The Weekend Solopreneur

Issue 22.51

Saturday, December 17, 2022

How to write better emails

Writing emails is a bit of an art. And I’m not talking about this kind of email - the one you’re reading right now.

I’m talking about regular, business emails that you write to clients or colleagues, or even non-business emails to groups of people.

We get a lot of emails, and processing them can be a challenge when they’re not well written. Here are the top four things you can do to write better emails.

Better emails 1: Use subheadings to group topics

When you’re writing about multiple topics in an email, use “headings” to make a small headline for each topic.

Most email clients (Outlook, Google Mail or Spark which I use on my Mac) allow you at least some simple formatting. A “topic” heading can be as simple as a short line in bold, and for extra effect, use colour to make it stand out.

For example:

Note how your eye gets drawn to the bold, blue text. This allows readers to scan the email, and quickly get an overview of what’s inside. Content under each heading is relatively short, so it’s easier to read than a single, long sequence of paragraphs.

Better emails 2: Group asks together

If you’re asking your recipient to do something, group all the asks together (under a heading).

We often ask people for multiple things in an email, and it’s human nature to stop when we see the first ask (and not read any further).

So group all the asks together, for example:

Note how the red stands out - anyone reading this email will be drawn to the red heading, and if they don’t understand the request, will go back to the heading related to the ask for more details (this is called navigating content).

If the email is really long, make the asks under each topic very clear, for example:

The technique you use will depend on the number of topics and asks in your email. Whichever you use, make sure headings and asks stand out.

Better emails 3: Avoid fancy formatting

Believe it or not, but the technology underlying emails is about 30 years old.

Email clients (the software you use to read and write emails) have different capabilities, so emails like this one require a lot of fancy footwork to make sure it looks good on all the different email clients:

For business or general emails, keep your formatting simple and clean. Bold and colours can get you a long way. Use bullets and numbering sparingly and consistently.

Better emails 4: Shorter words, shorter sentences

There are a number of scientific formulas that can tell you how easy it is to read something. Two of the most commonly used ones are:

  • Reading Grade Level (RGL): The North American education level you need to easily understand the text. For example, if content has an RGL of 12, you need at least a Grade 12 education to understand the text.
  • Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES): A score from 0 to 100 to indicate how easy the text is to read. Higher scores mean easier to read.

The formulas differ, but all of them use two factors to determine readability:

  • Average word length: the average number of syllables in the words of your content
  • Average sentence length: the average number of words in your sentences.

To make your emails easier to read:

  • use shorter, simpler words rather than long ones
  • break long, run-on sentences up into shorter sentences.

This email has an RGL of 7.8 (you need at least a Grade 8 education to easily understand it), and a FRES of 65 (which is reasonable but not great).

If you want to know how readable your email is, copy and paste the text into this online tool and see what you get.

Hope that helps.