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  • John H Keess

A Guide for Undergrads – How to write a professional email

Updated: Jan 4

Email is not a terrible tool, but it brings out some terrible tendencies in people. It has the unfortunate attribute of being too easy to use, so it’s often a first resort for both communication and what I call de-loading – instead of thinking through a problem, or calling someone and working through a problem, it’s easy to send a quick note and move down a to-do list. Emails also carry a negative tone. Phrases that would be fine to hear look a lot worse on the screen. Worse still, the popularity of email allows for the rapid transmission of bad habits and unhelpful written constructions. None of these things are a good thing in professional or academic life. There is never a downside to clear communication.


De-loading, or why you should send fewer emails

I often get emails from students that either present a simple problem or ask a question that’s already answered in a syllabus. I understand why this happens – you all have busy lives, and you probably have a to-do list. Getting through that list can be satisfying. But by sending a poorly thought-through email, you’re simply unloading your problem on someone else. This is a bad idea for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s annoying to the recipient. As understanding as we all should be, no-one wants to do someone else’s thinking for them. For two, there is the danger that someone will do that thinking for you, and they’ll come up with something you don’t like.


Here, let’s use an example. Let’s say that last month, I sat down with my professor about an idea for a course paper. I wanted to compare the development of the Australian and Canadian armies in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then I’ve found that the project is just too big for a term paper. Finding the sources will take time and funding I don’t have.


This is what a bad email would look like:

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SUBJECT: Paper


Boss,


I know we talked about my paper last week, but I don’t think the topic will work out. It might work if I can find some money.


- John


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There are a lot of things wrong with this email, but let’s focus on the fundamental problem: it should not exist. Imagine you were one of my long-suffering dissertation supervisors. What on Earth are they supposed to do about this? It’s not really their problem.


A better email

A better email starts with clearer thinking, and clearer thinking starts with a sketch. I highly recommend that everyone get some form of working notebook along the lines of a bullet journal. This can be kept physically or electronically – I personally use a remarkable tablet to keep most of my work in one place. Either way, whatever you use, it should have an analog feel. Before sending an email, sketch out the problem on a page. It will only a take a minute.





Going down this sketch, I’m able to clarify my problem. Time and money are symptoms, and because funding takes time, they’re not solvable problems. Fundamentally, the problem is complexity. My paper topic is far too complicated for a term paper. Therefore, I need to find a simpler term paper topic. In this case, I’m able to think of something, but need help in refining the idea. This is what the email now looks like: ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

SUBJECT – WS 690 – Keess – Paper topic


Sir,


Since speaking with you about my paper topic last week, I’ve encountered some issues. While I like the idea of comparing the development Canadian and Australian armies in the 1950s and 1960s, there aren’t enough ready sources. I don’t think I’ll have the time to find either the sources or the funding, so I would like to propose a simpler topic. [ First paragraph – states the problem clearly and unemotionally. Also states the purpose of the email.]


I’ve done a cursory search of Massey Library and Stauffer Library, and found plenty of sources on the evolution of the Canadian Army and the RCN. It looks to me that there are strong similarities between the debates surrounding the formation of the navy and proposed army reforms in the early 1960s. [Second paragraph – clearly outlining my thinking and demonstrating that I’ve put a bit of brain-power into solving the problem]


I reckon there is a useful comparative essay in there, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a research question. Do you have any advice? [Third paragraph – clearly outlining what I need help with, politely ask for something specific related to the receiver’s expertise]


Yours,


John

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Now, you might be thinking, that’s fine for you, working in an area you already know a lot about. What if I don’t know anything at all about Canadian military history? That’s fine. An email might look something like this: ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

SUBJECT – HIE 208 – Bloggins – Paper Topic,


Ma’am,


I want to begin work on my HIE 208 term paper. Before I do so, I wanted to make sure I had a good paper topic. I’m not sure of myself in this area because I’ve had little contact with Canadian military history until this course. [clearly state the problem]


I went through the lectures so far and looked through the syllabus. One topic that stuck out to me was the Battle of the Atlantic. I think I’d be interested in this area, and Massey Library has a whole bunch of books on the RCN. I’d appreciate your advice on (1) a good research question in this area and (2) advice on any particular books or sources that stand out. [Demonstrate that you’ve thought through the problem, make it clear where you need advice.]

Yours,

OCdt Bloggins ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The above emails aren’t very formal, but they’re clearly written and well-structured. They communicate three things clearly:


- The problem


- The work I’ve done to solve the problem


- Where I need help


This is the ideal structure for the recipient because it provides a “funnel” – starting broad and ending with narrower actionable items. Now, you might be thinking, “that’s fine for this example, but real life is more complicated. What if you can’t “funnel” your problem?


A non-funnelling email ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


SUBJECT: Request for a Call -Re: Paper topic


Bob,


Having a problem fixing the flux capacitor. Can’t seem to find any solutions. Do you have time for a call?


Cheers,


John


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There, simple.


Points of etiquette


Subject lines – always include a course title or other context. For example:

HIE 208 – Bloggins – Forum posts

Bloggins – Leave Question


Structure

Salutation, body, closing, signature block on the first email always. On subsequent emails, a less formal structure is fine.


Addressees

Always mention when someone is CC’d


Phrases to avoid

“Please advise” and other passive-aggressive phrases. It’s tempting, but it’s not professional. If you have a problem with someone, call them. “Require your input.” This comes off as passive aggressive, and uses needlessly technical language


Inappropriate casual introduction If you don’t know someone, it’s best to email with their honorific (Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.) and their last name. First names and “hello” don’t do well.

When writing to a military superior in English, the only appropriate salutations are rannks (for an NCO) or "Ma'am," or "Sir" (for an officer.)

Fluff

Avoid a mess of buzzwords and adverbs. It makes reading harder and your message fuzzier.


Follow-up

Emails are often sent as follow-ups to phone calls to keep a record of discussion. If you do so, fine, just make it clear what you’re doing.


Attached text body

Some people like to attach the body of their email as a separate document. Besides being annoying, it’s a cybersecurity risk.

This blog posts ends without an extended conclusion. I intend to keep it “live” – that is, to update as I hear feedback. Please send me a message or add a comment below if you have any insight on writing effective emails – or not writing them.

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