Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Effective email’ Category

20
May

Effective email Writing – Part 11 – Acronyms and Jargon

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 11:

Acronyms and Jargon


A number of new users have asked me to include a jargon/acronym page for email. Contrary to how you might feel, there is not a conspiracy out there to try to exclude you. Every group that spends any time together develops its own shorthand notation; it is not surprising that people forced to use the unnatural action of typing would be inclined towards acronyms. Some of these come from Usenet newsgroups, some of the more “gestural” ones come from Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

Obviously it would be nice of seasoned users to not pepper novices with an enormous amount of jargon, but on the Internet, nobody knows you are a newcomer.

Here are some of the most common acronyms and expressions:

  • BTW – By The Way
  • FYI – For YourInformation
  • IMHO – In My Humble/Honest      Opinion
  • RTFM – Read The Manual      (“Manual” here refers to any documentation)
  • LOL – [I] Laughed Out Loud      [at what you wrote]
  • RSN – Real Soon Now
  • ROTFL – [I am] Rolling On The      Floor Laughing [at what you wrote]
  • <g> – grin
  • <hug> – hug

These are less common, but show up occasionally:

  • TTFN – Ta-Ta For Now
  • YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary      (taken from a disclaimer that legally must be given any time automotive      fuel efficiency ratings are used inU.S.advertisements)
  • TIA – Thanks In Advance (also      sometimes written advTHANKSance)

Jargon that is sometimes used:

  • spam – Unsolicited email sent      to many people simultaneously, usually commercial, but occasionally      political.
  • bounce – A message that was      returned to the sender, either because the email address was incorrect or      because there was a configuration problem on the receiver’s end. Can also      be a verb: “I tried sending email to my Aunt Mabel, but it bounced. I      guess she doesn’t work there any more.”
  • distribution list – A single      email address that resends to many others, allowing a discussion to      continue easily among a quasi-stable group of participants. Also called      emailing lists or listservs (from LIST SERVers).
  • bot – A piece of software      that acts on behalf of and in place of a remote human (from roBOT).
  • mailbot – A piece of software      that automatically replies to email.
  • listbot – A piece of software      that manages distribution lists. Also called a listserver or majordomo      (after the name of a common list server).
  • post – Send to a distribution      list or Usenet newsgroup, i.e. to a quasi-stable group of people.
  • flame – An electronic message      that is particularly hostile. Can also be a verb: “Whooeee! I posted      a rude cat joke to my company’s cat-lovers mailing list, and wow, did I      get flamed!”
  • lurk – To read messages      anonymously (in either a mailing list or Usenet newsgroup) without      posting.
  • ping – Test to see if the      other person is there/awake/available. (This comes from a Unix test to see      if a machine (or its net connection) was active or not.) “Lunch      tomorrow? I may be busy with a client. Ping me ateleven thirtyor so.”

A term that I would love to see popularized is “NRN”, for “No Response Needed”. Sometimes, without body language, it isn’t clear when an email-based conversation should be ended.

End of Effective email Writing series

17
May

Effective email Writing – Part 10 – Summary

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 10:

Summary


Here, then, is my advice for good email style:

  • Provide your audience with      adequate context:
    • Use meaningful subject       lines
    • Quote the email to       which you are responding
    • Avoid pronouns
  • Be aware of page layout      issues. Stick with:
    • Short paragraphs
    • Lines under       seventy-five characters long
    • Messages under       twenty-five lines long
    • Plain text
  • Find replacements for      gestures and intonation:
    • Smileys
    • Asterisks
    • Capital letters
    • Typed-out       vocalizations
    • Whitespace
    • Lower-case letters
    • Creative punctuation
  • Be aware of what cues people      will use to form impressions of you:
    • Name
    • Domain name
    • Grammar, punctuation,       and spelling
    • Formality
    • Signatures

Hopefully these suggestions will be useful to you as you start your emailing career! 🙂

14
May

Effective email Writing – Part 9 – Greetings and Signatures

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 9:

Greetings and Signatures


Every new medium develops its own protocols for opening and closing. Telephone conversations start with “Hello” and end with “Goodbye”. Letters open with “Dear” and end with “Sincerely”. Because email is so new, there aren’t firm customs on how to open and close.

