Weekly roundup: Tips to help you write better emails

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I recently covered some tips to help you wrangle your calendar, but there’s another necessary evil many of us struggle to keep a handle on: email.

As Shani Harmon writes at HBR, “We’ll spend hours polishing our LinkedIn profiles and revising our résumés, but hastily hit send on an unintelligible missive simply because we’re in a rush.”

If you need help staying on top of your inbox, these tips are for you.

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1. Make your subject clear with keywords

Kabir Sehgal, who formerly served in the military, now uses some military email tricks to craft clear, specific emails that are quick and simple for recipients to read and respond to.

One of Sehgal tips is to use keywords at the start of each email subject line, so the recipient knows at a glance what the point of your message is. Some of Sehgal’s example keywords include:

  • ACTION
  • SIGN
  • INFO
  • DECISION
  • REQUEST
  • COORD

Starting with these keywords lets your recipient know if your email requires any action on their part, making it easier for them to triage and respond to your messages. And though it might seem a bit much to write these keywords in capital letters, Sehgal points out why this is so helpful:

These demarcations might seem obvious or needlessly exclamatory because they are capitalized. But your email will undoubtedly stand out in your recipient’s inbox and they won’t have to work out the purpose of your emails. (If also forces you to think about what you really want from someone before you contribute to their inbox clutter.)

2. Write longer emails to avoid switching costs

This tip might sound counterintuitive, but it comes from a reliable source: productivity expert and frequent writer on unconventional email approaches Cal Newport .

The reason Newport’s approach works, he says, is because the biggest cost to our time from email isn’t from how much time we spend in our inboxes, but from all the context switching email requires of us. Every time we switch into our inboxes or back to our work, we’re costing ourselves time and attention.

So to stop email taking over our workdays, Newport says we need to focus on switching to our inboxes less often, rather than spending less time there once we’ve switched:

What you’re minimizing with process-centric emailing is not the time you spend in your inbox, but the number of times you have to open it.

And the way to do this, says Newport, is to write longer, process-based emails that follow these three steps:

  1. Figure out the goal of the email thread
  2. Find a process to get to the goal with the least back-and-forth
  3. Explain the process in your email

Say a friend or colleague emails to ask if you want to grab a coffee sometime soon. Here’s how Newport would reply using the three-step process above:

Sounds great. I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell (<number>) during one of my upcoming office hours (Tue/Thur from 12:30 to 1:30), when I’m sure to be around, and we’ll find something that works.

The goal of the email thread in this example is to organize a time and date when you can meet your friend or colleague for coffee. The process to get to that goal as quickly as possible is to offer the other party several dates and times that already work from you and let them confirm one that they’re happy with.

By explaining that a reply from the recipient will be confirmation of the meeting, and offering a back-up option that doesn’t involve the email thread, Newport’s example reply explains the process to the recipient so they know exactly what to do next to reach the goal of setting up the meeting.

Newport admits he struggles with this approach sometimes, “because the urge to get out of the inbox fast is so powerful,” but that he’s always happy when he perseveres with process-centric emails.

3. Make key points stand out for quick reading

Another military-inspired tip from Sehgal is to draw attention to the most important points in your email. Like using keywords in your email subject lines, this approach is designed to help recipients quickly read your emails and understand the relevance to them.

Sehgal suggests starting your email with the most salient information, pointing it out by writing “Bottom line:” in bold to draw the reader’s eye. This helps the recipient immediately understand the point of your email and decide for themselves whether to continue reading.

Another way to use bold text to draw the reader’s eye, says Sehgal, is to bold anyone’s name where you’ve mentioned an action you need them to take. This will help those points stand out so your recipient can quickly take note of what’s needed from them and act on it, even if they’re only skimming the email.

If you’re using Newport’s tip and writing longer, process-based emails, research from email tool Boomerang shows you may be less likely to receive a response. 75-100 words seemed to be the sweet spot for getting the most replies, according to Boomerang’s research, so combining longer emails with Sehgal’s tips for making the most important points stand out could be the best approach.


One final point to remember when sending emails, thanks to Shani Harmon at HBR , is to think carefully before adding people to the CC field:

Remember that each message you send contributes to everyone’s inbox, including your own, especially when one of your recipients decides to Reply All.

What are your best tips for staying on top of your inbox? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.


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