I taught college English for ten years, and what surprised me the most was the quality of e-mails I received from my students. It was not unusual, for example, to receive e-mails from addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many students simply began their e-mails with a “Hey!” And it always shocked me that 95 percent of the e-mails I received from students questioning or protesting a failing grade were riddled with grammar errors and typos. I mean, if you are going to write one grammatically correct e-mail, that would be the one, right? You might even study up and throw in a properly employed semicolon to impress me.
I don’t totally blame my students, though. When e-mail was introduced to us in the 90s, we fully embraced it: it was free, we could communicate globally, and we never had to talk to anyone ever again! However, we were never given an instruction manual, so we winged it.
Consequently, twenty years later, questions still loom in the back of our heads: How formal are e-mails supposed to be? How are we supposed to start these things? How are we supposed to end them? What goes in the subject header? Is this too curt? Can I use an emoticon? Help!
This e-mail insecurity is so stressful because, of course, when it comes to our careers, e-mail is the primary mode of communication. A poorly written e-mail can cause confusion, waste time, or even cost us a client. It almost makes you want to pick up the phone and just give someone a call. Almost.
Of course, there’s no one size fits all regimen when it comes to composing e-mails. The level of formality, the tone and the content often depend on the e-mail’s intended audience and purpose. But there certainly are tips that should relieve much of the anxiety that e-mail writing induces, such as how to compose an effective subject header, create clear and concise content, and cultivate the appropriate tone. (Yes, there is a nice way to say, “Take me off of this stupid e-mail thread that has nothing to do with me!”)
My business writing course teaches how to write e-mails and other business documents that facilitate understanding and compel readers to action. The course takes place on April 4.
About the instructor
The only trophy that bears the name Jenny Baranick is from the 1983 Crescent Elementary School Read-A-Thon. Continuing her passion for the written word, Jenny received her B.A. in English at the University of California Berkeley and her M.A. in English at the University of Sydney. She has endeavored to share her passion with her English Composition and Critical Thinking students at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she has taught since 2005.
In an effort to make grammar more palatable and more fun (yes, fun), she wrote the grammar guide Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares, published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2012. She has also had a grammar blog since 2010, which shares the name of her book, and she has penned several writing-related columns for Toastmasters International’s magazine. With the goal of spreading awareness about the importance of writing skills, she drives her grammarmobile around San Diego in hopes that the funny grammar sayings all over her car will cultivate such awareness —and not cause accidents.