Before there was email, there were letters, memos, and sticky notes. One reason many assignments in this text require students to write business correspondence is because these forms are used daily for communication in virtually every professional job. Letters are still printed or handwritten on paper and mailed; memos might be shuttled through internal company delivery or even hand-delivered; and sticky notes, well, they are still stuck to the front of a document with a quick scribble when letters or memos are not the sender’s choice.
Think about the following questions regarding technology in the United States. Discuss the possible answers with your classmates and make your best guess (don’t Google!):
- What year do you think the first email message was sent and received?
- What percentage of adults were internet users twenty years ago?
- What percentage of adults do you think did not use internet in 2019?
The answers to these questions, which are presented within this chapter, may surprise you.
This chapter aims to help students identify the situations for which email is the preferred means of correspondence; to confidently use email within the boundaries of professional etiquette; and to use emails as effective examples of technical writing.
In this chapter, you will explore the use of email from different perspectives and for different audiences and purposes. Correspondence describes a document with the purpose of transmitting a message from a specific author to one or more specific recipients. Common forms of correspondence include letters, memos, and emails. Like letters, memos, and other document forms used within the genre of correspondence, emails have conventions, ethical issues, and formality levels writers must address adequately. Emails are documents, modeled after a memorandum, transmitted between computers through the internet. Engineer Ray Tomlinson is credited with the first successful email in 1971. Notably, unlike letters and memos printed and mailed or manually routed: emails cannot effectively be shredded.
When should writers use email?
Professionals still use all of the document forms discussed above to correspond countless times every day. The methods of delivery, however, have expanded over time. Business embraced the facsimile or fax in the recent past as an almost instant system of delivering documents using telephone lines. A fax refers to both a machine used to transmit copies of paper documents to a similar machine using phone lines; and the document copy created by such a machine. While regular mail and overnight express services are still appropriate for instances when a physical document or product accompanies a letter, faster methods are the norm for most other correspondence. Already email has largely replaced the fax, using the internet as a faster and more convenient means of sending documents.
A transmittal letter or memo serves the specific function of introducing the document(s) containing the important information or message. One easy-to-understand example is the cover letter provided with a job application. While some highlights of experience or education may be part of a cover letter, its main purpose is to introduce the recipient to the resume, writing sample, or recommendations being transmitted under cover of the letter. Today, it is more likely than ever those same application materials – including the cover letter – will be sent as attachments to an email instead.
In addition to serving in a transmittal capacity for relevant document attachments, emails may also be used in place of a letter or memo. In a work setting, the employer’s standard practice regarding use of email as direct correspondence should be followed. For example, some companies use email for day-to-day internal business communication, but limit email used as outside correspondence to transmittal purposes only. Such a policy may allow a company to better control sensitive documents and information. It is important that all employees understand and adhere to the policies of an employer regarding internal and external use of email for direct correspondence.
Drawbacks of email
Imagine for the moment that every person you know has an email account. If you had to share some important information today, who is one person in your life you would most likely not send the information to via email? In the space provided, write that person’s name or other identifier and explain the reason(s) why you would hesitate to send them important information in the form of an email. Be thoughtful in your response and write in complete sentences:
The reasons you provided in response to the prompt above may describe some of the disadvantages or shortcomings of email in particular situations.
At the beginning of the 21st century, half of American adults (52%) were internet users. By 2019, the number of people in the same group who were online in some way was up to 90 percent (Anderson, 2019). Since virtually everyone can access email now, why doesn’t it work in all situations?
Internet access issues
While college campuses and urban areas offer easy access to internet connection, rural and remote areas of the United States may always have little to no connectivity. In locations around the world where satellite or radio communication is the most reliable, email must give way to verbal methods of correspondence to ensure messages sent are received.
Workplace writing of all types, including email and even text messages on company cell phones, are legally owned property of the employer. As with most applications of internet use, deleting has no guaranteed effectiveness. Therefore, some internal information exchanges cannot be kept confidential if emailed, so another means of communication is warranted. When in doubt, never send an email that you would not want to see projected on a courtroom screen.
