Writing Small: When Less is More


A friend recently asked me if I had any suggestions for writing better email messages. He was having trouble getting people to read, let alone respond, to what he wrote. It got me thinking about what’s important, and how to write emails in a way that will make people want to read them.

Probably the most important part of your email message is the subject line. This is what people see first, and this is what makes them decide if they’re going to open it or not. Subject lines need to be short – they may only see the first few words, so those words need to really count.

My father would often send me emails where the entire message was in the subject line, and he would end with ( standing for “End of Message”). As soon as I looked in my inbox I knew exactly what he wanted, and I would often answer right away because I knew exactly what he wanted. Today you might do the same thing with a text message – if you know the other person has a phone that is capable of texting – or a tweet ( a 140 character message on twitter).

If you’re not going to be able to fit your entire message in the subject line, then you need to include enough information so that the reader wants to open the message and read the rest (just like with your cover letter, where you want to intrigue them enough to read your resume). Leave out any unnecessary words, and if there is a deadline including that can help spur the reader to action.

If you want to use an abbreviation or acronym, make sure your reader knows what it means – and that it means the same thing to them as to you. ACS means one thing to me, and probably most readers of this blog, but it means something completely different to volunteer for the American Cancer Society, or members of the American College of Surgeons.

For example, here’s a subject line from an email I received recently:

Subject: Workshop

Even when I looked at who the sender was, I had no idea if it was a question about a workshop I had presented there several months ago, or if it was a more urgent request for another workshop presentation in the next two months (which is what it turned out to be).

Here’s a great subject line from an email I received recently:

Subject: ASBMB 2012 Speaker Action Instructions

Right away I knew this email was going to tell me what I had to do as an invited speaker for an upcoming conference. The word “Action” let me know there was something I had to do, and sure enough it included a list of deadlines and details that I needed to take care of for this meeting.

If you need practice writing short and to the point, check out Twitter. Tweets (posts) can only be 140 characters, so it’s a great exercise in creative writing, and writing something useful in that few characters is a great way to force yourself to determine the real essence your message.

Everyone agrees that effective communication is one of the most important skills to succeed in business. If you want to be heard, you need to be able to communicate your ideas and expectations in a way that others can understand – and that includes making it fit into the space available.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

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