Writing@CSU Guide

Email

E-mail is used to communicate in many settings. Effective use of email requires a clear sense of the purpose for writing, as well as a clear statement of the message.

Email Uses

Email allows individuals and groups to communicate with one another. Imagine that you've been asked to coordinate work on a proposal to address a problem in your dorm or Greek organization. You need to get information and ideas from people living in your dorm or house, from members of the surrounding community, from university officials, and perhaps other groups. Once you've established contact with these groups and individuals, you can gather and share information as well as elicit reactions to on-going proposals through email rather than face-to-face meetings or repetitive telephone calls.

Information Exchange

E-mail messages can include a wide variety of information that we might have seen on bulletin boards or flyers in the past. Email makes distributing this information quick and simple. You can send information directly to:

Individuals

Users can send email to exchange information with just one person. As a student, you are most likely to ask informational questions of your professors or classmates. Students often ask for information about:

  • Changing a class schedule or assignment deadline
  • Setting up an appointment
  • Finding additional resources on a topic
  • Clarifying a concept or discussion topic

Small Groups

Typically, users send email to small groups of people with a common interest, say a committee or a work group. With these groups, the most common kinds of information exchange include:

  • Arranging and changing meeting times
  • Disseminating minutes or notes of discussions
  • Asking for agenda items
  • Communicating a project’s progress
  • Reporting results of proposals

Large Groups

Users often send email to large groups advertise a product or service. In a way, these messages function much as commercials do on television. With these groups, the most common kinds of information exchange include:

  • Announcing general interest meetings or presentations
  • Announcing new services
  • Advertising special events
  • Requesting volunteers for community activities

Writing General Announcements

When you write a general announcement, be sure to answer the W questions: who, what, when, where, and why. It's also a courtesy to announce "how much" if there is an admission charge or donation expected. Verify the information before you compose your message, proofread carefully, and then keep track of the addresses you use to distribute your announcement, just in case you need to update the information should it change.

You'd be surprised how often email writers forget to announce the time or place of an event. Not only is it embarrassing to have to send a second general announcement about the event, but you're likely to be flooded with requests for that information, and handling those requests can eat up the time you saved by using email in the first place.

Brainstorming and Problem Solving

Although brainstorming and problem solving typically occur in face-to-face meetings, we can use email to help with these activities. For instance, suppose you have a large group of people who want to help work on the problem in the dorm or Greek house. Getting all those people together might be a scheduling nightmare, and some people might decide not to help because of the inconvenient meeting time.

By asking everyone to send you views of the problem and two or three possible solutions over email, you can organize a draft proposal to circulate to everyone. You might include the three or four most commonly cited solutions to the problem. By getting possible solutions in front of concerned people before you meet, you can make more progress when you convene a face-to-face meeting.

Brainstorming to Meet a Deadline

Another common way of using email also leads to brainstorming and problem solving. Say you know a deadline is approaching but you haven't yet been able to gather all the information you need for a project that's due. If you use email to alert the people expecting the project (your boss or co-workers, a conference organizer, a printer, your teacher), you can explain in advance what the problem is and how you're trying to solve it. Often, you'll get responses that will help you with your problem (including a change in deadline or more resources).

Record Keeping

Unlike telephone and face-to-face conversations, email "conversations" provide a built-in record of what you've asked for and what information you've received. By saving a copy of the messages you send, you can keep track of exactly what you asked for and when. By keeping a copy of messages you receive, you can remind yourself when it's time to follow up a request for information with a second email message or a telephone call. Many email users keep their email archives organized by project or topic to help themselves remember to follow up on certain tasks. To read examples about archiving email, choose either of the items below:

Archiving Announcements

You may decide, for instance, that you should announce an upcoming campus event every three or four days for two weeks before the event, with a final reminder the morning of the event. By saving your messages, you can be sure that you are sending accurate information each time you send it. And you can be sure that you’ve met your schedule.

Moreover, if someone loses one of these "general distribution announcements" and asks you to repeat the message, you have a copy in your email archive to send instantly.

Archiving Documents

Especially as you work with committees or groups, email records can be helpful in showing how a final document or proposal evolved or who argued which positions along the way. As you work with a group, you can keep all the messages from that group together and create the "history" of the group’s activity. If you’re writing a document, email records can show the drafts of the document and who commented on what parts of the document.

Such email records not only provide you with accountability but can also head off group problems. If a group member objects to one part of the final proposal, your records might show that the person raised no objection when the proposal first appeared.

If your email system doesn’t allow you to keep messages indefinitely for record keeping, then you can save email messages as text files in your word processing program.