Most situations that prohibit use of email at work are well-documented in official company policies. However, gray areas often present themselves as workplaces and employees evolve. For instance, some companies may have a strong traditional practice of employees meeting frequently or calling each other on the phone to discuss day-to-day business matters. In such a situation, the new employee who is most comfortable relying on email exchanges may be tagged as someone who avoids in-person or voice communication. While it may be an unfair generalization, such a label may be detrimental to one’s professional reputation.
Additionally, the risk of misunderstanding is heightened when email is used in place of verbal communication. Nevertheless, today’s business trends indicate increasing reliance on electronic communication. The following sections explain the best practices for emailing to assure professional and effective technical writing is achieved.
What makes a good email?
Formality and agreeable tone
Spend some time reviewing the emails in the “Sent” folder of your university email account.
- Do you think your emails appear to have been carefully prepared, or are they rushed?
- Do you think they “sound” polite and businesslike, or are they casual in tone?
- Does the tone seem any different if you are emailing a professor than if you are addressing a peer?
Note in particular the way your messages begin and end. Writers can become complacent when writing dozens of emails every day, so it is important to examine habits that make messages less effective.
Except in some private exchanges with close personal friends or family members, a conventional salutation should introduce your emails. Choose from acceptable options like those below:
- Dear Dr. Smith:
- Dear Colleagues,
- Hello, Michael,
Notice that a colon might be used when addressing someone you may not already know and presents a slightly more formal tone. In most emails, however, the comma is appropriate end punctuation for a salutation.
Students and instructors may develop comfort and familiarity as many classroom and office hours are spent communicating and working together. Such a level of rapport can benefit both parties, and casual verbal greetings and interactions become the norm. Nevertheless, maintaining a formal tone in written correspondence (email) is an easy way for both parties to ensure clear, consistent records of appropriate professional-level interactions among students and their peers and instructors. Never send a school- or job-related email without a salutation; and, no matter how comfortable you are with Dr. Smith, never begin an email to her with “Hey Prof” as a salutation. In school and work, err on the side of formality.
All emails should include a formal closing that precedes the author’s name and title or e-signature. Notice how emails you receive from professionals often contain a signature block with the writer’s name, title, and other contact information. Use a closing phrase in which only the first word is capitalized and after which a comma is placed. Some popular closings to consider are listed below:
- Best, or Best wishes,
Keep it simple and avoid jokes or anything that could be confusing. Remember: there are always opportunities for you to show your individuality and sense of humor in daily exchanges. Adhering to conventions of professionalism in your educational and business correspondence is just one way to demonstrate your confidence and skill as a communicator.
Specificity and timeliness
- Subject lines: The first opportunity a writer has to set the tone of an email is in the subject line. While it generally does not need to be punctuated or written as a complete sentence, one or two general words is inadequate. The subject line creates a reader’s first impression of the message and its writer. Some dos and don’ts to consider are listed below:
- DO choose words carefully and use terms specific to the email
- DO consider phrases like “please reply” or “please approve” if the matter is urgent
- DO check spelling and conciseness of the statement or question in the subject line
- DO change the subject line or create a new thread if the topic changes
- DON’T type subject lines in all caps: you may create a false sense of panic
- DON’T forward a message to anyone based on the original subject line without reading the entire thread and the attachments: confidential or private information sent accidentally can’t be undone
- DON’T allow your professionalism and etiquette (the accepted and expected levels of behavior for a particular situation) to slip when emailing with others who may not be as careful as you are
You may notice, particularly in the workplace, writers develop a habit of treating the subject line as an afterthought. Resist the temptation to cut corners in that way: instead, be mindful and craft subject lines carefully so the reader receives a clear message from the beginning.
- Reply emails: As a college student and a consumer, you have plenty of experience at waiting: you wait for grades to be posted, you wait for weekends (!) and you wait for answers to questions you ask using email. Considering the amount of time many professionals spend using email in daily work, and the amount of work that is completed via email every day, delays can be disastrous.
Just as clear and appropriate language is important to professionalism, so is timeliness. However, it’s important that writers not pursue one (speedy responses) at the expense of the other (writing that is clear, concise, complete and correct). As Renee Dietrich, a retired professor, commented, “… people expect a response faster. There is not much time for reflection or analysis.” (Anderson, 2018 p. 70) The struggle we face, then, is making a timely response while also making a thoughtful one.
In the space below, reflect about what timeliness means to you. How might you manage your response to an email that you cannot fully address on the same day you receive it?
