Format Emails for Readability

Lesson from the online Business Writing Center
email training course, Writing Effective Workplace Email
Learn more about the course. . .

 

Lesson 5


Format for Readability

 

Competencies

This lesson teaches the following competencies:
  1. Write email using message blocks.
  2. Divide the email into paragraphs averaging around five to seven lines long.
  3. Always separate lists into bulleted or numbered lists unless they are very short
  4. Organize the message blocks.
  5. Use upper and lower case as you would in a letter.

Write Email Using Message Blocks

Except for very short messages with only one point, write your emails in message blocks. A message block is a single unit of thought. If readers can clearly identify when a message block begins and ends, they can understand what you are trying to say and follow it more easily. Blocks are especially important if you have several clearly different messages or actions. The Business Writing Center email training course teaches how to write in blocks that guide readers through the message.

Break Your Email Writing into Paragraphs Averaging Five to Seven Lines

Emails written in one big block are difficult to read. As a general rule, when your paragraph reaches seven lines, look to see whether you have a change of topic that requires a new paragraph. That doesn’t mean you break every seven lines. Use that as an indicator that the paragraph may be getting too long. Look for a natural break for a new idea somewhere around seven lines. Use small paragraphs of two to five lines freely:

Hello Simon,

I’d like to make our new website more user-friendly.

I want to remove the pop-up windows because they’re too distracting. I’d also like to get rid of the frames.

 
Dividing your writing into blocks makes it look clear and forces you to focus more on the arrangement of your ideas.

Blocks are even more important in longer email writing, particularly in email containing several topics. This is a message from the email course with no paragraph blocks:

Dear Management Staff: I would first like to congratulate you on the fine job all of you are doing. Our company has experienced phenomenal growth over the past six months largely because of your effort. Keep up the good work, and we’ll all benefit. One of the reasons for our success has been your creativity and willingness to share suggestions with me. I thought I would take this opportunity to ask your advice on a couple of issues before our next meeting so that you have time to consider these things before then.First, I would like your opinions on our website. What are your thoughts on usability, appearance, and functionality? Should we consider incorporating a limited e-commerce model into it? Second, most of you have said that we need to place more emphasis on recruiting. As you know, there are many methods available to us for doing so. I’d like to know what most of you feel are the best routes to go about doing this. Think about these things over the next few days. I look forward to meeting with all of you next week. Jessica Pacubas President and CEO Turtle Dynamics, Inc.  

 
This is the same email with paragraph blocks:

Dear Management Staff:

 
I would first like to congratulate you on the fine job all of you are doing. Our company has experienced phenomenal growth over the past six months largely because of your effort. Keep up the good work and we’ll all benefit.

One of the reasons for our success has been your creativity and willingness to share suggestions with me. I thought I would take this opportunity to ask your advice on a couple of issues before our next meeting so that you have time to consider these things before then.

First, I would like your opinions on our website. What are your thoughts on usability, appearance, and functionality? Should we consider incorporating a limited e-commerce model into it?

Second, most of you have said that we need to place more emphasis on recruiting. As you know, there are many methods available to us for doing so. I’d like to know what most of you feel are the best routes to go about doing this.

Think about these things over the next few days. I look forward to meeting with all of you next week.

JessicaPacubas
President and CEO
Turtle Dynamics, Inc.

 
This email writing is very easy to follow since it is broken into blocks. Vary the lengths of paragraphs to make the email clear and inviting. Varied paragraphs help the reader follow shifts in thought and allow you to emphasize some ideas over others.

Separate Lists into Bulleted or Numbered Lists Unless They are Very Short

Lists of three or more items should be broken out into lists. Bulleted or numbered lists make the individual items stand out on the screen and in the reader’s mind. Make your lists clear by following these simple email training guidelines. To learn how to format lists as described in these guidelines, consider taking the Using Microsoft Word to Create Business Documents course.

  • Use numbers for the list if the items are in order or have some chronological significance. (for example, a set of steps in a procedure)
  • Use bullets if the items are not required to be in a particular order.
  • Begin every list with an explanation of what is in the list, the number of items, and a key term for the items, such as “conclusions,” “steps,” or “recommendations.” Every list item must be an example of that key term.
  • Leave six to twelve points of blank space before the list.
  • If the items in the list are only two or three words long, you do not need extra space between the items. If any items wrap to a second line, put six to twelve points between each item in the list.
  • End with a blank line after the list.
This is the same list of guidelines you just read as you would not want to read them because they are clumped together in a paragraph:
Use numbers for the list if the items are in order or have some chronological significance. (For example, a set of steps in a procedure). Use bullets if they are in no particular order. Begin or end every list with an explanation. Skip a blank line before the list. If the items in the list are only two or three words long, you do not need to skip a line between the items. If they are longer, and especially if any item wraps to the next line, put a blank line between each item in the list. End with a blank line after the list. We wouldn’t have gotten our point across, since all of these items would likely have run together in your mind. You’d probably also have trouble remembering them the next time you wrote an email. Using bullets and lists is effective because the human mind likes to categorize items whenever possible. Using lists keeps items distinct and aids in remembering.

Break out lists with items longer than a few words unless you have a good reason not to do so.

Organize the Blocks

After you have created the blocks, check to see whether they are presented in a logical order.