Many people do not give either a salutation or a signature. After all, while a letter can get separated from its envelope easily, it is difficult to separate an email message’s body from its addressing information. The email message itself says who it is to and from.

However, that information might not be adequate for your needs. It might be difficult to find with some email reading software. It might be unclear or ambiguous. It might be inadequate for telling the receivers just why they are getting that message. Or, it might not convey the proper formality or status cues for your purposes.

I will give you my thoughts on openers and closers, but you need to think carefully about what you are trying to convey both explicitly and implicitly. You also need to take the culture and customs of all parties into consideration.

Greetings

Salutations

Salutations are tricky, especially if you are crossing cultures. Frequently, titles are different for men and women, and you may not be able to tell which you are addressing. The family name is first in some cultures and last in others. Honorifics may vary based on status or age. So don’t feel bad if you have trouble figuring out which salutation to use: it is a difficult problem.

In theUnited States, it is an bad idea to use “Sir” or “Mr.” unless you are absolutely certain that your correspondent is male. Similarly, it is probably safer to use “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.” unless you know the preference of the woman in question.

In the United States, using someone’s first name is usually ok. Thus, you can usually get away with a “Dear” and the first name.

        Dear Chris:

Here you are covered regardless of whether Chris is male or female. (Beware of using a diminutive if you aren’t certain your correspondent uses it. It might rankle Judith to be called Judy; Robert might hate being called Bob.)

If you are addressing a group of people, you can say “Dear” plus the unifying attribute. For example:

        Dear Project Managers:

Or:

        Dear San Jose Lasers Fans:

Do You Even Need A Salutation?

Given that email is relatively informal, frequently (in theUnited States) there isn’t a problem with dispensing with names and titles altogether, especially if you are in a higher status position than your correspondent:

        Hello - I saw your web site and wanted to mention that I invented
        the thromblemeister on Feb 29, 2403, *not* on Feb 28, 2402.

I usually use a simple “Hi” for people that I already know:

        Hi - Are you interested in getting together for sushi next week?
        I can bring all my wedding pictures and bore you to death. ;-)

“Good Morning” and “Good Afternoon” don’t make a lot of sense with email, as the sun may have moved significantly by the time your correspondent gets around to it. “Good Day” sounds stilted to American ears (although it is common in other parts of the formerBritish Empire). You may want to avoid “Greetings” in theUnited   States: it reminds many people of the draft notices young men got during the Vietnam War.

Again, you must be careful about cultural differences. The East Coast of the United Statesis more formal than the West Coast (where I live). Germans are even more formal; they can work side-by-side for years and never get around to a first-name basis. Starting a message to Germanywith Dear Hans might be a bad idea.

Identification

When I get email from strangers, I care more about what connection they have with me than how they address me. When you send email, particularly someone who doesn’t know you, it would be good if you would immediately answer these questions:

  • How did you learn of your      correspondent?
  • What do you want from your      correspondent?
  • Who are you?
  • Why should your correspondent      pay attention to you? (If you can’t answer this question, you should      wonder if you should even send the email.)

Putting some of that information in a signature is better than nowhere at all, but putting it at the top is better for several reasons:

  • If there is a problem with      the transmission of the email, the end is much more likely to get lost      than the beginning.
  • A lot of people get more than      twenty messages per day, and so read them quickly. If you don’t establish      quickly who you are, your correspondent may delete your message before      they get to the bottom.
  • Your identity is an important      clue to the context of the message.

Good answers to the questions can take several forms:

        Dear Ms. Sherwood: I am an editor at Very Large Publishing Company, Inc.  I
        sat next to your husband on United last week, and he mentioned that you
        are interested in publishing a book based on your email guide.  I have
        read your guide, and would be very interested in receiving a proposal from
        you.