Accuracy and completeness
You are probably beginning to understand that email – for all its convenience – is writing that takes a good amount of thought and attention. The important choices in email correspondence are the ones that present you as a careful, clear communicator who values the time and efforts of your peers, superiors, and customers. Following is a partial checklist of considerations to make, in addition to those presented above, before clicking SEND.
Emails have evolved very quickly from quick, rudimentary electronic messages to one of the most important forms of technical writing. In addition to providing cover for transmittal of documents, email is increasingly employed as the actual report or critical correspondence. The instant nature of texting and social media messaging, however, erodes some writers’ sense of professionalism when using email, making clarity and appropriate formality in email a challenge. Sophisticated electronic storage means emails are more permanent than their paper predecessors, however. Writers at every level – from students to seasoned professionals – must be diligent in considering the audience for every email.
- Did you identify and discuss all attachments? Are all documents attached?
- Did you check the spellings of names and formatting of all email addresses?
- Did you include as CC: parties anyone mentioned by name in the email who is not a recipient?
- Did you read the entire email chain to avoid sending duplicate or inappropriate content?
- Did you close your message with a reminder of your request or expectation for response?
- Did you avoid using “Reply all” unless the writer specifically requested you reply to all?
Activity: What would you do to succeed with integrity?
Read and discuss the following scenario with your classmates as directed by your instructor. Answer the questions and be prepared to discuss your answers in class.
Alicia and Antonio have been paired by their writing instructor to collaborate on a research and report project. They are in the same section of the course, but they have not met each other. Antonio sends the following email to Alicia as an introduction:
TO: Alicia Smith
FROM: Antonio Jones
DATE: January 11, 2021
so r u gunna be aroundafter class wensday
cuz we need t make a plan an whatev to git this project goin
Ya so hit me up on snapchat qtBoi1999
- What first impression do you think Antonio wanted to create?
- What impression does Antonio’s email actually create for you?
With your classmates, discuss the fact that Antonio and Alicia are college students in a writing class who must work as a team. Have you been in a similar situation? What response might Alicia consider? What should she avoid doing in her response?
During your discussion with classmates, did anyone suggest Alicia should ask the instructor to pair her with a different partner? Perhaps you thought Alicia should do all the work herself and allow Antonio to get half the credit.
- Why is neither of the ideas above an appropriate response? Discuss what academic integrity concern(s) may apply.
Now, imagine that Alicia and Antonio’s instructor has provided the class with a set of rules to follow when emailing anyone related to the project, including the instructor, one’s class partner(s), and others who may have source material.
- Working with a partner in class, discuss the rules that should be applied to writing emails. Write a working thesis statement in the space below that clearly explains the value of following the rules for writing email.
- Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis statements developed in class. With your partner, decide if your draft thesis statement needs to be revised: in other words, determine if it is clear and concise. Then, work together to generating some ideas for an argument: in the space below, write the claims, reasons, and possible kinds of evidence you might use to support your thesis statement. Be prepared to discuss your responses in class.
Developmental writing assignment
Now that the rules for writing professional email are clear, work with your partner to complete the following tasks:
- First, re-write Antonio’s email to Alicia, taking care to follow the conventions for a professional email message. You may want to add some specific details.
- Next, write an appropriate response email from Alicia. Review the information in this chapter and take adequate time and care to address all of the relevant rules.
Technical writing document creation assignment
Choose a textbook from another class in which you are currently enrolled. Write a one-page summary of one chapter in that textbook, including accurate in-text and reference list citations. Then, write an email to your writing instructor that includes appropriate language and other items discussed in this chapter.
Discuss all of the following in your email:
- Highlight the most interesting or significant information you found in the chapter.
- Comment in your email about one or more points from a lecture that related to the chapter. Include the lecturer’s name in your discussion.
- Attach a copy of your chapter summary to your email.
- Ask your writing instructor to reply with comments about your chapter summary.
Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2018). Stories from experts about the impact of digital life. Retrieved from Pew Research Center Web site: https://www.pewresearch.org/
Anderson, M., Jingjing, J., Kumar, M. & Perrin, A. (2019). 10% of Americans don’t use the internet. Who are they? Retrieved from Pew Research Center Web site: https://pewrsr.ch/2GrhLUj