How to Write Emails for Work and School that Bosses, Coworkers, and Teachers Will Love

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What's the #1 form of communication in the workplace, universities, colleges, and K-12 schools? How has it changed since Covid, social distancing, and working at home?

Memos? Reports? Budget requests? Syllabi? Lessons? Handouts?

If you said, "email," you're right. If you said it’s increased since Covid-19, you’re doubly right.

One study of business writing (Droz and Jacobs, "Genre Chameleon") found that bosses and coworkers often view new employees’ writing as unprofessional. Teachers often complain about "students who can't write." Judgments are especially harsh for emails.

People get used to writing personal emails, social media messages, and texts in an informal, slap-dash fashion, and then they don't adjust to the workplace's more formal conventions. Students forget that they're writing to professors rather than friends or parents.

Poorly written emails color perceptions of your writing abilities and overall competence.

It's not that new employees and college students can't write or lack basic competence. They just don't know how to write for their coworkers and teachers. Some of them will figure it out on their own, and some of them will need help.

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To write better emails for work and school, pay attention to the norms of communication among your colleagues and professors. These norms may include level of formality, amount of detail, and (avoiding) jargon. Read ’ emails (and other writing) from coworkers and teachers for presentation as well as content.

Here are some examples of ineffective and effective emails. Try to read them for the norms and values that they contain.

How to Write an Email vs. How Not to Write an Email

Here’s an email exchange between myself and a colleague. Names and details have been changed to protect the innocent. First, I wrote:

Professor Doe,
I hope you're doing well during these crazy times of remote work and social distancing. I have been working on updating the General Education website on behalf of the Vice-Provost, and I was hoping you could send me the syllabus for Course 101. I saw that you are teaching multiple sections in the fall, so I thought you would be a good person to ask. 
Thank you,

Here’s my colleague’s response:

Do you want the “official” one, the one submitted during the last course revision 2012 I think or my first day of class one?

Had my colleague read my email for my values, for communicative norms and expectations, then the response may have been very different, made a very different impression, and avoided being highlighted as a bad example.

My email conveyed values and expectations for a salutation, a signature line, a certain level of detail and helpfulness, and correct punctuation and grammar. The reply fails to reflect those expectations. It makes the writer seem uninterested in being either professional or helpful.

Here's another colleague’s email. Again, names and details have been changed.

Hello, Eric:

I hope you had a lovely and relaxing weekend. We are so fortunate to have this beautiful spring to battle coronavirus/quarantine blues… Thank you so much for moving fast on Course 100. I had another note/comment. If possible, could we list Course 300 in the Gen Ed online form as it is on the CAD (attached), e.g., History through Literature? I apologize for adding this item to your already packed to do list. Thank you for considering. 

This writer thinks about the audience (me). The email begins with empathy for my (and everyone’s) circumstances during the Coronavirus outbreak, builds goodwill through appreciation, and only then presents a request.

The request is clear, specific, and respectful. The tone resembles a friendly but professional hallway conversation. The email has punctuation errors, but my colleague made such a positive impression that I didn’t recall them until I added the email here.

Though this colleague barely knows me, she anticipated my values for professionalism in writing and clarity in communication.

She must have anticipated the former simply by knowing I teach English. The latter follows logically from my role as General Education Coordinator, the multiple courses we’re dealing with and discussing, and the multiple documents involved.

Her email motivated me to fulfill her request, and it will color my perception and interaction with her in the future.

How to Email Professors vs. How Not to Email Professors

Every single professor, instructor, and teacher has stories about poorly written, irritating, or downright offensive emails from students.

Usually, the student doesn't intend to write poorly, irritate the professor, or offend someone's sensibilities. The student just doesn't think about the intended audience and his or her norms of communication, values for writing, and attitudes toward teacher-student relationships.

Again, pay attention to the communicative norms of the professor. If the professor comes across very formally in class, then probably don't start your email with, "Hey Prof." If the professor's joking and easy-going, maybe a "Hey Prof" won't raise eyebrows. If you're not sure about the professor, then stick with a more formal approach.

You should get a sense of your professor's values for "good" writing from the syllabus, assignment descriptions, handouts, class discussion, emails, etc. If the professor writes in a detailed, "academic" style, then you should probably mirror that approach to some extent. If the professor sprinkles sarcasm throughout his or her writing, then adding your own wit to an email can create a more personal connection with the professor.

But even the most informal, easy-going, sarcastic professor still views the teacher-student relationship as a hierarchy. Even the teachers who say they don't.

I don't care if the professor insists on going by first names in the classroom, carries on like an old friend, and talks about "empowering" students, even that professor will perform an eye-roll while reading emails like, "Sorry i missed class, what did i miss?" or "Can I do extra-credit since not turning in the last assignment hurt my grade?"

Remember that the teacher-student relationship is a hierarchy and that you should go out of your way to write polite, respectful emails that recognize the teacher's position and authority. Teachers aren't obligated to go out of their way. Motivate them to do so.

Do you have email horror stories? Share them in the comments, or visit my homepage through the link below and use the contact form. Thanks for reading!

Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
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