Or:

        My name is Dave Wilcox and I'm the legal counsel for Thromblemeisters
        Direct, Inc.  We are deeply disturbed at the aspersions you cast upon
        us and on thromblemeisters in your email guide.  Therefore, we
        order you to immediately cease and desist using any reference
        to thromblemeisters in your email guide.  If you do not, we will be forced to
        file suit against you or your descendants if and when we and/or
        thromblemeisters come into existence.

Or even:

        Hi - I am a novice email user and just read your email guide.  I don't know
        if you are the right person to ask or not, but do you know what the French word
        for "Mister" is?  If you can tell me the answer, I'll send you a funny postcard.

Some good friends of mine recently got email from my cousin for the first time. Unfortunately, not all of the email made it through. The message they got said only:

        Dear Rich and Chris: I met you at Jim and Ducky's wedding.

But, because he identified where he knew Rich and Chris from immediately, it was enough information that they knew he was someone to pay attention to. They replied to him and communication is now going smoothly between them.

Signatures

Many email programs allow you to set up a default signature to be included at the end of every message. Many people use these signatures as an easy way to give their name and alternate ways of reaching them. For example:

        Hi - when did you want to go to lunch?

        Rebecca P. Snodwhistle
        Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
        666 Beast Street
        Styx, HI 77340
        +1 (959) 123-4567 voice
        +1 (959) 123-4568 FAX
        snodwhistle@throbledirect.com W
        becca@thromboqueen.net (personal)

Such an extensive amount of signature information in contrast to such a short question looks silly to me. I think much of the above signature is extraneous. If they got the email from you, they can reply by email, so don’t need your FAX number or street address. (If they have to send a FAX or package, they can ask for addressing information.) They already have one email address in the message you sent, and don’t need your other email address.

The name is perfectly reasonable to include, especially if

  • Your email messages don’t      include your full name in the From:      line. (Send yourself email to see if your name is there or not.)
  • The name in the From: line doesn’t match the name you      actually use. (Christina might actually go by Chris, but her company might      insist on using her full name as her email name.)
  • The email account is shared      by multiple people. (My husband and I have a joint email account, for      example.)

The telephone number is also a reasonable thing to include – if you are willing to be interrupted by a phone call. Emotions are easier to convey over the phone, and some people prefer phone to email for all circumstances.

If the message is business related, including the company name is a reasonable thing to do – even if the message is going to someone else in the same company.

One thing that is missing from Rebecca P. Snodwhistle’s signature, above, that I would like to see is her job title. Is she the vice-president of sales or the shipping clerk? That may have more of an influence on the correspondent than anything else.

So I would rewrite the above signature to be:

        Rebecca P. Snodwhistle
        Chief Executive Officer, Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
        +1 (959) 123-4567 voice

That signature is still overkill for arranging lunch, but it isn’t always convenient to switch between having your signature included or not.

Some people put things purely for entertainment in their signature: artwork, philosophical sayings, jokes, and/or quotations in their signature. This can be ok, but don’t overdo it. A good heuristic is to keep your signature at or under five lines long.

After setting up a signature that is included automatically, it is easy to forget about it. (After all, your email software might not show it to you, or it might be so routine that you never look at it again.) So whenever a piece of contact information changes, make sure to revisit your signature to make sure that it is still up-to-date. And, if you have an entertainment piece in your signature, change it every once in a while. It wasn’t as funny the fiftieth time your coworker saw it as it was the first time.

One final note on signatures: they are a good way to let your correspondent know that all of the message got transmitted properly. There is no body language to signal that you are “done talking” and, unfortunately, email transmissions sometimes get interrupted.

Separators

Many people put pretty separators – lines, horizontal bars, and so on – around their signatures. For example:

-----------------------------------------------------------------
Rebecca P. Snodwhistle   | CEO, Thromblemeisters Direct, Inc.
+1 (959) 123-4567 voice  | +1 (959) 123-4567 fax
-----------------------------------------------------------------

These are very pretty to sighted people, but imagine what it would be like for people who are so visually challenged that they have their computer read their email to them: “hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen…”

Summary

If you are well-known to your correspondent, you can probably get away without including extra identification. In other cases, you should provide your correspondent with enough clues to figure out who you are, why you are writing, and why he or she should pay attention to you. Preferably, this information will be at the top of the message.

