Recently, I received an email from a young relative of mine that included an interesting query. He is a 2012 college graduate who has just moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to find a job in government. He wrote:
"During this process, I have found some things that I need to improve and I think you might be able to help. First, in college I never learned the proper way to format an email. (When do I start a new paragraph? How do I arrange my message in a welcoming manner?) Secondly, I feel that my grammar can improve. (I am too analytical and formal for emails. How can I be more solicitous or brief in my writing while maintaining the substance?) Finally, I've come to realize I have forgotten all of my training in capitalizing words. Perhaps you might know of a website that could help me relearn what I have lost.
Emily Post said that "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the needs of others." Here are some tips that, with some concentrated effort, will help make your emails fit for Mrs. Post's inbox.
1. Introduce. If you are writing to a stranger, or trying to make professional contacts, don't begin your message with "How are you?" or, "I hope this finds you well." These signs of empathy only work when you've established a relationship already. if you haven't, they sound hollow. Instead, get to your point immediately: "I am a recent college graduate who has just moved to Washington to begin a career in public service." Then go on to explain exactly why you are writing to them.
2. Relax. The formal language of a business letter does look strange in the laid-back format of an email. On the other hand, if you're sending an email to someone you hope will give you a job, you can't write "Dude, Wassup?" Try to find a middle ground that uses more casual language to convey substantial ideas. For example, here's a substitution that still sounds serious but isn't stuffy: Instead of writing "I'm confident that our proposal can accommodate your needs," say "I know we can find a way to make this plan work for you."
3. Mirror. If you are responding to a message from a professional correspondent, follow their lead. If they use, "Dear X," then you answer with "Dear Y." If they start with "Hi, X," then you can use "Hi, Y." Reserve "Hey" for your buddies from college. Sign-offs follow the same sort of logic. "Sincerely" can work, but if the correspondence continues with more than one email, you need to get more friendly, moving toward "Warm Regards" or "All the best." And keep the Xxx's and Ooo's for people you've known for several years. Never use an X or an O to sign off with someone you've never actually met in person. (We're not internet dating here.) As for when to start new paragraphs, again, mirror. If your correspondent writes three paragraphs, each focusing on a different point, then you write three paragraphs as well, and respond to each point in the corresponding paragraph. Do not ignore any points, even if you're simply noting your agreement with what the other person said (for example: "As for your idea about the meeting on Monday, I feel exactly the same way.")
4. Respond. Sometimes, it's hard to know whether or not an email requires a response. Assume that it does, even if it's only to send a quick "Thanks!" (Never, however, a quick "Thnx!"). A reply shows respect and attentiveness, two qualities that you are trying to convey to others. You are much less likely to offend someone by replying briefly than you are to offend them by not replying at all.
5. Respond promptly. No need to hit reply within three minutes, but you shouldn't let more than 24 hours pass without responding, either. Think of the email relationship as a way to prove your competence and efficiency. If you are lax about your correspondence, people may rightfully assume that you are lax in other aspects of life as well, which may make them less inclined to hire you.
6. Grammar. There's an old axiom about a job interview: "You only have one chance to show potential employers that you know how to dress up; if you get the job, you'll have many chances to show them you can dress down." Likewise, if you get the job, you can relax your linguistic style later. In the beginning, though, let your correspondent know that you know a comma from a semi-colon. Keep a good grammar primer next to your computer (one suggestion: Andrea Lunsford's Easy Writer). When in doubt, look it up.
7. Capitalization. In the past, we only used the upper case form for the beginnings of sentences and proper nouns. These days, people capitalize EVERYTHING, in part because, as our interaction becomes increasingly limited to internet correspondence, we seek out ways to evoke the nuance of the spoken word. Emoticons were created to fill that need, but I believe that, in the realm of social value, emoticons lie somewhere between Toddlers and Tiaras and Red Bull. Similarly, if you have to type "LOL," then maybe you haven't been clear enough with your humor (in other words, don't). At the same time, exclamation points have shot up across the written landscape like so many weeds. Others will have their own rules on these issues, but here are mine: 1. No emoticons. Ever. 2. Don't use all-caps to stress points. It looks like you're a high school cheerleader. 3. As for exclamation points, my husband says that one should limit the usage of exclamation points to seven in a lifetime. I beg to differ!!!! Be careful, though. Too many can make you look like a ditz!!
8. Warmth. You must find ways to be personable without sounding like a panting puppy. If you prefer "Yours truly," to "All the best," then by all means use it. Show your own humanity in every single email, though, if only in a tiny way. "I hope that you're surviving this awful weather" for example, reminds your correspondent that both of you are human. Don't get personal, however; "I hope the weather isn't getting you down" just sounds weird. If you receive an email in which your correspondent steps into more personal territory--referring to family or a car at the mechanic--take it as a friendly opening and make sure to respond personally but succinctly. ("Hope you get your car back quickly.")
9. Proofread. This is, I believe, my most important point. Make it a habit to read over every email you ever write before pressing "Send." Read carefully, too, looking for more than just typos. Does each sentence make sense? Read it aloud if you have to, checking for redundancy and illogic. Are the paragraphs organized in a rational way? Is there anything you can do to make it shorter? Every single extra sentence that you write demands someone else's extra time. If you are sending the email to someone who is important to you professionally, you might even have a trusted advisor give you feedback on it. Finally, it's considerate to do a little housekeeping. If an email thread has gotten unwieldy, containing the whole history of messages and replies, clean it up by deleting extraneous material from the bottom, or, if it makes sense in the correspondence, start fresh with a new email and a new subject line instead of just hitting reply.
Most of all, keep in mind Mrs. Post's advice and the Golden Rule. You'll do well if you write the kinds of emails that you would most like to receive yourself.
Dana Sachs is not currently on the job market herself, but she writes a lot of professional emails. Her latest book is the novel The Secret of the Nightingale Palace. You can follow her on Facebook at Dana Sachs Books.