The playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once said that “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” He was speaking half a century before the advent of the computer and internet messages.  Today, with so much more information flashing past us than we can possibly absorb, the value of clear and simple communication has grown exponentially.  More and more companies find it a priority to remind employees of the importance of using email properly. Here are 10 simple steps which will eliminate many of the grievous errors and consequences caused by improper email. The postmodern letter writer can dramatically improve electronic communication skills by reducing errors and increasing the efficiency and productivity of messages. 

1)      Purpose:

 Have one.  An email should have a reason for existing.  It should be a clearly business-related reason.  A writer must be able to identify that reason in a single sentence.  If  a few additional sentences of detail or information are needed, write them, but no more than five sentences total. The five sentence rule may seem difficult to accept at first, but  adhering to it will truly focus messages while jettisoning much that is extraneous.  Obviously, there are times that a couple of paragraphs or three are indispensable.  Still, keeping the five sentence rule in mind will help guarantee that all writing in the message actually belongs there.

Think how much content in longer emails would best be served as an attachment which the audience can choose to read at a later time. However, generally avoid attachments.  Bulky attachments take up space in the system and are often not read. Still, a chapter-size attachment saves costs and can be printed by the reader later. Desktop printing is, however, not cost efficient throughout a large company. I am clearly torn in this decision.

If replying to someone else’s email do not resend the entire original text in a reply.  If there is a specific section of the original text which requires a reply, cut and paste that section into the reply and delete the rest of the original. Then type a brief and focused comment about that section and send the reply. 

2)      Audience:

Know the audience.  They are hard-working, motivated individuals who have little time during the business day and are already overwhelmed with large amounts of information to absorb and work to do. Keep emails clear, concise and on point.

Be aware that the readers receiving an email may forward the contents, or sections of it, to readers unknown.  These readers may be more highly critical of the content than the originally intended audience. For example, a message sent to co-workers within a department may be forwarded to or pasted within an email passed on to the upper management of the company or of a client’s company.  Be sure  emails are up to the potential scrutiny of these influential and often judgmental people. 

3)      Brevity:

Time is money.  The more quickly and accurately a message is delivered, the sooner readers can either react to it or absorb it and return to what they were doing.  The efficiency of an email is a direct factor in the productivity of a company.  The writer should know what to say and say it completely in as few words as possible in order to have the greatest impact in the least amount of time.

4)      No Shortcuts: 

Do not use “u” for “you” or any other abominations of the English language.  Do not use contractions.  Spell out all words completely and correctly. Shortcuts do not improve the efficiency of an email; they reduce its clarity and the impact of the message.  Some shortcuts may even reflect negatively on the perception of a writer’s knowledge of the language, which may then reflect on education and competence.

Use proper punctuation.  If uncertain of a grammar or punctuation rule, check with someone or check on the internet at one of the many grammar sites available.  The work done in creating an email and ensuring its clarity and accuracy is important and profitable. 

Do not use emoticons in business emails.  They are distracting clutter and do not serve to focus a message.  Email contains vital information and should be undiluted by graphics and emotional noise.

All business emails are ultimately legal documents that can be used in a court of law.  Will the email stand up to a corporate lawyer’s scrutiny?

5) Correct English:  

Standard Edited English is the language of business, not only within the United States, but also internationally.  Respect the standard.  It is simply what is expected from writers as representatives of companies.  Failures in English usage create poor impressions of the writer and the company.  Write in complete sentences.  Avoid stringing sentences together with the word “and.”  That word generally should be used only in lists.

When presenting a topic and its details and explanations, the email should be complete in a single paragraph (the five sentence rule).  If, however, there is still another corresponding topic that must be approached in the same email, separate that new topic from the first topic by a blank line to begin a new paragraph. 

Each paragraph should develop only a single topic. 

Do not use slang expressions or pepper sentences with foreign language phrases (unless appropriate to audience).  What may seem an innocent expression might be mistaken as an affront or insult by the addressee, or the reader to whom your email may be forwarded. 

6)      Opening: 

Be certain the phrase placed in the message bar of the email clearly identifies the purpose of the message. Help the reader decide how to use company time with this important message shorthand.

Do not use salutations.  If the email is to a group, simply begin the message.  If the email is to a closely familiar individual, use his or her first name followed by a colon to begin the email, then space using the enter key twice and begin the message.  If the email is to someone not closely familiar, use the proper title and the person’s last name, such as “Ms. Smith” or “Dr. Abrahim”, then the colon, spacing, and beginning of message.