Greetings are difficult to do well, especially if you are crossing cultures and/or languages. In theUnited   States, you can be pretty informal, but even in theU.S., you need to be careful that you aren’t either making assumptions or using sensitive words.

 

11
May

Effective email Writing – Part 8 – Formality

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 8:

Formality


It has been my observation that formality is used to indicate the inability of a correspondent to make a reply. Take three situations where someone is not free to respond:

  • If you and the Queen of      England have tea, one of you might ask about the other’s health, but both      of you are socially constrained from actually discussing recent surgeries.
  • Thomas Jefferson is dead. It      is not possible to ask him what the proper interpretation of the phrase      “high crimes and misdemeanors” is.
  • If every member of a large      audience tried to comment on a speech, there would be bedlam.

Conversations involving people with exaggerated status differences and those to audiences that are unborn, dead, and/or large tend to use very formal language.

Conversely, intimate discussions use very informal language. If you used the same language with your spouse that you used with the Queen, your spouse would probably wonder what he or she did to make you angry!

Thus you can control to some extent how many responses you get to your email messages by how formal your language is. Because email is so easy to respond to, people naturally tend to use very informal prose.

The informal tone encourages your correspondents to respond. This can be a very good thing if you want feedback. However, if your email address is in a very public place, you may well find yourself getting far more email than you are interested in.

So be cautious about the tone of your messages. If you want people to respond, be chatty and informal. But if you want to discourage people from sending you email, you should write much more formally.

 

8
May

Effective email Writing – Part 7 – Status

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 7:

Status


Just as you have no guarantees about your correspondents’ context, you can’t determine much about their status. You can’t look at their clothes, note their dialect and rate of speech, listen the timbre of their voice, or count the wrinkles around their eyes. Your guesses about your correspondent’s age, race, gender, marital status, affluence, intelligence, and education will be much less accurate than they usually would be in a face-to-face or even telephone conversation.

Your correspondents can’t tell much about you either. They will probably do the same thing you will probably catch yourself doing – make assumptions on the flimsiest of pretexts.

I am emphatically not saying that it is good for people to make assumptions. But because there are so few status cues to draw upon, they will. You need to be aware of that, so that you can work on guiding their assumptions if you need to.

Cues They Will Use

Language

The biggest status cue is your competence with the language. If you have lots of misspellings, your subjects do not agree with your verbs, or you use the wrong word, people may assume that you are uneducated. From that, they may infer that you are not very clever. It doesn’t matter that the correlation between language ability and intelligence is weak (especially among non-native speakers); lots of people will make that inference anyway.

Furthermore, some people are literally insulted by getting email with errors, especially typographical errors. They feel that it is disrespectful to send email with blatant errors. (Note that you can use this to your advantage. If you want to flaunt your superior status, you can insert some typos deliberately.)

I realize that in a perfect world, we would all have the luxury of faultless writing. However, we do not live in a perfect world. Good grammar is very hard for some people, just as painting portraits, solving partial differential equations, shoeing horses, and sinking putts can be very hard for others. This has always been true, but before the advent of electronic technology, people who were not very skilled at writing could do most of their communication verbally. This coping strategy is less possible now.

Spending more time crafting prose can improve the quality of the writing, but it is not possible to spend an hour on each email message if you need to send ten of them per day. Fortunately, grammar- and spell-checkers can help enormously. If high status is important to your message, you should definitely use them. However, there are certain classes of errors that grammar- and spell-checkers will not find. If you really want to boost your language-related status, you may have to commit yourself to some significant studying.

Personally, I would like my correspondents to spend their time on providing appropriate context instead of on perfecting their grammar. I would much rather get email that says:

        There is 50 people with machien guns on Main Street
        abt 1 mi aways wallking north and they not friendly so
        getcher butts outta here protno!!!!!

than one about the same situation that says:

        You would be advised to leave the building promptly.

