How to write an email

This post is dedicated to the art of writing an email. If you are an adept emailer, this probably seems redundant. However, many tutors, lecturers or researchers would agree that it’s a skill that not everyone possesses. While most people use email in their personal lives to keep in touch with distant friends or avoid phoning their parents, not everyone is skilled at adapting their style of email for a work context.

A blundered email can irk a potential supervisor, journal editor or collaborator right from the start, so it’s worth getting it right. Here is a non-exhaustive list of tips for academic emailing:

  • If someone sends you an email directly addressed to you, it is polite to acknowledge it. Some senior academics tend to develop a reputation for deleting emails that are inconvenient, but this isn’t great work practice, and particularly not advisable for students and early career academics. You don’t have to respond to junk emails inviting you to imaginary conferences, but an email specifically addressed to you should be acknowledged in a timely manner.
  • Don’t expect an immediate response. You might be experiencing a quiet week, or a frustrating period waiting for direction or clarity from someone on a sticking point in your research, but others are equally likely to be swamped by work. Many academics only respond to emails at certain times of the day or certain days of the week and might need a minimum of several days to respond to even pressing emails. Be considerate of others workloads.
  • Context is everything. If you are emailing someone for the first time, be formal with your salutation (e.g., Dear Editor, Dear Professor Excellent) and then take your next cue from their response. If they begin ‘Hi Sophie’ and sign off ‘Best, Joanie’ then you are invited to address the sender by their first name and you can begin your response with ‘Hi Joanie.’
  • Be careful with titles and don’t make assumptions. I get a lot of emails addressed to Dear Sir or Dear Sir/Madam or Dear Professor. I try to keep in mind that these were likely attempts from the sender to be polite and that these titles speak to a different cultural experience. But it’s hard not to be peeved – I’m not a Sir, Madam or Professor. It’s worth learning a little about appropriate titles so your email isn’t hastily deleted in frustration.
  • Once you have entered an email chain and are on the Xth email of the day, you can drop your Hi and Byes. Politeness is great, but so is expediency.
  • If you are asked a direct question, either answer it or acknowledge it. Don’t be the person who ignores direct questions and sends an unrelated response. Nobody likes that person.
  • Don’t expect others to follow your own workflow precisely. If you email late Thursday asking for feedback on a written document by the end of the week, you’ll probably end up with annoyed supervisors and no feedback. If you are married to your Outlook calendar and send email invites for every catch-up or touching base, but your colleague uses Google calendar, you are likely to end up frustrated. It’s great to know what workflow works for you, but don’t try to push this onto others.
  • Follow up emails are hard. If you have emailed a supervisor or colleagues asking for a meeting or assistance and haven’t received a response, it can be really hard to write back with a reminder. Forward your original email again with a polite follow up explaining why you need assistance and why it is pressing. And don’t dwell on it, they won’t be annoyed by your reminder.
  • Watch your reply alls. They are likely to either spread something sensitive or flood people with unwanted emails. Neither are good email outcomes.
  • Some academics use weekends to plough through an avalanche of built up emails, and some students don’t pay much attention to differentiating workdays and weekends. This is fine, but not everyone appreciates a flurry of weekend emails or arriving at work on Monday morning to an overflowing inbox. It’s not hard to set up an automatic schedule so that you can work on drafting emails Sunday, which are then sent out automatically on Monday morning.
  • Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. It is often a lot quicker and simpler to pick up the phone and have a quick chat about a question then it is to send a mass of emails back and forth.

2 thoughts on “How to write an email

    • I know a lot of people are scared of phones, it can take a while to build phone confidence.

      As for the overly polite, you have to be very strict. No “sorry”. No “maybe”. No “just”. Better to be clear but respectful of others business – “Can you please provide written feedback on this chapter? As I am waiting for feedback before I begin the next task, I would appreciate comments by X Date. Please let me know in advance if this will not be possible with your schedule. I appreciate your time and look forward to your thoughts.”

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