Group Work

Groups use email to send messages to one another and produce documents together. For example, suppose your study group has a question about the material in a class. Instead of four or five people calling the professor, one person can send an email message and distribute the answer to the study group. Or if you are writing a proposal with eight group members, you can email your section to everyone else. The other group members can then make changes and add to your text. Email's advantage is that other people can respond to your ideas quickly and easily.

Email also allows you to create distribution lists. For instance, a list including the eight group members on the proposal team means that you only have to send the message once, not eight times. Teachers often create distribution lists for their classes. Teachers, or students, can type a message once and send it to every person in the course.

Staying in Touch Professionally

E-mail "list-serve" functions are an increasingly common way to keep track of recent developments and current trends in a field. A member of a group--teachers with a particular interest, investors using a particular stock strategy, hobbyists, World War II veterans--sets up a special email routing service on a host computer. As interested people decide to join the group, they send a message to the computer which automatically adds names to the email list. Whenever any member sends an email message to the list, all members get the message.

Staying in Touch Socially

As more and more computer users connect to the Internet from home computers, email replaces telephone calls and letters that used to keep family and friends in touch. Issues affecting personal messages are listed below.

Privacy

Any message may be personal but it’s certainly not private if you send it via email. Systems administrators anywhere along the email trail could (though they probably won’t) read, save, or archive your message. The law that protects telephone conversations from wire-tapping does not yet clearly extend to email messages, so you should consider sending sensitive or confidential messages through some other medium.

Work Policies

Many businesses do not allow their employees to use office computers to send personal messages over email. Be sure to check on the policies of your employer before sending messages to friends and family members.

State Employees

Many states require that all state employees’ office communications be available for public scrutiny. If you are a state or federal employee, a systems administrator may be required by law to archive and disclose your email messages with or without your knowledge or permission.

Transmitting Documents

Because most email software limits the length of the message you can send, keep your messages relatively short. Most mailers can handle about one typed page before they reach their limit on message size

Sending Longer Documents

If you have longer documents to send electronically; however, you can attach a file of any sort to an email message. By attaching a file, you can:

  • Submit abstracts or papers to conferences or journals
  • Send a draft-in-progress to a co-worker, teacher, or Writing Center tutor
  • Send digital pictures to a friend
  • Send a table of data to a co-researcher

Particularly when you face a tight deadline, sending documents, data, and pictures electronically is much faster than sending them through a surface carrier. Electronic files are also easier for the recipient to manipulate electronically, so users generally prefer files over faxes. Check your mail program to see how to attach a complete file.

Attaching Files

When you attach a file, you should always write a message that describes the contents and format of the attachment. Don't assume that the recipient has the same software unless you know you've sent files in that format before. When in doubt, send both a formatted file and a file saved as ASCII (or DOS or plain text). Be sure to tell the recipient in your message what version of the software you've used to save the file.

Just as we usually follow a fax with a telephone call to be sure the fax arrived clearly and completely, you should confirm that your attachment arrived in a readable format. In your message, you can ask the recipient to reply to your message, or you might follow up with a telephone call (depending on how important the documents/files are to both you and the recipient).

Writing Effective Messages

Email is not the same as talking to someone face-to-face or even over the telephone. When we talk face-to-face, we pick up meaning from facial expressions, body language, specific gestures, and, of course, tone of voice. Even telephone conversations preserve the meanings conveyed by tone of voice. But email messages lose these extra ways of conveying meaning as we exchange messages, and so writers need to take care when writing email messages, even though they seem impromptu or off-the-cuff.

The best general advice: What you include in your email message depends on why you are writing and to whom. Effective email messages are short and to the point. Receivers don't want to scroll through two or more screens of text to get your message. On the other hand, don't make your messages so short that the receiver doesn't understand you. Provide enough information so that the receiver understands both the context and the details of the message.

Effective Messages to Individuals

As with any email message, make your message clear and direct. But especially as you write to specific individuals, anticipate what that particular reader will want or need to know about you and your request or your information. For example, if you write to a professor to request an appointment, anticipate that the professor will ask you to come to regularly scheduled office hours. Explain that you have class during that time but that you are available at other times you then list.

In other words, remind your reader of the key contextual details that are necessary for your message to make sense and to get you a quick response.

Effective Messages to Small Groups

When you write an email message to a smaller group, you are likely to have a specific purpose related to the work of that group. We noted these possible purposes:

  • Arranging and changing meeting times
  • Disseminating minutes or notes of discussions
  • Asking for agenda items
  • Communicating a project’s progress
  • Reporting results of proposals

If you keep in mind why you are writing the email message, you can put the most important information at the beginning of the message. Be especially clear about what you expect recipients to do and what deadlines they must meet.

If you're using email messages to initiate group brainstorming, you'll want to include in your message not only what you see as the goal of the group work (for example, we are looking for solutions to problem X) but also a timeline: responses, another round of email messages, and a meeting by specified dates.

