Ever opened up an email that looks more like Shakespeare's Hamlet than a useful update about work?
Email wasn't meant to be a platform for penning out Elizabethan literature. When it comes to writing effective work email, using fewer, simpler words is often the best option. Writing concisely makes your emails easier for people to understand and quick to read, and ultimately, it helps you communicate better.
Writing clean, concise emails is easier said than done, though. Below are a few phrases and words to leave out of your emails so you can save your teammates some time, be more poised, and get your point across clearly.
Filler words might feel natural or like they’re helping to give context, but often, they’re just what their name implies: filler. They take up time, and they don’t add anything to the meaning of your sentence. A few examples include:
“Just touching base”
“Following up on our conversation from last week”
“Looking forward to hearing your thoughts”
Although these only take a few minutes to type, that time adds up when you’re using them all the time! When you see yourself typing these, think, “is this helping the person understand what I mean?” If not, feel free to backspace and move on.
Beyond these few standard filler phrases, each of us has our own habitual phrases that we tend to lead or close with. Often, these pet phrases don’t add anything to the conversation. To identify your pet phrases, look back through your Sent mail and see what keeps appearing. When you’re writing your next email, ask yourself, “Do I really need to say this?”
You can save a lot of time typing over the course of a week if you replace wordy phrases with more efficient alternatives. To get you started, here’s a list of common wordy or redundant phrases that you can swap for something shorter:
A large number of = many
At the present time = now
Due to the fact that = because
If this is not the case = if not
It’s probable that = probably
In the near future = soon
With the exception of = except
Some words and phrases just don’t have a great rap. One of the most infamous email phrases is “Per my last email.” While you might want to reference a past conversation, this phrase almost never makes the recipient of your email feel good. In fact, it mostly feels passive aggressive, as if you’re reminding someone that they failed to read your last message. Other problematic phrases?
“If I’ve misunderstood”
“Just a friendly reminder”
Instead, just try asking the question again. Less passive aggressive options include:
Are you able to let me know about this by ____?
Can we circle back to ___?
I have a question about ___.
Passive aggressive phrases aren’t the only minefield for misunderstanding. Overly-formal wording or conventions like using a colon after the recipient’s name can also make people think you’re upset with them. If a phrase makes you sound like a robot, then it’s probably best to avoid it.
If we define jargon as any word or phrase that a recipient may not understand, we’re all guilty of using jargon in our emails. It’s difficult to avoid jargon because we’re so familiar with these words and phrases — they’re natural to us. But because the person we’re emailing may not understand what we mean, the chances are high that we’ll find ourselves sending a follow-up email to answer, “I’m not sure what x refers to. Can you explain?”
As you’re writing an email, be on the lookout for three primary categories of jargon: industry jargon, job role jargon, and company jargon.
Industry jargon — Every industry has a set of jargon. There’s a slew of terminology for the logistics industry, like INT (intermodal), FTL (full-truckload), and 3PL (third-party logistics), etc. In the travel industry, they speak of adoption rate, AIO (activities, interests, and opinions) variables, codeshare, and many others. Those in your industry will probably know what you’re talking about when you use these terms, but if you’re emailing anyone outside your industry, you’ll want to describe what you mean in terms your recipient can understand.
Job jargon — Job jargon is especially problematic because we all interact with others in our company who are in other departments. In human resources, there’s broad-banding, bumping, and the balanced scorecard. In marketing, we have CLV (customer lifetime value), USP (unique selling proposition), MQL (marketing-qualified lead), and about a hundred more. It’s hard to know all the acronyms that exist in your own role, so how can you expect others to understand yours? When it comes to role-specific acronyms — when in doubt, spell it out.
Company jargon — Company jargon most often comes in the form of products and services that we abbreviate or names we use to describe company initiatives. It’s no problem when we sling this jargon around internally because everyone knows what we mean. But it’s easy to slip into this habit when we’re writing vendors, customers, and partners outside the company.
Just like with jargon, slang is perfectly fine when we use it with people who know what we mean. But we often assume people understand slang that they just aren’t familiar with. And we may end up having to use follow-up emails to explain.
Regional slang may be well-used in our city or part of the country, but not in others. For example, if you’re in New Jersey, you know “mad” means “very.” But someone from South Carolina might wonder if you’re saying something positive or negative. That person from South Carolina will close out a conversation with “See ya’ll later,” but someone from Pittsburg might respond, “See yinz.”
Even if you’re emailing someone in your geographic area, you’ll need to beware of generational slang. If you’re a Millennial, you might describe an awesome person as “savage,” leaving a Baby Boomer (or even Gen Xer) scratching their head.
Overusing punctuation can also lead to misunderstandings, so it’s best to leave unneeded commas and clutter out of emails at work. Adding five exclamation marks to a sentence doesn’t necessarily make it sound more friendly — and it can come across as a bit manic. Excessive use of semicolons, on the other hand, can make people wonder if you’re trying to be stern with them. Non-standard punctuation leaves people questioning what you really mean — and it opens up the possibility you’ll need to send a follow-up email.
Being concise is an art — it’s what writers pride themselves on, after all. While being concise in emails is great to help you be clear and professional, beware of going too far and coming off as short and displeased. For example, rather than responding to a question with a simple, “No,” it’s always worth it to take the time to type out, “No, but thanks!”