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How to Write Better Emails at Work

Eight tips you can start using today.

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Is writing a bad email going to ruin your career? No. But learning the unspoken rules for writing professional emails can improve how competent you appear in the eyes of your colleagues. In this HBR collaboration with YouTube creator Jeff Su , you’ll learn how to better organize your email communications and avoid typical rookie mistakes.

0:00  — Why bother with email etiquette? 1:19 — Include a call to action in subject line 2:13 — One email thread per topic 2:48  — Manage recipients 3:27  — Start with the main point 4:30  — Summarize in your reply 5:10 — Hyperlink whenever possible 5:38  — Change default setting to “Reply” (not “Reply all”) 6:06 — Change undo send options 


JEFF SU: OK, real talk. Making email etiquette mistakes in the workplace — it’s not going to capsize your career. But learning the unspoken rules of writing professional emails will affect how competent you are perceived to be in the eyes of your colleagues.

And since there are no standardized training courses for this, in this video, I’m going to first share the very real benefits of getting good at emailing in the workplace, then dive into my top eight tips for professional email etiquette, many of which I learned the hard way during my first full-time job as a management consultant. So let’s get started.

Hi, everyone. My name is Jeff, and I’m truly honored to be able to partner with Harvard Business Review for this video about a nerdy passion of mine: Email etiquette in the workplace. Think back to the last time you received a poorly written email. You might have had to reread it a few times to get the main point, and the action items might have been scattered all over the place.

Worst-case scenario, it led to an unnecessarily long back and forth email thread that could have been avoided had the initial email been properly planned out. Therein lies the beauty of well-crafted emails. Not only does it help you, the sender, come across as more capable by showcasing strong communication skills, but it also saves the reader so much of their time by only surfacing information relevant to them.

So without further ado, my first step is to have a call to action, when appropriate, in the email subject line. Most of us are familiar with a generic “action required” in subject lines, right? My recommendation is just to take it a step further and include exactly what you need the recipient to do and the estimated time it takes for them to do it.

For example, instead of writing “Action required, feedback for project X,” write “Five minutes — survey feedback for project X,” instead. This very small trick gives you a lot more context. It’s a survey for project X. I can get it done very quickly in between the two meetings I have. Or if it’s not appropriate to include the estimated time, be specific about the call to action. For example, instead of “spending estimates for Q4,” write “Elon to approve spending estimates for Q4.” So Elon knows what’s expected of him even before he opens the email.

Step number two: Stick with one email thread for the same topic. I’m going to be honest, I got called out for this by a colleague of mine, but I’m glad she told me. Basically, I used to send out separate emails for the same project whenever I had a new idea or follow-up question. But if you think about it from the recipient’s point of view, they’re missing the context from the original email thread and multiple new emails on the same topic just clog up their inboxes unnecessarily. So the general rule of thumb here is to stick to the original email chain for any given topic so everyone can refer to the same information.

Email etiquette tip number three: Explain why you added in or took out recipients in email threads. There are many situations you have to add someone in to the email thread to get their input, or take someone out to spare their inbox. A professional and easy way to do this is to add a sentence at the very top of the email clearly showing who you added in or took out. I like to add parentheses and italicize the font to separate it from the actual email body. This way, the readers know who the new recipients are immediately.

Tip number four actually addresses a very big pet peeve of mine, which is when senders include a lot information up front, but what they’re really trying to get at or ask for is at the very end of the email. To avoid that, always include your main point first, followed by the context. Just compare these two emails:

“Hi Jane, my name is Jeff and I’m in the product marketing team. We’re preparing a forecast deck for the big boss and he’s looking for the revenue projection numbers for the secret electric car that’s launching soon. Can I trouble you to pull that data for me?”

“Hi Jane, may l please trouble you for the electric car revenue projection numbers? Context: the product marketing team is currently preparing a forecast deck for the big boss and we’re hoping to use the projections to fight for more budget. It would be amazing to get numbers for 2025 to 2030 in a Google Sheets format.”

By pushing the context back, we’re giving the other person the option to read the not so important part of the email. Oftentimes, when we’re emailing someone more senior than us, we feel obligated to explain why we’re emailing right at the beginning so it doesn’t seem like we’re bothering them. This is actually counterproductive because if the person is very senior, they probably just want to know what you’re emailing them about so they can deal with it then move on with their own schedules.

Tip number five: If you receive an email with a lot of disorganized content, summarize the sender’s main points for them in your reply. So if you receive an email from someone who clearly has not watched this video and they sent you a long, wordy, convoluted message you have to reread a few times, you want to do two things.

