Businesspeople use email writing to convey messages that in the past would have been conveyed through speaking. When the message was delivered in person, the listener could ask questions to help the listener understand the message. The weakness of the email medium is that the receiver of the messages cannot ask questions. Email writing must be structured to convey the message so clearly that all readers will understand it at first reading without the benefit of being able to ask clarifying questions.

An important tool the writer uses to ensure the email writing communicates immediately and clearly is the paragraph. Paragraphs signal to the reader that one topic is ending and another is beginning. Paragraphs keep the message from being a jumble of words with no obvious organization. When email writing contains messages in clearly defined paragraphs, the reader is able to see the progression of topics so the parts of the message and the message as a whole are clear.

This blog explains five skills business writers use to write paragraphs that make email writing clear, understandable, and effective.

Email Writing Skill 1:
Keep paragraphs short in email writing.

Use paragraphs 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, factual emails will have more paragraphs of one to three lines. Try not to go beyond five lines and rarely go to seven lines. Longer, explanatory reports should have paragraphs of seven lines. 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 in email writing. However, if you have a series of one-sentence paragraphs, the paragraphs won’t help the reader organize your thoughts. Every new paragraph will seem disjointed.

Email Writing Skill 2:
Link sentences within paragraphs in email writing.

Every sentence within the paragraph should contain an implicit or explicit link to the previous sentence. An implicit link means the second sentence flows naturally from the first. An explicit link means you provide a transition from the first to the second or a reference to the first in the second. Examples of the links in email writing follow.

Implicit link in email writing

The second sentence flows naturally from the first without an explicit link:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn’t follow the requirements in the RFP. We need to make some changes.

Explicit links in email writing

An explicit link uses a transition or refers to the content of the first sentence. In this example, the second sentence contains a transition at the beginning:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn’t follow the requirements in the RFP. As a result, we need to make some changes.

Another way of linking the sentences follows. The second sentence contains a reference to the contents of the first:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn’t follow the requirements in the RFP. We need to change the proposal to fit the client’s requirements.

You must be sure that the sentences in your email writing are linked implicitly, as a natural flow from one to the next, or that you include an explicit link. Always err on the side of having a very explicit link. Include an explicit link unless it seems out of place. “They’ll get the idea” isn’t good enough.

This sample email writing has no implicit or explicit link:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn’t follow the requirements in the RFP. I would like to see clearer rationale and budget sections.

The reader is left wondering whether there is one issue or three issues. The one issue would be that the client’s requirements were not followed in the rationale and budget sections. The second interpretation is that the client’s concerns and writers desire for clearer sections are different. That would make three issues: (1) the proposal doesn’t follow the format; (2) in addition, the writer wants a clearer rationale; and (3) the writer also wants a clearer budget section.

The writer needs explicit links in the email writing to make the relationships clear. This revision assumes there is one issue, the client’s requirements:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn’t follow the requirements in the RFP. To follow the client’s requirements, we need to write clearer rationale and budget sections.

This revision assumes there are three issues:

I just learned from the client that our proposal doesn’t follow the requirements in the RFP. We need to revise the proposal to follow the client’s requirements and, in addition, write clearer rationale and budget sections.

Email Writing Skill 3:
Include only one idea in each paragraph or show the clear development from one idea to another.

Limit paragraphs in email writing to one idea. That one idea may be a development from the opening concept to the conclusion at the end. When you seem to be changing ideas, decide whether the second idea fits in the same paragraph with the first. If the reader needs to see the ideas as a close unit or you are developing the paragraph from the opening concept to a conclusion, you may keep them together. Otherwise, if a new idea in the email writing is clearly different, break for a new paragraph to separate them.

As you look at your paragraphs, identify each with a name that states the topic in a few words. If you see more than one idea, decide whether you have two concepts that should be separated or whether you are building to a conclusion by starting with one concept and developing to the next.

Look at the key words in the first sentence and the key words in the last sentence. If they are different, you may have more than one idea in the paragraph.

Email Writing Example

An example paragraph from email writing follows. The writer should state the concept of the paragraph in a few words.

The American healthcare crisis is intensifying for the 115,312 residents in Colington Community Hospital’s service area. Disparities in healthcare, exacerbated by rising medical and insurance costs, continue to increase the number of people in need of preventative and ambulatory healthcare. However, many individuals and their families are caught in the economic gap between having adequate insurance or the income to pay for private healthcare and eligibility for public assistance.