Example

This email from the writing course is difficult to follow because it is not well organized and is not in blocks. Reorganize it and put the points into blocks. In the box below it is the same email broken into blocks.

To All Regional Managers: As you know, in the past some managers have given extensive evaluations and others have had very little evaluation, if any. First, complete the written evaluation and have it available for the employee in the personnel office and follow this procedure to help us standardize the evaluations. Discuss your evaluation with the employee, going over all important areas after the employee has reviewed the evaluation. After you have finished discussing the evaluation with the employee, email Human Resources to indicate the process has been completed. Remember to give encouragement and talk about goals for improvement. have the employee review the evaluation. As you know, in the past some managers have given extensive evaluations and others have had very little evaluation, if any. These new guidelines for our monthly employee evaluations should make the process easier and more efficient for all involved. Thanks, and please let me know if you have any questions, difficulties, or suggestions.

Rolfe Windgang

 

In this version of the email, the writer has the blocks clear by inserting carriage returns and has made lists where possible.

Regional Managers:

As you know, in the past some managers have given extensive evaluations and others have had very little evaluation, if any. These new guidelines for our monthly employee evaluations should make the process easier and more efficient for all involved. They will help us standardize the evaluations. Follow this procedure.

  • First, complete the written evaluation and have it available for the employee in the personnel office. Next, have the employee review the evaluation.
  • Then discuss your evaluation with the employee, going over all important areas. Give encouragement and talk about goals for improvement.
  • After you have finished discussing the evaluation with the employee, email Human Resources to indicate the process has been completed.
  • Thanks, and please let me know if you have any questions, difficulties, or suggestions.

    Rolfe Windgang

Use Upper and Lower Case as You Would in a Letter

Since email is such an informal medium, some people believe that using proper capitalization is unnecessary. While email writing in all lower case or all upper case may be acceptable for journal entry and informal emails, business emails written this way look crude and unprofessional. The email writing course focuses on the principles that create clear, well-organized emails.

Example:

hello, i located your resume on jobhunt.com and i wanted to introduce myself to you. my name is kathleen johnson with hmi worldwide, the parent company of jobhunt.com.

 
The look is no better when the writer continues using all caps:

HMI IS THE LEADING PROVIDER OF GLOBAL RECRUITMENT SOLUTIONS AND HAS MORE THAN 8,200 EMPLOYEES. HMI ALSO HAS OFFICES IN 29 COUNTRIES AND THE COMPANY’S CLIENTS INCLUDE MORE THAN 90 OF THE FORTUNE 100 COMPANIES.

Avoid Visual Clutter and Unusual Fonts

Email page layout differs from paper-document page layout. You can’t do some things in email that you might be accustomed to doing on paper. Follow these email-training guidelines:

  1. Don’t use complicated borders, margins, etc. These may get stripped or skewed by the reader’s email program, making the message hard to read.
  2. Open up the text with white space, and separate paragraphs with white space. This will make it easier for the reader to differentiate points, sub-points, and ideas.
  3. Keep lines of text under 70 characters.
  4. Avoid unusual fonts, font sizes, html emails, boldface, and italics, as in this example:

    Please send me the newest report right away. Thanks.

    While it may be tempting to use fonts that have more of an “impact” and text modifiers, such items actually distract from your writing. Using them is a sign that your language isn’t working for you. If you express yourself clearly with plain text, your reader will understand you.

  5. Don’t used colored backgrounds.
  6. Avoid the use of emoticons and acronyms, such as :o), WTG and CUL in business writing to people you don’t know well. These are too informal for organizational email, and your reader might not understand them. With people you know well, they do help to convey your feeling about the subject.

Follow English Usage Rules

Emails grew out of chat rooms and the informal emails used in bulletin boards. Unfortunately, a very loose standard for use of the language resulted. To communicate clearly and give readers the impression you are educated and literate, you must follow the same grammar rules you follow in written communication.

  1. Punctuate for accuracy. Make sure that periods, commas, and other punctuation are where they should be to make the message clear. The different punctuation in these sentences could make the message different:

    Please give me the service blueprints for the joint ball and socket for the engine.

    Please give me the service blueprints for the joint, ball and socket for the engine.

    Please give me the service blueprints for the joint, ball, and socket for the engine.

  2. Use a comma before “and” when you present a series of items in a sentence: “Send me the report, your comments, and any recommendations you have.”
  3. Check spelling carefully. Don’t rely on your spell checker to catch errors. Always proofread before clicking on “send.” Many words that have different meanings have similar spelling and are mistyped:
  4.   from/form
    to/too
    loose/lose
    life/live
    our/out
    an/and
  5. Double-check the recipient’s name for spelling errors.
  6. Check the email address for the reader to make sure your email is going to the right person.
  7. If you’re sending a message to an individual and have specified other recipients via the “cc:” list, double-check the list to make sure the people being sent the message are the intended recipients.
  8. Be careful with people who have similar names if your email program automatically completes names after you type the first few letters. For example, if you have “Jessica” and “Jessica B. Smith” in your address book, your email letter will first pick “Jessica” when you type the first few letters. You will have to type several more letters in order to get “Jessica B. Smith.” When you have several people in your address book, make sure you confirm that the mail is going to the right person.
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