Number one, send them this video. Number two, take a few minutes to identify and bucket common themes from their email, and summarize their message in a few sentences before responding to whatever they’re emailing you about. Not only does this help you confirm your understanding is correct, the other party will appreciate the extra effort you took to help them organize their thoughts.

Email etiquette tip number six: Hyperlink whatever possible. This is another pet peeve of mine. If you’re sharing a link with someone over email, you really should take the extra few seconds to hit Command K on Mac or Control K on Windows and hyperlink the external website or video. Not only does this looks so much cleaner to the recipient than just pasting the big clunky link, but it also decreases the chances of you making a mistake by adding an extra letter or deleting one in the original URL.

Tip number seven: Change your default setting to “reply” instead of “reply all.” This is honestly the risk-averse side of me talking. The way I think about it, let’s say your reply to an email in a rush and you do make a mistake, the damage is contained to that one recipient because your default setting is to reply to one person instead of reply all. This is a standard setting on most popular email clients, and you can usually find this in the general settings section.

Email etiquette tip number eight: Change the “undo send” option to 30 seconds. So you might not know this, but Murphy’s law when it comes to emailing in the workplace is that you will always catch your mistakes 10 seconds after the email is already sent. All jokes aside, I’m sure we’ve all been there. We send an email, we go into the sent email folder to read it from the other person’s perspective, and we realize something is wrong.

Again, this is a standard setting you can play around with in all of the email apps. Instead of the default five seconds undo send, for example, update to 30 seconds for good measure.

writing email guidelines

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writing email guidelines

Email Etiquette

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Although instant and text/SMS messaging is beginning to supplant email for some groups' primary means of Internet communication, effective and appropriate email etiquette is still important. This resource will help you to become an effective writer and reader/manager of email.

How do I compose an email to someone I don't know?

There are a few important points to remember when composing email, particularly when the email's recipient is a superior and/or someone who does not know you.

What are some guidelines for continuing email conversations?

Once you have exchanged emails with a person on a given subject, it is probably acceptable to leave greetings out of your follow-up emails. Here are some other points to consider about continuing conversations over email:

What sorts of information shouldn't be sent via email?

Most people do not realize that email is not as private as it may seem. Without additional setup, email is not encrypted; meaning that your email is "open" and could possibly be read by an unintended person as it is transmitted to your reader. With that in mind, never send the following information over email:

Additionally, avoid sensitive or information that could be potentially damaging to someone's career and/or reputation, including your own. Beyond email's general lack of security and confidentiality, your recipient can always accidentally hit the Forward button, leave their email account open on a computer, or print and forget that they've printed a copy of your email.

What about sending attachments?

Here are some guidelines you should follow:

Is the etiquette different in email listservs and discussion groups?

Poor email behavior is always cropping up on email listservs and discussion groups. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

Note: this resource was posted during a day-long workshop for Norfolk State University in the development of their OWL. Purdue OWL Webmaster Karl Stolley and the Purdue OWL wish them great success.

17 Email Etiquette Rules to Know and Practice

Karen Hertzberg

Since the early days of AOL (“You’ve got mail!”), I’ve spent countless hours in the email trenches working in jobs that ranged from customer service rep to online community manager to managing editor to PR representative. I’ve done the math, and even estimating at an ultra-conservative ten emails per day over twenty years, I’ve sent at least 73,000 emails. Those experiences, both good and bad, taught me what to do and what not to do. These days I’m an expert emailer who’s sent bulk email campaigns with 55 percent response rates. (In case you’re wondering, that’s pretty darn good .)

In my experience, there are five email etiquette breaches so egregious that they belong in the Bad Email Hall of Shame category. Let’s start with them.

The Five Worst Email Etiquette Blunders

Email faux pas—we’ve all made them. Sometimes we’re aware a split second after we hit Send and shout “No!” wishing we could take it back.

Here’s a tip: If you’re a Gmail user, you can take it back. Here’s how.

Here are email etiquette’s most flagrant fouls.

1 Using CC for mass emails

When I worked as a video game journalist, there was a public relations rep who became infamous for sending a PR email to a huge list of journalists using CC, which revealed every one of those journalist’s carefully guarded email addresses. The journalists then gleefully used Reply All to host a threaded conversation mercilessly taunting him.

Don’t use CC for mass emails. Trust me. You really don’t need that kind of notoriety.

Here’s a tip: If you regularly need to send bulk email, use a bulk email platform like MailChimp or Constant Contact .

