Use Paragraphs in Emails to Help the Reader Follow Your Message

Writing email paragraphs
Use paragraphs in your business emails to make your message clear. This article explains how to write paragraphs in emails. You can apply the same skills to writing paragraphs in reports and letters.

Paragraphs Help Your Reader Stay on Track

Readers are taking in your message word by word as though they were riding along in a car to the destination you want them to arrive at. You are telling them where to go as they drive. If you don’t tell them when they should turn to start a new road, they’ll keep sailing along straight ahead, feeling like they should be staying on the same road because you haven’t told them when to turn. You must let them know they’re on a new road by putting a blank space in your writing and starting with a statement about the new topic. That’s like telling to take a turn in the road. Use Microsoft Word to create and format paragraphs. The Business Writing Center’s course in Writing Business Documents Using Microsoft Word will teach you how to write and format paragraphs.

How Many Paragraphs Should an Email Have?

You may have heard that an email should have three paragraphs. That’s a misunderstanding because some writing teachers teach something called a “three-paragraph essay” with an introduction, body, and conclusion. That’s just a format teachers use to show students how to have introductions and conclusions. It doesn’t apply to the real world of writing email. Write your email using as many paragraphs as necessary. The rest of this article explains how to use paragraphs in email.

Generally, Keep Paragraphs in Emails Short

Use paragraphs in emails to create blocks of thought in your email writing. When you start a new thought, break for a new paragraph. If a fact is very important, place it in its own paragraph. Shorter emails will have more paragraphs of three to seven lines. Try not to go beyond five lines and rarely go to more than seven lines. Longer emails with detailed explanations should have paragraphs averaging around seven lines. That means you’ll have some that are two or three lines and a very small number that could be ten lines. Seven is just the average. When you reach seven lines of text, look to see whether you have changed ideas in the paragraph. If so, break there. Don’t be afraid of one-sentence paragraphs. They are very appropriate for all business writing, especially email writing. However, if you have a series of one-sentence paragraphs, the paragraphs won’t help the reader organize your thoughts. It’s like you’re guiding the reader down the road turning at every new block. Every new paragraph will seem disjointed.

Tell the Reader What the New Topic Is

When you tell the reader to make a turn to a new topic in an email paragraph, start a new line and tell the reader what the topic is. The most important way to make the change in topics clear is to examine the key term from the previous thought and key term from the next thought. Think of the key terms as the threads that hold the fabric of your business writing together. Use one of these devices at the beginning of the email paragraph:
  • First choice: Write a statement at the beginning of the paragraph explaining the change in thought. Include the key term that connects the new thought to the previous one or the central idea. The key terms are bolded in these statements for this illustration:
Another reason for the decrease in revenue is . . . These qualities in a manager are not as important as . . .
  • Second choice: If the change is too obvious for a whole statement, include a transition that makes the change in thought clear.
In addition, the new building will . . . However, we will still need to consider . . .
Without the transition, the reader must guess at the relationships between your points or read all the text to figure out the relationship. In explicit email writing, never require the reader to put the pieces together on her own; present the entire picture already assembled.

Include Only One idea in Each Paragraph, or Show the Clear Development from One Idea to Another.