I can guess at proper grammar; I can’t guess at proper context.

Return Address

Your correspondents will extract status cues from your domain. (If you aren’t familiar with domain names, you might want to read the appendix on domain names and come back.)

Any stereotype that is held about the organization that gives you your email connection will rub off on you. For example, if your email comes from:

  • ibm.com, people may      presume that you are adult, computer literate, and somewhat stuffy.
  • aol.com, some people      will presume that you are connecting from home and that your email is not      work-related.
  • washington.k12.ia.us,      people may think that you are under 18.
  • webtv.net, people will      probably assume that you are not terribly computer literate.

Your correspondents will also look at your real name (if visible) and log-in ID. Unless your name has cues to the contrary, most people will assume that you match the dominant species of your organization and/or country. People will frequently assume that bpj@thromble.com is male but that barbara@thromble.com will be female – even though barbara could easily be a man named Peter Barbara. Unless the name is something like Smith, people are likely to assume that the author of any email coming from Taiwan is Asian. Unless the screen name is something like Jamaal, people will usually assume that authors of email coming from theU.S. are of European descent.

Your log-in ID gives even more subtle cues. Having a desirable email name – short and without numbers – can indicate that you were one of the first in your domain to get an email account. Thus, steve@thromble.com has probably been using computers longer than steve9672@thromble.com.

People may also make assumptions about your maturity and formality level. Your correspondent will probably take Barbara.J.Periwinkle@thromble.com more seriously than barbiedoll@thromble.com.

You can steer people’s impressions very easily just by telling them who you are. You can do this by adding a signature with status cues:

        Barbara J. Periwinkle
        Vice-President of Legal Affairs
        Itty Bitty Machines, Inc.

Or:

        Peter Periwinkle
        Kennedy Middle School
        (Age 14)
        Check out the Latvian Homepage at http://www.latvia.org!

Here, young Mr. Periwinkle gives the cue that he might be of Latvian origin.

It can also be effective to lead off a message with status information:

        Hi, my name is Peter and I'm a student at Kennedy Middle School
        in White Plains.  I'm doing a project at school on imaginary
        industrial equipment.  Could you please send me the latest
        thromblemeister catalog?

Or:

        Hi - I'm the Vice-President of Legal Affairs with Itty Bitty Machines.
        Could you please send me the latest thromblemeister catalog?  I'm
        considering purchasing stock in your company.

Note that here the author not only gives a title and professional affiliation, but also shows off language facility by using big words: “considering purchasing” instead of “thinking of buying”. Overuse of big words can sound pretentious, but in short messages can enhance status. Be careful, though, that you use the words properly, and that they aren’t so obscure that your correspondent can’t understand them.

Email Usage

The final thing that people will look at is your use of email. If you do not give proper context, type only in capital letters, or use extremely long lines, people may assume that you are highly inexperienced with the medium. They may also assume that you are too stupid or stubborn to learn, since those are errors that are usually pointed out very rapidly (and not always gently) by experienced users.

In addition to the composition of the email message, people will look at how appropriate the message was. Was it sent to the right person? Was it a reasonable question?

Do You Need To Worry About This?

How do you decide how much time you should spend on managing your status cues? That depends upon several things:

  • Do you know these people      already? If you have had lots of contact with your correspondents already,      their assumptions about your age, gender, status, and intellect will be      pretty solid. Only the most serious abuse of grammar rules and email      etiquette probably is likely to significantly affect your status with      them.
  • Are these people likely to      care? High-school English teachers are likely to care more about your      grammar than pet food store owners. People who send lots of email will      probably be more tolerant than people who have the luxury of spending an      hour on every email message. The Diversity Training Manager is probably      less likely to form impressions based on your race than the regional      Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan.
  • What outcome depends on the      message? If you are sending email to your boss, you probably should be      careful about your grammar. If you are corresponding with salespeople who      want your business, well, they are being paid not to care about your      grammar. If you need a favor, people may be more willing to help you if      you are able to project enough status to make them think that you might be      useful to them in the future.
  • What does their email      look like? If they send you email with incorrect punctuation, poor      spelling, and mangled subordinate clauses, they probably won’t care too      much if you do the same.
  • Do incorrect assumptions      bother you? If you are a man named Patrick who doesn’t mind being mistaken      for a woman, then go ahead and use “Pat” instead of      “Patrick”. If you don’t care if people think you are a teenager,      go ahead and use the handle “RadSkater”.

