Writing emails that won’t be clutter

We’re all deluged with email; it’s a problem of the digital age. Noting this, how do you ensure your email is considered worthy of attention, and not seen as just more inbox clutter?

Be concise

Sometimes your email involves sharing a story with friends, and messages like that don’t always need to be succinct. But, if you’re writing to someone because you want some sort of reply — you’re asking for information, trying to set up an appointment, etc. — make it as easy as possible for the recipient. Don’t make someone wade through a long story to find out what you want.

But don’t be too brief; do include all the information needed for the other person to provide a meaningful response. I’ve seen many people asking for help about some computer-related problem without providing key information, such as what type of computer they’re using, what version of the software they are running, the specific error messages they are seeing, etc. Provide as much as necessary and little or nothing more.

Follow the policies of the group

Are you part of any mailing list, like a Yahoo Group or something else? Many of these groups have guidelines about how members should structure their messages; if your group has such guidelines, be sure to read them and follow them.

Since I’m a moderator of a freecycle group, this is a continual issue for me. We have specific subject line formats, a policy about how often things may be re-offered, etc. It causes more time and work (and frustration) for everyone when the policies are not followed.

Address the email properly

Do you want to reply, or reply all? Think about your recipient list, and whether everyone on that list really needs to see the message.

If you’re sending a message to a group of people, other than in a work situation, please respect everyone’s privacy and do not put all the email addresses in the To: field, where all the recipients can see them. Rather, put those email addresses in the Bcc: field.

Watch what you forward

I’ve seen many a well-intentioned person forward on a message alerting me to some horrifying problem, when a quick check of Snopes.com would show that the information simply isn’t true. If something sounds at all suspicious, please check it out before forwarding.

Also, make sure the people you’re sending those messages with cute animal photos or jokes really want to get them. People are often reluctant to hurt someone’s feelings by asking to get removed from such lists, even if they don’t want the emails — so you might add a note letting your recipients know that you want them to tell you if they’d prefer not to get such emails.

Avoid long signature files

There is certain information people usually want to see in your signature file, and your contact information is at the top of the list. But many people would prefer you skip your favorite quote, a list of every award you’ve ever won, and an admonishment to not print the email.

Consider that not all emails need the same signature. A reply might not need as much information as the email where you’re initiating a conversation. If you’re going back and forth in an email exchange, and you included your long signature file the first time, you don’t need to include it on every message in the chain.

It also looks a bit silly when you send a two-line message and have a 20-line signature file.

Be considerate with attachments

People might be reading email on a slow connection, so maybe it’s best not to include a 5 MB photo.

Review emails for problematic wording

For casual emails between friends, you can skip this step. But for others, I’d recommend reviewing your emails for points of possible ambiguity. Also, look for anything that might be taken the wrong way; humor and sarcasm often don’t work well in email, and snarky comments might come back to haunt you later.

Remember, too, that if crafting an email might take you 20 minutes, but a phone call only five, picking up the phone could be the least cluttered option available to you.

7 Comments for “Writing emails that won’t be clutter”

  1. posted by adora on

    I often work with several people from multiple organizations in different cities in a single project. We get most of the clutter because people didn’t read previous emails, and started asking questions on things that was discussed weeks ago.

    One tip on avoiding email clutter is to ask better questions. Instead of, “Do you guys want to see this art show together?” say, “I’d like to go to see this show at the gallery on this or next weekend. It will cost this much, we can have dinner at this place afterwards. Let me know if any of you is interested.” You’d save a lot of back and forth questions and comments, who, when, what and how much.

  2. posted by Jan Millington on

    Please help! I have so many different files and wasn’t always good about reading them to see if they were worthy of being kept. My husband has Stage 4 Cancer and I am the only caregiver. My inbox has thousands of emails and need to know if you can help me sort them out. As the cancer has spread to his brain, I don’t even go on the computer very often and that adds to it. Am trying to start a home business, but my husband of 37 years comes first.

  3. posted by James on

    When I write to executives I find the shorter the email I write the more likely it is that I will get a response. Or sometimes I will break it into two sections. A quick “What you need to know” (I actually label it that) and then a “All the details” section if I have more info I want to give them. Visually breaking apart the two sections with space also helps get the email read.

  4. posted by Kay on

    To Jan

    A recommendation I can think of (just off the top of my head) is (I had to do this when my mom was ill), was have someone sit with your husband for an hour or two while you go through e-mails. You can even be in the next room, but just a break here and there, really really helps. We had an aunt come stay with us and even if it was just for two hours, we were able to organize e-mails, quick sort bills, etc.,

    For e-mail sorting: I had put things in order of date, and then doctor category (For example – June, then organized articles, e-mails etc., by oncologist info/appointments that month, general doctor info/appts, radiation info/appts, chemo info/appts.) I used Google’s gmail account and their calendar. Not sure if this will help… I know there are plenty of apps now too, that I may be aware of that might be super useful.


  5. posted by Kay on

    BTW, very helpful article and tips… Thank you! 🙂

  6. posted by Beverly NP on

    Jan, my heart goes out to you. As a Hospice Nurse Practitioner, I come across this with family members all the time. Kay’s suggesion to have someone sit with your husband is a good one, and if he is enrolled in a hospice you can ask for a volunteer to do this. I have found that organizing emails by sender helps in the beginning, then I make folders for different subjects and move things as you go. Once you get a system going, set aside a few minutes every day to sort new emails coming in. Best to you.

  7. posted by Claire on

    I agree a full/ long signature on every email is not needed but my bugbear is when there is no signature at all. Or more specifically no phone number.

    As we know sometimes the best way to unclutter email is to not email at all and make a call instead but if you can’t easily find someone’s number you have to email them to get them to call you!

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