Limit paragraphs in emails to one idea. When you seem to be changing ideas, decide whether the next idea fits in the same paragraph with the previous idea. If the reader needs to see the ideas as a close unit, or you are developing the email paragraph from the opening concept to a conclusion, you may keep them together. Otherwise, if a new idea is clearly different, break for a new paragraph to separate the ideas. As you evaluate paragraphs in emails, name each using the key term that states the central thought. That key term should appear near the beginning. If you see more than one idea in the key terms that appear in the paragraph, decide whether you have two concepts that you should separate. Example The following paragraph is too long. The writer should look at the key terms to see where it can be broken into smaller blocks. The key term for the paragraph is “office clerical has been the fastest-growing sector.” The key terms for the thoughts that follow are bolded. You will see the natural places to make new paragraphs because they are at the points where new key terms appear.
During the past 40 years, the office clerical sector has been the fastest-growing sector in the marketplace. That occurred in spite of a slowdown in growth the office clerical sector experienced during 1994-98. Temp agencies reported that revenues for office clerical temps, as a percent of total staffing revenues, declined from an estimated 23.9 percent in 1992 to 16.5 percent in 1998. Even though growth rates declined, the office clerical sector experienced a 52 percent increase in revenues from 1992 to 1998, increasing from an estimated $8.9 billion in 1992 to $17.1 billion in 1998. The office clerical sector outperformed every other staffing sector except for technology and professional-employer organizations.   In regards to new jobs created, the office sector contributed almost half of the 69 million jobs created from 1950 to 1995, and 59 percent of those created from 1979 to 1995. The office sector is also the fastest growing sector for total jobs available in the marketplace, comprising 41 percent of the current workforce. The length of assignments for temporary office clerical assignments is increasing as well, though some experts disagree on whether the days of the short, fill-in assignment are numbered. For example, TotalTemps’ senior vice president, Ben Bradley, maintains that “The old ‘replacement secretary’ to cover a two-week vacation order has disappeared.” However, Longman Staffing Services’ public relations director, Gena Rome, believes that “The days of shift fill-in assignments aren’t over, but the average assignment is now for months, not days.” Gone or not, though the traditional image of the office has undergone a significant transformation over the years, office clerical workers remain a vital part of the workforce.
The new key terms appear at around seven lines into the new paragraphs, so it is apparent that the long paragraph should be broken up into these shorter paragraphs:
During the past 40 years, the office clerical sector has been the fastest-growing sector in the marketplace. That occurred in spite of a slowdown in growth the office clerical sector experienced during 1994-98. Temp agencies reported that revenues for office clerical temps, as a percent of total staffing revenues, declined from an estimated 23.9 percent in 1992 to 16.5 percent in 1998. Even though growth rates declined, the office clerical sector experienced a 52 percent increase in revenues from 1992 to 1998, increasing from an estimated $8.9 billion in 1992 to $17.1 billion in 1998. The office clerical sector outperformed every other staffing sector except for technical and professional-employer organizations. In regards to new jobs created, the office sector contributed almost half of the 69 million jobs created from 1950 to 1995, and 59 percent of those created from 1979 to 1995. The office sector is also the fastest growing sector for total jobs available in the marketplace, comprising 41 percent of the current workforce. The length of assignments for temporary office clerical assignments is increasing as well, though some experts disagree on whether the days of the short, fill-in assignment are numbered. For example, TotalTemps’ senior vice president, Ben Bradley, maintains that “The old ‘replacement secretary’ to cover a two-week vacation order has disappeared.” However, Longman Staffing Services’ public relations director, Gena Rome, believes that “The days of shift fill-in assignments aren’t over, but the average assignment is now for months, not days.” Gone or not, though the traditional image of the office has undergone a significant transformation over the years, office clerical workers remain a vital part of the workforce.
When you write, look at key terms in the first sentence of each of your paragraphs and key terms in the last sentences. If they are not clearly related to each other, you may have more than one idea per paragraph. Use that as a sign you should check the focus of the paragraphs in your e‑mail, memo, letter, or report. Example Looking at the key terms in the first sentence and last sentence in the next paragraph will signal to you that either the topic has changed or the writer is developing an idea from the first thought to the last. The key terms are bolded for this illustration.
The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. For cultural, social, and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality.
The first sentence seems to indicate that this is the “community’s population” paragraph. However, the second sentence doesn’t fit that. It contains the “higher rates of preventable health issues” key term. The writer would have to decide whether they are two unrelated concepts requiring two different paragraphs, or whether he is building toward a conclusion. If the writer is building toward a conclusion, he or she must guide the reader from the first key term to the second. That requires a transition from the “population diversity” concept to the “higher rates of health issues” concept. A transition, bolded for this example, takes care of the problem:
The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. This diversity in population results in more residents having health issues because, for cultural, social and environmental reasons, African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of preventable health issues from lack of immunization, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis, certain cancers, and infant mortality..
 
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