Summary

Again, I do not endorse stereotyping, but generalizing is part of human nature. You need to be aware of what signals you may be giving your correspondents and how to counteract them if you feel they may be incorrect.

  • Language status can be      improved by using grammar- and spell-checkers.
  • Signatures or      self-introductions can reduce misconceptions.
  • Hopefully, reading this guide      will make you more informed when composing future email messages.

 

5
May

Effective email Writing – Part 6 – Gestures

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 6:

Gestures


Not only does text lack the emotional cues that vocal inflection gives, text lacks cues from body language. There is no twinkling of the eyes to say you are kidding, no slapping the back of your hand in your palm to show urgency or frustration, no shoulders slumping to display discouragement.

While you are unable to accompany your words with hand or facial gestures, there are several textual stand-ins for gestures.

Smileys

A facial gestures can be represented with what is called a “smiley” or “emoticon”: a textual drawing of a facial expression. The most common three are

        :-)
        ;-)

and

        :-(

(To understand these symbols, turn your head counter-clockwise and look at them sideways. You should see little faces.)

While people will have slightly different interpretations of the exact difference between the upper two, my personal opinion is that the upper one means more “I’m happy” and the lower one means more “I think I’m being funny”. The last one is pretty universally understood as “I’m sad”.

Typical examples:

        Hey, guess what -  I got the left-handed
        thromblemeister spec done ahead of time!  :-)
        I'm on my way to fame and fortune now!  ;-)

The second smiley, the ;-), indicates that you don’t really believe that your boss will give you that big raise. It is similar to but not as fierce or trendy a rebuttal as a “NOT!” appended to the end of a sentence:

        Hey, guess what -  I got the left-handed
        thromblemeister spec done ahead of time!  :-)
        I'm on my way to fame and fortune now - NOT!

There are a wide range of ASCII gestures available to you, from ill (%^P) to angry (>:-<) to astonished (😮), limited only by your imagination. There are whole Smiley Dictionaries out there if you are feeling uncreative. (Note: I think that some of the Smiley Dictionary definitions of the basic smileys aren’t a totally accurate reflection of the way I see smileys used, but your mileage may vary.)

Pause Equivalents

Imagine that you ask someone if you can turn the knob up to ten and a half. Suppose he says, “Well”, then pauses for a long time, scratches his head, looks down at the floor, winces, grits his teeth, and says again, “Well”, then pauses and says, “It might not explode”. You’d get a sense of just how bad an idea it would be, while the text:

        Well, it might not explode.

gives less information. I like to use lots of whitespace and typed-out vocalizations of “I’m thinking” sounds, as follows:

        Weeeellllll....    errr   hem.

        Wellll, it *might* not explode.

You can also use whitespace to make it more clear which words belong to which clause. For example, the following is very difficult to parse

        Did you want to use a left-handed thromblemeister or a
        right-handed one with a half-twist or a Jackadoody brocket?

You could instead haul out your high school notes on outlines:

        Did you want to use
               1. a left-handed thromblemeister
        or
               2. a right-handed one with a
                               a. half-twist
                               b. Jackadoody brocket

The only problem with using an outline like this is it invites people to send back messages that have nothing in them but the code for the answer they want, such as

        2b.

To avoid that, you can use a structure like:

        Did you want to use a
               left-handed thromblemeister
        or
               right-handed one with a half-twist
        or
               right-handed one with a Jackadoody brocket?

This invites people to cut-and-paste the exact, full thing they want:

        >       a right-handed one with a Jackadoody brocket?

