Monday, February 13, 2017

How to write an email

Some people claim there's an art to writing an effective email. In my professional career, I follow these general rules for writing emails:
  1. Write email
  2. Delete most of it
  3. Click Send
I find brevity is often best. If I write too much, I may lose my audience. But there's a tipping point: you need to provide a certain amount of context. If you don't "set the stage" or don't provide enough background, your recipient may not understand your message. How little is "too little" in an email?

Let me draw on a few real-life examples. Outside of my regular job, I sometimes teach an online computer science class ("CSCI 4609") at a university. As an online class, we have a flexible class size, although we try to set the "reserve" limit at ten seats. After the first ten students sign up, you need a permission number. But I'll usually give a permission number to whoever asks for one. Usually.

The exception is for students who don't meet the pre-requisite. We require that students take another computer science course ("CSCI 2101") before taking mine. This provides a grounding for the material in "CSCI 4609." Such pre-requisites are not unusual at the university level. If you don't have the pre-requisite, you need to get a permission number from the instructor (me) so you can register for the class.

Let me use a few examples from this class to show how providing a bit of context can make your request more clear:

Too little information


You can imagine my confusion when I received an email like this one from a student who wanted to take my class: (not the actual email, but representative)
Hi. Please give me a permission number so I can register for your class.
Why did this student need a permission number? There were already ten students in the class, so the system might have prompted the student that the class was "at reserve" at the student needed permission to add the class. Or the student might not meet the pre-requisites. I need to know more before I can give a permission number.

In the first example, it's no problem to add the student; I don't mind more students in the class. But if the student didn't meet the pre-requisites, then I need to check that the student won't be in over their head. I want them to succeed in the class, but if they take the class before they understand certain basic concepts, they will find the class very challenging.

I responded to this student to learn more about their situation. Each email was equally brief, requiring us to exchange several more emails before I determined if the student should be added to the class.

Too much information


While it's challenging to respond to too-brief messages, it can be equally difficult to make sense of the small novels that some people send me. Here's another example from a student who wanted to take my class: (not the actual email, but representative)
Hello Professor Hall. I was looking through the catalog to find another class I wanted to take this semester and I saw your class, CSCI 4609. This is a really interesting topic and I'd like to take it. I talked to a few of my friends about it and they think this is something that will really help me after graduation, so now I really want to take your class. I was in the student center last night going through my course registration for Spring semester and I tried to add your class. The registration system is a little difficult to use, so I'm not sure what the message is trying to tell me. When I add your class I get a little red box that pops up and tells me I needed to contact you and get a permission number. But I'm a senior and this will be my last semester before I graduate. I have taken all my other CSCI classes already, and this semester I only have my capstone plus some classes for my minor. I have taken the interface class, last year with Dr. Smith, so I meet the requirements. When you have a moment, I need to get a permission number so I can finish registration in the class. I know we're out of queued registration but your prompt attention would help me to get the class for next semester. I would really appreciate it. Thanks so much!
Okay, wow. That's a lot of information. And the actual email I received was much longer than the sample I wrote for you.

This email is unclear and unintentionally buries the request in an avalanche of extraneous information. I don't need to know where you were when you tried to register for the class. I don't need most of the information here.

Reading long emails like this one seem like more work than reading other emails, because I need to parse the email to figure out what's really going on. Please keep them short for the sake of the person who will read it. Breaking up the email into paragraphs will also make the information more clear.

Just the right information


Let me edit the above email into a message that has just the right amount of information:
Hello Professor Hall,

I would like to take your class, CSCI 4609. I am a senior and have the pre-requisites, but the system says I need a permission number to take the class.

Can you send me a permission number?
That's much easier to read! Notice that the email provides a brief context to "set the stage" before making a simple request? The use of short paragraphs helps the reader to parse the email for the important points: The student has met the requirements, but needs a permission number from me. That's a clear request, and one that doesn't require any follow-up from me.

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