Effective Messages to Large Groups

Perhaps most important for effective messages to groups is to distinguish carefully between messages to specific members of the group and messages to the entire group. If you’re working with fifteen people, but only three can give you the information you need, send messages only to those three people. If you want everyone in the group to have a complete record of all the email messages, send a carbon copy to other group members. But send the whole group only messages that apply to the whole group.

Why do group members want to receive only the email messages that apply to them? As more people use email regularly, they discover that they receive dozens of messages every day. By sending messages only to the people in your group who need those messages, you make sure you aren’t distracting your group members from the messages they need to pay attention to.

Email Logistics

Email’s advantage is that users can communicate quickly and easily. To avoid frustrating the receivers of your messages, consider the following logistical tips:

Subject Line

Always include the subject or topic of your message on the subject line so that recipients can see at a glance both who the message is from and what it concerns. Sometimes users fill in the subject line with the beginning of a question or statement that runs into the first line of the message. Unless you can announce the subject of your message in the first two or three words of this sentence, such a subject line is not helpful for recipients.

Reply Context

If your email program doesn't allow you to include the original message in your reply, be sure to restate the original question or request. You may think you're saving time by replying "1. No. 2. Yes. 3. Yes." to an email message with three questions, but you cost your recipient the extra time it takes to look up the original message or to ask you again (because few email writers remember the exact wording of their original messages).

If you can quote the original message when you reply, don't embed your responses in the middle of the original text. Make sure your responses are clearly visible on the screen.

Signature File

Create a Signature File to include at the bottom of your email messages. This way, readers won't have to search for identifying information.

For example:
Elizabeth Messenger
1222 South Drive
Somewhere, CO 80521
emessanger@vines.colostate.org

Attaching Files

When you attach a file, you should always write a message that describes the contents and format of the attachment. Don't assume that the recipient has the same software unless you know you've sent files in that format before. When in doubt, send both a formatted file and a file saved as ASCII (or DOS or plain text). Be sure to tell the recipient in your message what version of the software you've used to save the file.

Just as we usually follow a fax with a telephone call to be sure the fax arrived clearly and completely, you should confirm that your attachment arrived in a readable format. In your message, you can ask the recipient to reply to your message, or you might follow up with a telephone call (depending on how important the documents/files are to both you and the recipient).

Forwarding

Forwarding email messages allows you to pass information on to others. For example, you receive a message canceling the recycling meeting due to a threatening storm. You can then add your own text if necessary, perhaps to reschedule the meeting, and forward the message to everyone in the group.

Carbon Copies

Email, like business letters, can include a carbon copy, or cc. This email feature allows you to send a copy of the message to someone else. Carbon copies are sent at the same time as the original, making them different from forwarding. Unlike blind carbon copies, carbon copies allow the person receiving the message to see that the message was "copied" to someone else. For example, while working on a paper, you've requested an interview with a researcher. You cc the other members in your group to let them know you sent the message. Typically, a carbon copy is used to inform others of the message; they are not required to respond.

Blind Carbon Copies

A blind carbon copy, bcc, allows you to send a copy of your message to someone else. Blind carbon copies are sent at the same time as the original, making them different from forwarding. Unlike carbon copies, blind carbon copies do not show the receiver that the message was "copied" to someone else. For example, one of your group members has not been completing his tasks. When you email the group with a task and meeting schedule, you bcc the instructor so she is aware of the group's activities. This way, the lazy group member is not aware that the instructor is also informed of the group's activities.

Courtesies in Using Email

Although widespread use of email is relatively recent, some "conventional wisdom" has already accumulated about how to avoid offending or annoying email correspondents. We include here a brief review of some key points and recommend additional tips on etiquette through the linked Web sites.

Checking Email Regularly

When a teacher or work-group member tells you that you’ll be getting email, check your account regularly or be sure to explain that you cannot access email. As more and more people rely on electronic communications, they will be annoyed when you don’t respond to questions or miss other messages.

Using Emoticons and Abbreviations

Because email messages lack tone of voice and gestures that communicate so much during face-to-face and telephone conversations, some email writers include emoticons to indicate humor, sarcasm, excitement, and other emotions; for example, :) is a happy face. As a writer, you’ll know which personal messages can include these touches, but they’re generally frowned upon in professional contexts.

Similarly, you may feel comfortable writing personalized abbreviations (such as imho for "in my humble opinion") in personal or social messages, but they are generally not considered appropriate for professional communications. To view additional emoticons and abbreviations, see the link at the bottom of the page.

