the draft of your paper”, or whatever makes sense given the context of the previous email. An email without these or similar pleasantries can come across as curt or even hostile. If you’ve had people say you sound angry over email and you aren’t already including pleasantries, adding them may help soften your communications.
When I was learning to write emails, I had trouble remembering to add pleasantries. If you find yourself having trouble, one strategy you can use is to write the email without pleasantries, then go back and add them once you’re happy with the rest of the email. They typically bookend the email, so you’ll only need to add to the beginning and the end.
3. The Introduction
My name is Gwendolyn Rehrig, and I’m a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis.
This part is optional if you have already met the recipient. If you’re contacting someone for the first time, or if you aren’t confident that they remember you, you should include an introduction that provides your full name, your position in an organization as it relates to the context of the email, and the name of the organization. I used my current position and affiliation in the example email: “My name is Gwendolyn Rehrig, and I’m a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis.” If you’re emailing in a capacity that is unrelated to your day job (or your studies, if you’re a full-time student), you should use whatever description is most appropriate for the context. For example, if I were recruiting judges for a science fair at a local high school, I would instead introduce myself as a volunteer helping to organize the high school science fair, and would give the name of the high school.
4. The Reason for the Email
I’m writing to you today to request your expert guidance on the topic of statistical learning. Recently, it has been brought to my attention that statistical learning may be relevant to my own research on sentence production. I’ve spent the last few weeks combing through the literature, and at this point I would like to sit down with an expert, such as yourself, to make sure I’ve interpreted the literature correctly as it applies to my current research. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to bring you on to the project as a collaborator.
Clearly state the reason you’re contacting the recipient, and use “I’m writing to you because” to preface the reason. This makes your goals unambiguous. In the example email, I tell the recipient that I’m seeking expert advice on a topic that falls outside my area of expertise. Be as brief as possible about the reason for your email. I kept it to four sentences in my example email, and my intuition is that it shouldn’t be much longer than that.
If you’re asking for someone’s time and expertise, as in the example email, you should also offer meaningful compensation, such as payment or authorship on the project.
5. Action Item(s)
Would you be open to meeting with me to address my questions in the near future? If so, please let me know when would work best for you. I will be out of town next month and would prefer to talk before then if possible.
You’ve already given the recipient the reason you emailed them. Giving them an action item clarifies what you want them to do. When you request anything from the recipient, be sure to be polite but clear. If you’re asking someone for their time (e.g., a face-to-face meeting, reading a draft of your paper, etc.) be sure to give them an out, and don’t be pushy. I did this by writing “Would you be open to meeting with me …” in the example email, which conveys that I know they might not be able to, or might not want to, and those are valid reasons to decline. You might not want to give them an out because you really need this person’s help. But if you don’t give them an out — even to be polite — it may sound as though you don’t respect the other person’s time, and that’s rude. If your request comes across as rude, the recipient might put your request on the back burner, or might decline when they otherwise would have helped.
If your email is time-sensitive, be sure to specify the time frame. In my example, I say that I will be out of town next month and would prefer to meet before then. This gives the recipient a sense for how long they have to think over the decision. If you don’t hear back from them, it’s fine to send a follow-up email a few days before the deadline you provided with your original request. People are busy, and it can be easy to lose track of emails, or for them to get buried.
Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
Thank them for their time in some manner. I like to use “Thank you for your consideration in this matter” or “Thank you in advance for any assistance you are able to provide”. It’s also fine to just write “Thank you” to finish your email.
Dr. Gwendolyn Rehrig
This one is pretty subjective. Sign with the name that you want them to use to address you. When I first email someone in a professional context, I usually use “Sincerely,” and then sign with the most professional form of my name, and during subsequent correspondence I might sign off with “Best,” and drop the salutation and/or my last name. (Supposedly there are people who take offense to the “Best” sign-off, and I can only say I am impressed at the creativity required to find well-wishes offensive.) You can also choose to add your credentials after your signature if you like, followed by a relevant link (to your professional website, LinkedIn, your organization’s website, etc.).
What you do here is up to you!
What about the subject line?
I make a point to write clear, but brief, email subjects. For example, if I were to write a subject line for the example email I wrote, it would be something like: “Request to meet and discuss statistical learning”. I try to make sure the purpose of the email is clear from the subject line, while also keeping it short so as not to wrap or get cut off in the recipient’s email client. As a rule of thumb, the subject line shouldn’t be the entirety of the email.
These tips for emailing busy people overlap to some extent with my advice, and I wholly endorse them:
(In a follow-up, Joel added that you should always assume people are busy, and I agree!)
Here are some general guidelines you may find helpful:
Shorter emails are easier for the recipient to read in full. If your email is too long, the recipient might only read and address part of the email, often without realizing they have missed something important. If you have multiple topics to discuss with the same person, I recommend that you break each into a separate email and send them at different times, leaving several hours between emails if you can. You don’t want to overwhelm or spam the recipient, and you also don’t want your message to get lost.
Stop and Think
Never send an email to someone that you wouldn’t want the recipient to distribute to other people (because they can and do, especially if you are in the wrong). This is a good rule of thumb for any written form of communication, including text messages, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Always assume someone else is reading — or could read — what you write, and write as though someone out there is collecting receipts.
If you’re upset or angry when writing an email, I recommend saving the email as a draft before sending it, re-reading the email for tone after your emotions have evened out, then editing appropriately. More likely than not, you’ll encounter situations in your professional life that are upsetting or infuriating, and your emotional response might very well be justified. There are a lot of jerks out there. But, responding emotionally is likely to blow back on you, especially if you are not in a position of power. Writing professional emails also entails that you respond professionally even when the other party is being unprofessional. This is to your benefit, and is colloquially called “covering your ass”.
Give Good News First
When you’re writing an email to provide feedback on something (for example, a draft of someone’s paper), always say something positive up front. It’s important to recognize that the sender has put time and effort into what they’ve sent you, and you should show respect for that time and effort, even if the result of their efforts is flawed.
When you critique someone’s work, make sure your criticisms are both clear and constructive. If you’re overly polite or hedge too much, the other party may not interpret your feedback as a critique. For example, if you say “This is nice, it just needs a few tweaks” as a polite way to say that it needs to be edited, the other party might think you’re (essentially) happy with the current version. On the other hand, if your criticism isn’t constructive, it can read as an insult. “This doesn’t make any sense” may be a phrase that describes how you feel about the work, but it doesn’t give the recipient actionable feedback. If what they have sent you doesn’t make sense, identify exactly what needs to change to make it clear, or suggest alternatives. For example, if someone’s writing contains a slew of run-on sentences (as first drafts often do), you can suggest that they break the sentences into separate, complete sentences.
While this guide isn’t comprehensive, it should help you get started. Happy emailing!