Creative Punctuation

I tend to use a lot of punctuation in what I call “comic book style”. Instead of saying:

        I am very confused and a little upset.  Why did
        you give my report to Jack instead of Jill?

I would probably say:

        ?!?!  Why did you give my report to Jack
        instead of Jill?!?

The question mark is kind of shorthand for a furrowed brow or a “huh?”. The exclamation mark is shorthand for amazement and possibly a scowl. The two together seem to mean astonishment.

There is a long and proud tradition of using punctuation as a place holder for swearing, e.g. That #%&#$(*! You will also sometimes see an asterisk in place of important letters, usually the vowel, e.g. That son of a b*tch! or That son of a b****! or very rarely That s*n of a b*tch!. (In actual practice, this form of self-censorship is rare; it is more common for people to either use the whole word or omit it completely.)

 

30
Apr

Effective email Writing – Part 5 – Intonation

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 5:

Intonation


The most difficult thing to convey in email is emotion. People frequently get in trouble for typing exactly what they would say out loud. Unfortunately, without the tone of voice as a to signal their emotion, it is easy to misinterpret their intent.

While you cannot make your voice higher or lower, louder or softer to denote emphasis, there are games you can play with text to convey vocal inflection and emotion.

Light Emphasis

If you want to give something mild emphasis, you should enclose it in asterisks. This is the moral equivalent of italics in a paper document.

Instead of:

??????? I said that I was going to go last Thursday.

Say:

??????? I *said* that I was going to go last Thursday.

Or:

??????? I said that I was going to to go last *Thursday*.

Which of the above two you choose depends upon whether you are adamant about the commitment you made or adamant that you didn’t mean Wednesday. (Restructuring the sentence to remove the ambiguity would be an even better idea.)

You can also capitalize the first letter only of words to give light emphasis:

??????? While Bob may say that you should never turn it past
??????? nine, this is not Cast In Stone.? It will explode
??????? if you turn it up to eleven, but anything under ten
??????? should work just fine.

I tend to use first-capitals to refer to things that are somehow dogmatic or reverential. This is probably a cultural holdover from all the capital letters that are used in the English Bible. It might not translate to other languages or cultures.

Strong Emphasis

If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation marks. Instead of:

??????? > Should I just boost the power on the thrombo?

??????? No, if you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat
??????? the motors and it might explode.

Say:

??????? > Should I just boost the power on the thrombo?

??????? NO!!!!? If you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat
??????? the motors and IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!

Note that you should use capital letters sparingly. Just as loss of sight can lead to improved hearing, the relative lack of cues to emotion in email makes people hyper-sensitive to any cues that might be there. Thus, capital letters will convey the message that you are shouting.

It is totally inappropriate to use all capital letters in a situation where you are calm. Don’t do this:

??????? HEY, I JUST WANTED TO SEE IF YOU HAD MADE ANY
??????? PROGRESS ON THE PHROCKMEIJER ACCOUNT.? STOP
??????? BY AND SEE ME SOMETIME.

People will wince when they read that email.

>>EXTREME!!<< Emphasis

If you really want to emphasize something, you can go wild:

??????? If you are late this time, I swear upon my mother's
??????? grave that I will never, *never*, *NEVER*,
??????? >>!!**NEVER**!!<< talk to you again.

Use this sparingly.

Mutter Equivalents

In person, there are a number of ways that you can indicate that a communication is private and not to be repeated. You can lower your voice, you can look to your right and to your left either with your eyes or with your whole head, and you can lean closer to the other person. While these obviously make it more difficult for someone to overhear, these signals are so ingrained that we might use them even if there is nobody around for miles. Unfortunately, lowering your voice and moving your body is hard to do in email.

I sometimes write what I really think and then write down the sanitized version:

??????? My boss got fired I mean resigned today, which
??????? *totally* sucks err.. will lead to enhanced
??????? relations between Engineering and Test.