2 Hitting Reply All when you should hit Reply

Reply All is a handy feature when there are more than two people who need to be involved in a conversation, but be careful. I was involved in a group email where one member replied, thinking she was emailing only me, to admit she had a crush on another member of the email group. She accidentally used Reply All. In this case, the subject of the crush was flattered. But . . . your accidental Reply All may not result in a fairytale ending.

3 Assuming email is private and confidential

Anything you write in an email can be shared, whether intentionally or accidentally. (See above.) Don’t say things in an email, especially in the office, that you wouldn’t say publicly. And especially don’t write anything that could come back to haunt you. Emails may even be admissible in court .

4 Emailing when angry

Sometimes you just want to tell someone off. We’ve all been there. And it can be much easier to put those feelings in writing rather than have a difficult face-to-face conversation. But resist the urge. Angry emails raise the recipient’s defenses, and that’s not productive.

If you must write an angry email, either don’t add a recipient in the To: field or write it in your word processor, where you won’t be tempted to hit Send. Then let the draft sit for twenty-four hours. Odds are good you’ll have calmed down when you come back, and you’ll be able to offer clear-headed feedback rather than blistering invective.

5 Not getting to the point

I don’t know how many times I’ve read a rambling email only to wind up thinking, “Okay, but what does this person want from me?” For the love of all things electronic, don’t use email as a means to do a brain dump. Instead, do your brainstorming before you write the email. Then, decide what your objective is—what are you hoping will happen as the result of sending this email? Write a brief, clear message with that in mind. If the goal of your email is to persuade, style it as an elevator pitch .

Twelve Must-Use Email Etiquette Tips

Now that we’ve addressed email’s most outrageous offenses, let’s look at some guidelines for email etiquette that will always leave you looking like a polished pro.

1 Use a descriptive subject line

Save your cultivated air of mystery for vaguebooking on Facebook. (Okay, you shouldn’t really be doing that either .) Assume everyone you write to has a flooded inbox, and use your subject line to describe the contents of your email so the recipient will know right up front why your email should be a priority.

2 Don’t type in all caps

In Internet terms, typing in all caps looks like shouting. Need further incentive to lay off the caps lock? You may trigger spam filters .

3 Lay off the exclamation points

I know you’re excited! Seriously!!! But you can convey excitement without exclamation points. (Golly gee! Save those for when you’re really exclaiming.) Exclamation point mania is another spam filter trigger, so use them sparingly and never, ever two or more at the end of a sentence. Unless you’re a preteen. Then have at it.

4 Keep it simple

The ideal email is brief and gets directly to the point. Write emails like that and everyone will love you and you’ll be super popular. (Okay, maybe not. But at least no one will complain about your annoying email habits.) If your message is complex, with lots of moving parts, consider writing a detailed brief and attaching it as a Google Doc or pdf. But . . .

5 Ask before you send attachments

These days, we’re all wary about opening email attachments, even from known sources. And we have good reason to be . If you must send an attachment, give the recipient a heads-up to let them know it’s coming.

6 Use the auto-responder sparingly

Vacation auto-responders are fine. (Just don’t forget to either have them turn off “automagically” or turn them off manually when you get back to the office.) But auto-responders saying things like “Hey, I got your email. I’ll get back to you soon!” are pointless. They might also let spammers know they’ve reached a valid email address—double trouble!

7 Use professional-sounding greetings

Unless you know the recipient very well, and this is a style you’re both accustomed to, don’t begin professional emails with greetings like “hey” or “yo.” “Hello” or “hi” are usually fine. Use “dear” in formal business correspondence.

8 Use professional-sounding sign-offs

Keep it classy. Here are some best practices .

9 Use humor with caution

A well-timed bit of humor can make an email memorable. It can also sink it like the Titanic. You may think you’ve served up a clever quip, but your wit could be lost in translation. Save the funny stuff for people you know well—they get you.

10 Don’t be annoying with follow-ups

Avoid sending a barrage of follow-up emails. If a contact isn’t responding and you really need a response, consider making a phone call if that’s possible. In all other matters, if your carefully crafted follow-up doesn’t get a response after one or two tries, assume the recipient isn’t interested.

11 Be careful what you forward

There are cases when it’s fine to forward an email—if the sender reached the wrong contact or you need to add someone to the conversation, for example. But don’t forward sensitive or confidential emails. If you have any doubt that the sender would want the conversation shared, ask permission before you bring someone else into the loop.

12 Proofread

In a Grammarly poll, 67 percent responded that typos in work emails are a no-no . To avoid looking like you lack attention to detail, proofread thoroughly before you hit Send. No one ever regretted spending a little extra time polishing their writing.

writing email guidelines

More From Forbes

10 rules of email etiquette.