The message bar tells what the email is about and the greeting states to whom the missive is intended.  That is an efficient opening.

7)      Closing:

 If closing remarks are necessary and have a purpose, separate them from the other paragraphs of the email as a new topic and paragraph. Closing remarks should indicate that an appreciation for the reader’s having taken the time to read the message and, more importantly, should express the action to be initiated as a result of the email. Closings such as “Thank you for your attention.  Please respond as soon as possible,” or “Thank you for your prompt action on this matter,” politely nudge the reader in the direction of the email’s purpose.

Avoid closings typically used in personal letters. Phrases such as “See You Soon,” “Love,” “Best Wishes,” etc., are all inappropriate to the needs of the company, with the possible exception of “Sincerely” when appropriately used to close an email to a client or customer. 

8)      Proofreading:

Read emails before sending.  If it is an extremely sensitive or important communication, have someone trustworthy also read it over before sending it.  There inevitably will be something within the composition which was not intended to be expressed, or which is not there though it was intended.  The human mind and a person’s typing fingers often work at odds to one another. The best insurance against missing or erroneous information is proofreading and editing of messages one last time.  

Once sent, the first impression of the message can never be erased.  Sending amendments and corrections to emails is inefficient and reflects negatively on the sender and the company. If a proposal will be “a hit” but you type the “s” instead of the “a” key in your reply (the letters are neighbors on your keyboard), a potential nightmare scenario exists. Proofread and edit the message for clarity and correctness the first time.

 If an email program has a spell checking function, use it.  Especially spell check one last time before sending the email. Pay particular attention to word groups such as “there, their, they’re” which are often misused but not picked up by spell check. The reader assumes that the writer, not the technology tool, is responsible for correct word choice and spelling. 

The same advice applies to a grammar check if the email program contains one.  The grammar check is not always correct because it can make suggestions only on usage without knowing the intent of a sentence.  However, more often than not, a usage highlighted by grammar check within an email ought to be reconsidered.  Right click the mouse with the cursor over the highlighted phrasing and seek the explanation for the grammar challenge.  This will not only ensure making the right choice in accepting or ignoring the challenge, but it will provide an ongoing and painless education in English grammar and usage. Revise the sentence if necessary.

Proofreading is the last step in composition previous to sending an email into the business world.  It is the last chance to get a message right before it becomes part of the legal tender of the company.  Read that message over one last time. 

9)      Address Check:

 Sending an email to the wrong person is not only unproductive, it is often embarrassing.  A message in the wrong hands can, in fact, have serious consequences.  In addition, sending an email with an address which is incorrect or no longer functioning is the same as not sending it at all.  If that communication is meant to have an impact on someone, especially a client, then the lack of proper address undermines the entire process. 

When sending a group email, check every name in the group mailing list to confirm that each recipient should be receiving the message.  Add other appropriate recipients as necessary to the group list.  Do not be lazy with a group address list.  What is appropriate for the entire group one day may not entirely be suited to everyone on that list the next day. Additionally, email addresses within group folders change, especially client and customer addresses, and must be updated constantly to ensure receipt of the message. 

An “ Undeliverable” message reply from an undeliverable email address may not be sent. Further, an expected reply to an email which does not go to its proper reader will never be received.  Do the necessary work to safeguard that that the message arrives where it should and does not arrive where it should not.

10)  Formatting:

Keep formatting simple. Use plain text email rather than HTML.  Not all programs can read or translate HTML. 

Do not indent paragraphs but rather use block format for ease of reading.  Single space the body of the text and double space between paragraphs.

Avoid photographs, fancy borders, fonts or text sizes.  They may seem appealing and even authoritative, but they are ultimately simply clutter and quickly become tedious. 

The cleanest format provides the least distraction from the important content of the message. 


From the introduction of the computer as a tool of business, electronic text communication has become an integral part of nearly everyone’s work day. Millions of emails are sent and received globally every hour. Unfortunately, more often than not, the tool of business email communication is used hastily and without proper attention to critical details, often with detrimental or even disastrous results.  Stories abound of emails mistakenly sent to the wrong person, containing erroneous information, or even insulting or illegal content.  As a vital member of your company, speak with a focused purpose for productive results.  Emails need to have an impact within a myriad of competing messages. Avoid the illusion of communication. Audience needs and company policies should supersede any particular rule. A clear purpose delivered most efficiently to a busy audience is the core concept.