This is the “economic gap” paragraph. The writer stays with that theme through the three sentences: the “healthcare crisis is intensifying” sentence, the “rising medical and insurance costs” sentence, and the “economic gap” sentence that is the conclusion. The three sentences fit in the “economic gap” subject.

Now look at this paragraph that follows the email writing example above. The writer would state the concept of the paragraph in a few words again, as with the first email writing example.

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. Disparities in healthcare reported by the Maryland Department of Health in 2018 show that 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 “population diversity” paragraph. However, the second sentence doesn’t fit with “population diversity.” It is a “higher rates of health issues” concept. The writer would have to decide whether they are two different concepts requiring two different paragraphs or whether she is building toward a conclusion. If the writer is building toward a conclusion, she must take the reader along. That requires a transition in the email writing from the “population diversity” sentence to the “higher rates of health issues” concept.

This transition and some rewriting 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 population diversity results in more residents having health issues because, as a Maryland Department of Health study in 2018 showed, 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 transition in red shows how the “diversity” sentence fits with the “higher rates of health issues” sentence. Now the paragraph is unified.

Use the same technique in email writing to find out whether the paragraphs fit with each other. State the key concepts in a few words. Then see whether the author has made clear transitions from one concept to the next. You should see the key words appearing to make the transition.

These are the same two paragraphs together as they appeared in the original email-writing draft. You’ve already identified the ideas in the two paragraphs using a few words for each. Now we’re going to use those words to decide how to bring the two paragraphs together so they develop the thought clearly.

As you read the email writing, remind yourself of the words that describe the contents of the first and the two sets of words that describe the two concepts in the second. We’ll use them to draw all the concepts together.

The American healthcare crisis is intensifying for the 115,312 residents in Colington Community Hospital’s service area. Disparities in healthcare, exacerbated by rising medical and insurance costs, continue to increase the number of people in need of preventative and ambulatory healthcare. However, many individuals and their families are caught in the economic gap between having adequate insurance or the income to pay for private healthcare and eligibility for public assistance.

The community’s population is 32 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 2 percent Asian and other minorities. Disparities in healthcare reported by the Maryland Department of Health in 2018 show that 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 paragraph is the “economic gap” paragraph. It is fine as it is. The second paragraph is the divided “diversity” and “health issues” paragraph that needs a clear transition to show the development. When we look at the concepts in a few words like this, it is clear that the first paragraph doesn’t fit clearly with the second. To make them fit, the author needs to carry the key words from the first paragraph to the second and show how the “economic gap” fits with “diversity” and “health issues.” This is one possible rewrite:

The American healthcare crisis is intensifying for the 115,312 residents in Colington Community Hospital’s service area. Disparities in healthcare, exacerbated by rising medical and insurance costs, continue to increase the number of people in need of preventative and ambulatory healthcare. However, many individuals and their families are caught in the economic gap between having adequate insurance or the income to pay for private healthcare and eligibility for public assistance.

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 experiencing the economic gap because the diverse groups have more health issues. A Maryland Department of Health study in 2018 showed that, 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.

Now the paragraphs are unified and fit together. The key words “economic gap” appear in the first paragraph and are repeated in the second. The second sentence of the second paragraph begins with “This diversity,” linking the second sentence with the first. The final sentence of the second paragraph then fits naturally as a demonstration of the statements made in the second sentence.

Email Writing Skill 4:
Guide the reader through the paragraph.

Guide the reader through the paragraph’s organization.

  1. Give each paragraph in your email writing a key word name that is the central idea. Keep the name to as few words as possible. Make sure all the text pertains to that key word name.
  2. In your mind, state the central idea of the paragraph in a few words using the key word. Make that central idea clear in the first one or two sentences by using the key word name for the paragraph.
  3. Decide whether to break the paragraph to devote each paragraph to one central idea or to develop one central idea.
  4. When your paragraph in your email writing is around seven lines long, watch for a new idea that should be in a new paragraph. You will have paragraphs that are one or two lines long and some that are ten or twelve lines long. Use the seven-line guideline to give you a position to start looking for the new idea that should be in its own paragraph.

Email Writing Skill 5:
Let the key words show you the organization.

  1. Identify the key word names for the paragraphs in your email writing. Look for the key word at the beginning and end of the paragraph to help you see whether the paragraph is focused on one idea.
  2. Then look at the key words of the other paragraphs in the email writing to see whether the ideas are related to one another. You should see those key words appearing between paragraphs to help the reader follow the train of thought.
  3. Don’t change the key words in email writing. Use them consistently.
  4. Add transitions with the key words as necessary to make the train of thought clear.
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