If you’re a student, I challenge you to do an exercise. Go to your email inbox from two years ago. Pick one and read it. Are you cringing at the length, content, and word choice used in your email? Doesn’t it seem like a completely different person wrote that lengthy, verbose paragraph apologizing for your late assignment?
If you answered yes to the above, you’re exactly like me. That’s normal. As an incoming first-year at college, I didn’t realize the weight that emails would hold in my academic and professional life. In high school, I wasn’t checking my email 10 times a day, but now it’s remiss for me not to do that. What I realize now is that knowing how to write a good email can help you make strides in life: get accepted to an internship, get off the waitlist for a class, and even (in my case) get a response from famed authors like Roxane Gay and Anthony Doerr.
Almost all non-personal communication in adult life happens through email. That being the case, here are a few tips to keep in mind if you want to get better at writing them.
Time over perfection
I always assumed that writing the “perfect” email was better than sending a quick email. But that’s not true. There’s no such thing as a perfect email. What people remember from emails is how fast they received it after your conversation, as a quick reply displays your enthusiasm. Remember that professionals prioritize you only as much as you prioritize them—if you take three weeks to follow up on a conversation, they’re less likely to think you’re important to them. It’s a rule of thumb to send a thank you note 24 hours after a job interview and follow up 10 to 15 days after if you haven’t heard back. Stay on their radar.
Leave out the exclamation point
A lot of students I know overuse the "!" character to express enthusiasm. Be careful! Too many exclamation points can make your email seem immature and undermine your excitement. It also takes away from a conversational tone that you should be attempting to establish through correspondence with adults: No one in real life speaks with emphasis on every sentence. If you’re really excited, just say you’re excited. You don’t have to insinuate that with showers of exclamation points.
Say what you mean
I’m still learning this one. I struggle to speak my mind in a fear of coming off as brazen, but it’s much better to be straightforward. People I’m writing to are likely busy, working professionals with families to care for, and they don’t love to comb through my email to figure out what I’m actually asking them. Remember that honesty saves people time reading your email, and efficiency and time is of the essence.
Write more emails
The only way to get undeniably better at being professional through email is by writing more of them. Keep writing to professors, edit your emails with your friends, ask people for feedback. I can’t stress how important this is: There is no such thing as a perfect email. You must simply write to more people to develop your own unique writing style.
Writing emails is an evolving discipline, one that takes time, skill, and patience. That email from two years ago was replaying in my mind for over a week. I kept worrying that the person I wrote to would judge me for being overly emotional and providing a barrage of irrelevant details. Of, course, that probably didn’t happen because no one is replaying emails in their brain. Try overplaying your personal blunders less and forgiving yourself more. If emails should be efficient, the golden rule of efficiency is to simply move on from your mistakes. Keep looking to the future.
Staff writer Nandini Talwar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She wants to give due credit to the Dean of Beyond Barnard, AJ Aronstein, for guiding her through the art of email writing. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.