Despite the fact that e-mail has been firmly entrenched in offices and homes for some time, debate still rages online about e-mail usage and style.
How should you begin and end an e-mail message? If replying to a message, should you quote that message before or after your message? What tone should you take with business e-mail?
To gauge opinion, I talked with some heavy e-mail users who keep their eyes peeled to the latest online trends. All of these people write about the Internet or advise others how to best handle the topic.
Scott M. Fulton III, cofounder of Ingenus Communications, an editorial services firm in Indianapolis, disapproves of the creeping informality of business e-mail. “The abundance of informal e-mail is eroding some peoples’ ability to be formal when needed,” he says. To his dismay, he receives many e-mails from people he’s never met that begin with salutations such as “Hi there, Scott.”
Avoiding formalities can save time by letting you get right to the point. But Fulton feels informality causes some people to correspond in a less structured and efficient way than if they considered their words more carefully.
On the other hand, the quaint letter-writing practice of beginning an e-mail salutation with “Dear” can sometimes stick out like a faulty RAM chip. Karen Heyman, chair of the ethics committee of the Internet Press Guild, doesn’t mind business e-mail that substitutes “Hi” for “Dear.”
Some people, however, may regard this as presumptuous, particularly if the “Hi” is followed by the person’s first name. “Hello,” by itself or followed by Mr. or similar title and the person’s last name, can be a good way to break the ice.
A key difference between e-mail and postal mail is speed. People receiving e-mail are operating in Internet time. You need to be succinct and place your most important information first, or it might not get read.
Steven Cherry, who covers the Internet for IEEE Spectrum, the publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., typically begins the body of his e-mail messages by summarizing the subject matter and reminding his correspondent of any previous discussion.
One common technique, unique to online writing, is automatically quoting all or part of a message if you’re responding to one. When they have nothing better to do, people in various online discussion groups debate whether it makes more sense to place this quote before or after your response.
According to the most persuasive arguments, it’s best to 1) quote a relevant snippet of a message and place it in front of your response to provide context, 2) quote multiple snippets and respond directly under each if you’re responding to multiple points, and 3) avoid quoting the entirety of a long message at the beginning of yours.
If the convention in your organization, however, is to quote the entire message after your response, do that.
As with most writing, the purpose of e-mail is to communicate. Some consider it hip to forgo capitalization and correct spelling and grammar. This may be faster for you, but it slows down your readers as they decipher what you mean.
Similarly, e-mailers often use acronyms such as IMHO, which is short for “in my humble opinion,” and “emoticons” such as <g>, which is short for “grin” and signals you’re trying to be friendly or tell a joke. Such conventions work so long as you know you’ll be understood.
Don’t forget to proofread. E-mail spell-checkers aren’t foolproof, and they won’t prevent a flirty message you intended for a single recipient a couple of cubicles down from going to a distribution list comprising your entire department.
E-mail closings are also generally less formal than letter closings. Lisa Napell Dicksteen, who runs LMN Editorial, an editorial services practice in Port Jefferson, N.Y., says she has seen more messages lately ending with “Best,” and that’s what she does. The exceptions are e-mails in which she’s filing a complaint or asking for a refund, in which she uses “Thank you.”
Alan Zeichick, editor-in-chief of SD Times, a magazine for software developers, signs off with “Cheers!” with people he knows and “Thanks” or “Regards” with those he doesn’t. “Sincerely” also still works well with e-mail.
Even though the “From” line in an e-mail message usually contains your name, it’s considered personable to sign off with it as well. Some people skip the “Sincerely” and simply type their first name or initials or, more formally, include an automatically generated “sig” (signature file) consisting of their full name, title, and other information they want to close with.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or reidgold.com.