A friend of mine uses double parentheses to denote “inner voice”, what in the theatre world is called an “aside”:

??????? My boss resigned ((got fired)) today
??????? which is going to lead to enhanced
??????? relations between Engineering and Test ((in
??????? their dreams))

Something else that I will do sometimes to denote the “lowering of voice” is to type without any capital letters:

??????? psssst!
??????? hey wendy!
??????? guess what?










??????? I GOT THE JOB!!!! :-D :-D !!

I should warn you that there is a minority that doesn’t like the shortcuts I showed you. They argue that if Mark Twain could convey emotion without resorting to such artifice, then we should too. Well, I’m not as skilled a writer as Mark Twain, and usually don’t have as many words to make my tone clear as he did. I believe that there is a greater danger of angering or offending someone by not using these shortcuts than there is of annoying someone by using them.


Summary

It is difficult for most people to express emotion well in a short message. Fortunately, you can use a number of textual tricks to help convey the emotion:

  • Asterisks (for emphasis)
  • Capital letters
  • Punctuation
  • Whitespace
  • Lower-case letters

 

25
Apr

Effective email Writing – Part 4 – Page Layout

Effective email Writing is a series of old articles defining how-to and best practices of using email, we will publish all the 11 articles here each in a single post.

Part 4:

Page Layout


Words on a computer screen look different than on paper, and usually people find it harder to read things on a screen than on paper. (I know several people who even print out their email to read it.) The screen’s resolution is not as good as paper’s, there is sometimes flicker, the font may be smaller, and/or the font may be ugly. Your recipient’s email reader may also impose some constraints upon the formatting of the mail, and may not have the same capabilities as your email software. This means that good email page layout is different from good paper document page layout.

Shorter Paragraphs

Frequently email messages will be read in a document window with scrollbars. While scrollbars are nice, it makes it harder to visually track long paragraphs. Consider breaking up your paragraphs to only a few sentences apiece.

Line Length

Some software to read mail does not automatically wrap (adjust what words go on what line). This means that if there is a mismatch between your software’s and your correspondent’s in how they wrap lines, your correspondent may end up with a message that looks like this:

 

 

 

I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassembly ready; as soon as I get a decision on the thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go.  Have you talked to the thermo guys about whether they are ready to go with the left-handed thrombo or do they want to wait and check out the right-handed one first?

 

 

Furthermore, the “quoted-printable” encoding also contributes to the line-length problems. If a line is longer than 76 characters, it is split after the 75th character and the line ends with an equals sign. People whose email reading software can understand quoted-printable encoding will probably have the lines automatically reconstructed, but others will see ugly messages, like the following:

        I've got the price quote for the Cobra subassemby ready; as soon as I get a=
         decision on the thromblemeister selection, I'll be ready to go.  Have you=
         talked to the thermo guys about whether they are ready to go with the=
         left-handed thrombo or do they want to wait and check out the right-handed=
         one first?

There are even a few email readers that truncate everything past the eightieth character. This is not the way to win friends and influence people.

You should try to keep your lines under seventy characters long. Why seventy and not, say, seventy-six? Because you should leave a little room for the indentation or quote marks your correspondents may want if they need to quote pieces of your message in their replies.

Terser Prose

How many times when you were in school were you told to write a 20-page paper? Probably a lot, and you got penalized for being terse. This training is not appropriate for email. Keep it short. If they want more information, they can ask for it. (Also note that some of your correspondents may be charged by the kilobyte and/or have limits on how much disk space their email can use!)

If you are sending a report to many people, then you may need to put more detail into the email so that you aren’t flooded with questions from everyone on the recipient list. (You should also ask yourself carefully if all the people really need to be on the list.)

The fewer the people there are on the recipient list, the shorter the message should be. Books to thousands of people are tens of thousands of words long. Speeches in front of large groups are thousands of words long. But you’d tune out someone at a party who said more than a hundred words at a time.

I try to keep everything on one “page”. In most cases, this means twenty-five lines of text. (And yes, that means that this document is way, WAY too long for email!)

Summary

In summary, keep everything short. Keep your lines short, keep your paragraphs short, and keep the message short.