Writing Tempered Email

Because email is less personal than a face-to-face or even a telephone conversation, users sometimes find themselves tempted to write messages that they would not ordinarily speak to that person. Generally, writing email messages in the heat of anger or frustration only causes more problems. Take time to think through a problem or situation before you send an email message. In other words, don’t lash out through email just because you won’t have to witness the immediate reaction of your recipient.

On the other hand, you may find yourself in a situation that allows you to exploit the distancing effect of email. Say, for example, that a group member isn’t doing his share of the work, and if you confront that person face-to-face you know you’re likely to explode. A carefully worded email message can alert the person to the problem without causing the hard feelings that a confrontation might.

Eliminating Junk Mail

Don’t send announcements to people unlikely to care about your "news." People get so many email messages now that they are annoyed by groups that include them on general lists. If you want to be sure to reach everyone who might be interested in your group, send a general announcement once a year about your organization and ask interested people to send you a reply to be added to your emailing list. Create and update the list as necessary, and use only that list for your announcements unless a particular event is likely to attract other people from the larger community.

Joining List-Serve Groups

Be aware that most list-serve groups observe common courtesies that may differ from group to group. One list-serve may ask that you mail a first message introducing yourself and explaining your interest in the group topic. Other list-serve groups may ask that you "lurk"(reading without participating) for a few weeks until you "get the feel" for the common exchanges before you jump in. Don't create the wrong impression as did a student joining a professional list-serve recently: she asked how we could be so boring by never writing any messages. As a member quickly responded, this group usually asks for polite introductions first, and she would get more responses when the members returned from the major annual convention that had taken them all away from their desks for ten days.

Replying to One Person Rather Than the Group

When you want to communicate with one member of your list-serve group, be sure to send the message to that person’s email address, not to the list-serve address. Private messages sent to all the list-serve members can annoy readers who aren’t intended to read the message.

Professor Perspectives on Email

Dave Alciatore, Mechanical Engineering

When to Stop Emailing and Meet

"At some point, you have to pick up the phone and confront a situation. Email is not acceptable for problem/resolution situations or when you need to sit around in a group and fire ideas at one another. You can start discussions via email, but eventually you'll need to meet. You should especially avoid email whenever tone of voice is important. "

Information Transfer

"Email is limiting in terms of what you can do visually. Engineers often sketch when they talk, putting up transparencies, drawings--it’s technically feasible to attach drawings, but it’s easier to post things on the Web and say, "Go look at it here."

How Professionals Use Email

"Email is a large component in industry. . . . like keeping everyone on a project up to date. Everybody is working on different things and there’s a need for cross-talk. Email is a perfect form for that."

Patrick Fitzhorn, Mechanical Engineering

Email Etiquette

"Email requires appropriateness. For example, one student was hopping mad about something that happened in class. He fired off an email afterwards and copied it to the instructors of the course. Clearly, the student should not have written what he did. If that had happened in industry, he would have been fired. "

Information Transfer

"Information content isn't very high over email. Often, senders and receivers rely on high amounts of information communication, so the information transfer rate needs to be as high as possible."

Neil Grigg, Civil Engineering

How Professionals Use Email

"I use email for everything. We, fellow engineers, exchange files through email; we send things to multiple lists and distribution lists."

Derek Lyle, Electrical Engineering

Email Versus the Telephone

"Email allows you to communicate similar information as a telephone does, only the other person doesn't have to be there. With email, you don't have to wait for an answering machine to turn on or to leave a message with another person. Instead, you just write your message and send it--even during the early hours of the morning! Also, with email, tone of voice is not there. You've got to realize that a person is going to be reading this and it's going to impact them emotionally. At some point, you have to pick up the phone, and you'll need to know when it's time to do that."

Carmen Menoni, Electrical Engineering

How Professionals Use Email

"In industry, everyone uses email. Even within groups, people communicate through email. For example, at Hewlett-Packard, they do that all the time. It’s a very convenient tool. . . . to communicate with their bosses. Or for example, you can send a program over email. Lots of publications expect email. Physical Review expects this. Also, for example, I’m expecting pictures today to be sent so that I can look at them on my computer."

Ken Reardon, Chemical BioResource Engineering

Using Email to Collaborate

"Email is a great vehicle for collaboration projects. For example, with one of my projects, my collaborator was in Oregon. We completed the entire project without ever meeting face-to-face. This type of situation is becoming more common."

How Professionals Use Email

"In companies, it seems to be used for setting up meetings, discussing the progress on a project, due dates. We can forward parts of documents via email also."

Tom Siller, Civil Engineering

How Professionals Use Email

"We do a lot of notification of . . . meetings and such. . . . I use email mostly for reminders . . . . I think students are starting to use it to coordinate group projects. . . . I’d like to see it move to group writing via the network with documents."

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.

Kiefer, Kate, & Dawn Kowalski. (1996). Email. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=44