Want to win with your emails? Here are some tips to using email as a business communication tool.

Email is how many businesses communicate. It's fast, easy, and accessible. Plus, email is permanent. If you forgot what you were asked, simply find the last email thread for the answer. Email is also effective at disseminating information among team members. However, there is no way to unsend an email. 

So, before pressing send, make sure you’re using email as an appropriate form of business communication. Business emails should be used to send information that is: 

How you use email will leave an impression with who you send your messages to, especially if you have yet to meet the recipient in person. Email acts as your first impression. This is especially true for job seekers. Using email inappropriately can put you on the "do not call" list with recruiters and others in your network. 

Whether you're a small business using email as a marketing or communication tool or a job seeker sending an email inquiry, use appropriate email etiquette to set yourself apart. Here are some Ps and Qs to using email as a business communication tool. 

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Part of email etiquette is knowing when to respond, how often, and when an unanswered email means "no." This is especially true for job seekers. Use a three-email approach. The first email includes your resume and cover letter. If you don't receive a response within a few days, send a short and succinct follow-up and reattach your resume. Crickets? A week to ten days after the initial email, send one more follow-up by forwarding your first email without attachments. The reason that you do not include attachments on the final follow-up is to break through spam filters that filter emails with attachments. 

This same strategy can be applied post-interview. Your first email is used to thank the interviewer for their time and to answer or respond to any issues that were brought up during the interview. A few days later, follow-up with a short one or two sentence email. Ten days after your interview, send one more note thanking them again for their time and asking if they have any follow-up questions for you or need any additional information. If you don't receive a response to your third inquiry, it's a "no."   

Using email can be an effective business communication tool – when used correctly. Following these simple etiquette practices will not only yield better results from your email but will show your customers, clients, and colleagues you're professional, easy to communicate with, and responsive.

Ashley Stahl

Undercover Recruiter

12 Professional Email Etiquette Guidelines


Many people now use email as a primary way of communicating with friends, family, co-workers and others who are important to each of us for different reasons. You may be contacting someone about employment, a business venture, following up with customer service or emailing instead of using the telephone.

Personal emails sent between friends and family should be treated differently than professional email correspondence. Understand the audience you’re communicating with will determine how casual you can be. Keep the reason for your email clear and concise, especially when using this medium to contact businesses and your co-workers. Forwarding emails to show perceived productivity is never a good idea.

Don’t turn business emails into a chat. If you go back and forth with the same person twice, pick up the phone or open a chat window. Email is admissible evidence in court. Do not write anything that you would be afraid to be released to the public

From a business perspective many of us have little or no experience as authors or writers. Those who write well are often pressed for time and tend to exclude information from the email enabling them to quickly proceed to the next task. As a result, emails are often sent that exhibit poor use of grammar or punctuation; incorrect spelling; and incomplete, outdated, or conflicting information. There’s an expectation that emails are read, understood and action is taken based on the information contained in the email.

Emails are legal documents. An unedited email is not only a reflection of your professionalism, it can also be used against you in court. For example, if you were turning down a proposal and instead of saying you will not be accepting it, you said you will be accepting it (forgetting the not) — you could be held accountable. Everything that comes out of your computer is something that can come back to haunt you if you don’t take care and attention to really mean what you say and say what you mean.

Some of these etiquette suggestions might seem obvious. With apologies to The Golden Rule, ‘email others as you’d like to be emailed.’

These are some guidelines. Not all need to be followed for every audience, as the person emailing you can determine which rule fits best.

12 Guidelines:

Everyone has received an email which has angered them. Write your responses and save them as drafts. Let some time go by and open the message again and read it carefully and edit it. This does two things. You get to vent, even if it only to yourself. By sending out a revised and calmer email, things are kept on a professional and constructive level.

It’s important to respect everyone’s time. Never send an email that you wouldn’t expect your entire professional and personal network to see. Just because you think something’s important, doesn’t necessarily mean that your email has the same sense of urgency for the person you’re emailing.

It’s also important to not include text messaging emoticons and phrases like ‘LOL’ as they can make your message too personal. You never know who will see the email you send.

Common professional courtesy and etiquette should never go out of style. Thanks for taking the time to read my post.

Related: How to Create a Professional Email Signature .

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By Kenneth Lang

Kenneth Lang is a social media analyst who has worked with job seekers and small business owners on how to best maximize using LinkedIn for specific goals. He’s worked for large and small companies, most recently as Online Project Management Support for The New York Times in New York City on the International version of the newspaper – The International Herald Tribune. 

Kenneth is co-founder of Steps To Success which offers individual and group LinkedIn sessions for business owners.

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