By now, you should already know the basics of how to write a proper email — don't write in all caps, do write complete sentences (unless you're Bill Gates and don't have that sort of time). But writing a clear, effective email isn't always simple as it seems.
"Email is evolving," Dr. John Daly, an interpersonal communications professor at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, tells CNBC Make It. "How you email today is very different from how you used email 10 years ago. It's much more formal."
Poor email skills will not only prevent your message from getting read, it can annoy the heck out of your co-workers (and boss). Below are the 11 most common mistakes to avoid, and what experts say you should do instead:
1. Putting too many people in the "To" or "CC" line
The fewer, the better. Only address your email to the essential stakeholders.
The biggest pet peeve for most people is when someone gets overzealous with the "Company: All" list. "Don't be that someone," cautions Danny Rubin, author of "Wait, How Do I Write This Email?"
You should only add recipients you're speaking directly to in the "To" line, such as your boss who requested an assignment update or project teammates. If you're simply referencing a recipient, but not speaking directly to them, put them in the "CC" (a.k.a. "carbon copy") line.
2. Sending from the wrong email address
Always double-check what email address you're sending your message from. There are cases where people fire off emails in a rush, and end up sending something freelance-related from their work addresses.
It's even worse if you send a work-related email from your personal address. Your spam filter may gobble up legitimate emails from a client. If this happens, ask the client to resend the email to both your work and personal email addresses. Then, go step further and hit "Reply All" to thank them for resending the original email you didn't receive. Reiterating the situation also helps you avoid the appearance of impropriety.
3. Using "BCC" carelessly or for deceptive reasons
"BCC" ("blind carbon copy") was devised as a way to shield an email address from view, but it's since devolved into a weapon in the worst, cut-throat corporate cultures.
The most important "BCC" rule is to never use it to deceive an addressee of the email, who is under the impression that your communication is limited to the people addressed and carbon copied on the email. "It doesn't matter who is copied or blind copied — forwarded it later, if you absolutely feel the need to," says Rubin.
Email introductions, however, are an exception. If someone else made the introduction, make sure you respond to let them know you're moving them to "BCC." This will prevent them from having to endure the barrage of emails that may follow.
4. Writing a generic subject line
Email subject lines should act like titles or headlines for your email, Rubin says.
When you use generic subject lines like "Here you go" or worse yet, no subject line at all, you're almost guaranteeing that your email will head straight into the abyss. When the recipient goes to retrieve that email later, they'll have no easy way of scanning their inbox for that correspondence.
The best subject lines quickly identify the message's contents for readers.
Also, limit the number of characters in your subject line so it doesn't get cut off on mobile, the writing app Grammarly advises. A good rule of thumb is 30 to 50 characters.
The best subject lines quickly identify the message's contents for readers. Here are some examples:
- Mention a mutual acquaintance: "Shelby Skrhak suggested I contact you"
- Mention what you have in common: "Hello from a fellow blogger!"
- Mention your company: "Hello from Grammarly"
- Suggest an in-person meeting: "Lunch is on me"
- Show you admire their work: "Loved your article on CNBC Make It"
- If you're writing about a job you're interested in applying for, use something like "Job Application: [your name] for [job title] position" or "Referred by [name of person who referred you] for [job title] position."
5. Using improper greetings
In most situations, Rubin prefers "Hi" as a greeting. "The other options don't feel right," he says.
- Hello: Too flat and impersonal
- Hey: Too comfortable
- Dear: Too formal
- To Whom It May Concern or Dear Sir or Madam: Way too formal
- Hey, hey: Don't even think about it
6. Not introducing yourself
Meeting someone in person is easy, but it can get a bit challenging when you're doing it over email.
Grammarly offers these specific introductions as examples:
- "My name is Tina, I'm a Senior Content Strategist at Hooli."
- "My name is Tina, and I have a popular blog called 'Purrfection' chronicling my life as a crazy cat lady."
- "My name is Tina, I'm a fellow Stanford alum working in content creation."
7. Using too many exclamation marks(!)
Using too many exclamation marks will make you appear inexperienced.
It's perfectly acceptable to use exclamation marks for opening and closing greetings (i.e., "Good morning!" or "Have a great day!"), Rubin says. But your email is more likely to be misconstrued if you use them in strongly-worded sentences (i.e., "Let me know!" or "I need this as soon as possible!"), says Daly.
Instead, he advises something as simple as, "I need to discuss [X] with you now or as soon as you are available."
8. Not starting your email with the most important information
Don't save the most important information for the end, says Rubin. State your intention at the very beginning of the email, and include information that will support your intention and objective. Then, remind them again of what you want at the end.
"It's like the old newspaper term "burying the lead." In emails, we often put what we want the person to do at the very end, when in fact it should be at the very beginning,"
9. Using slang abbreviations
Avoid abbreviations you might originally use in a text message to a friend, like "LOL" ("laugh out loud"), "FWIW" ("for what it's worth"), "BTW" ("by the way"), "IDK" ("I don't know) or "HTH" ("hope that helps"). They can often convey an overly casual tone to business topics that are important.
That doesn't mean you can't abbreviate at all. Some acceptable ones include: "EOD" ("end of day"), TL;DR ("too long, didn't/don't read") or "FYI" ("for your information").
10. Using a rude tone
Read over any important email twice before sending — not for the sake of grammatical and proofing (though that's important, too), but for the sake of connotation.
"Sarcasm never really works in an email," Daly says. "Be very careful what you put in emails because the reader has no context or connotation for the email. And nowadays, it's also a form of documentation."
That means, don't send angry, snarky or sarcastic emails. Sure, write them all you want, but don't send them immediately. Daly suggests holding it for an hour, and then reconsider whether you should hit "send."
11. Communicating via email when you should be doing it over the phone (or face-to-face)
"Sometimes, it's better to pick up the phone or go talk to a person face-to-face, rather than doing it over email," Daly reminds us. "The moment you send that email, you've lost total control. You have no idea who might be getting a copy later on."
Daly reiterates that he loves email, he just urges people to be more sophisticated about how they use it. "The more important the issue, the richer the message should be."
Shelby Skrhak is a Dallas-based writer and host of "The Secret to My Success" podcast. Before her freelance career, Shelby lead digital content and social media efforts for SUCCESS magazine for 12 years. She's a southpaw and her hand writing should be a font. Follow her on Twitter at @ShelbySkrhak.
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