How to write an email like a grown-up
Courtney Phelan | Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Every student in all three campuses is currently working toward some type of professional career or post-graduate “thing.” As much as we might want to live in the undergrad bubble, communicating solely through varied grunting noises and Snap Stories, someday you’ll have communicate professionally with someone. And that professional someone uses email.
Sending an email or sounds pretty simple, right? It could be, but I’ve found that most people in our generation absolutely suck at it.
My lovely mother is a college professor, similar to all of your professors. And each semester, she is bombarded with envoys of unprofessional communication. Each poorly-written email confuses and depresses her to the point where she has to complain to me for hours to rid her brain of the muck it endures every time she opens her inbox. I, too, have been on the receiving end of terrible emails, because for some reason, I am occasionally put into positions where I am regarded as the “professional.” No one should have to apply collegiate-level literary analysis skills to determine what question someone is asking about tutoring hours. People forget to capitalize words or spell things so poorly that I can’t make it out. People explain a very complicated situation and don’t add anything that explains why it’s relevant. People give paragraph-long, graphic descriptions of illnesses. People suck at writing emails.
With all that being said, here is an English writing major’s advice on how to effectively communicate via email with professionals, like professors, advisors, recruiters or other grown-ups.
The first, and surprisingly difficult, part of writing an email is the greeting. Standard letter-writing etiquette states that letters, including electronic letters, should begin with “Dear [name].” Using the standard “dear” will work for any email you’re sending. Personally, it sounds so unlike me to say, so I opt for “Hi, [name].” Both, and a few other greetings such as “hello,” are totally acceptable. The most important part about the salutation is that you get their title right. If they are a professor or doctor, call them that and their last name. Never refer to a professor or other professional by their first name unless explicitly told that you can.
Most emails I’ve written to professionals are about a problem, like illness or sincere confusion about something. Start off with a paragraph that explains the background or event that caused you to need to email them. Examples of this include, “While working on our first essay, I came across a source from the author of another text that was not on the recommended list …” or “You might have noticed that I was not in class yesterday. This is because I was sick.”
You do not have to provide every single detail of your life leading up to sending this email. For any problem you are describing, keep it as simple as possible. This is especially important if you are explaining that you were sick. While it might seem tempting to explain every graphic detail of your illness to make it seem more believable, believe me: it’s really not. All you have to do is state that you were very sick and should not have been around other people.
Your second paragraph should be the question that resulted from your predicament detailed in the first paragraph, such as, “Can I use this other source? How exactly should I integrate it into this project?” A common question, especially for problems like missing class is, “What do we do now?” However, the simple phrase “What do we do now?” sounds rather stupid and puts the emphasis on your professor is doing something rather than yourself. You are asking for this person’s advice about what you need to be doing now. A better way to state this is to ask “How do you recommend I proceed from here?”
Once you’ve asked your question, wrap up the email. You don’t want to write a novel and whomever you’re writing to doesn’t want to read a novel. State any availability you have for a meeting or phone call, which, if you have a big enough problem to email them, you should absolutely try to schedule.
End it with a closing and your name. I will always be faithful to “Sincerely.” Go back and check your grammar and word-choice. Ensure that you’ve put in a subject, and that the subject is short but informative. “Question about [problem you had]” will work most of the time.
Hit send. You just wrote an email like a grown-up.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.