A few years ago, the ‘TL;DR’ acronym started to appear in discussion forums and the comments of long blog posts. It stands for “Too long; didn’t read” and it quickly became a blunt way of telling people that they were waffling on too much.
You’re unlikely to receive such a response to your emails, of course. That’s because sending sending an email is a more personal form of communication. Some blog readers have no qualms about being rude, but email recipients are usually more polite. They’re less likely to point out the flaws in your writing.
And that’s a problem, because without such feedback your emails run the risk of being ignored. Your email recipients might not reply with ‘TL;DR’ but in some cases that’s what they’ll be thinking – and doing.
Consider what happens when you’re forced to listen to someone droning on about something that could easily have been said in a few sentences. Your mind will drift, your attention will wander, your body language will indicate that you are bored. But there’s no body language with email.
So if you want to maintain the interest and attention of your email contacts, you need to think carefully. Here are some tips for writing emails that aren’t too long or too short – but just right.
Change your vocabulary
Some business people still think it’s clever to use long and complex words in emails. But the opposite is true. Complex words don’t make you sound clever. They make you sound as though you’re being condescending to your audience. In fact there’s a good example: why not use ‘talking down’ instead of ‘being condescending’?
Get to the point quickly
Email is not a formal method of communication, so don’t treat it as one. “Hi” or “Hello” is all you need before getting to the point. There’s no need for “Dear Sir or Madam…” followed by paragraphs of background text. This is 2015, not 1915.
Keep the bulky stuff out of the way
If you need to send something long and complex, do it as an attachment. Keep the body of the email pure and simple. It’s easier for people to process separate documents than see everything in one long wall of text.
Ask for a sanity check
You probably work in an office surrounded by people firing off their own emails. It doesn’t hurt to ask one of them to read through your important emails before you send them. And you could do the same for theirs. Professional writers always have their work checked by editors and sub-editors. There’s no reason why you can’t do the same.
Think about the medium
There’s an old saying that the medium is the message. The medium in this case is different to speech, letters, instant messaging or social media. So adjust your writing to the medium. It’s not appropriate to use ‘txt spk’ or lots of emojis in emails. But it’s not appropriate to send the equivalent of a three-page letter either.
Learn from people you admire
Think about other people’s emails. Which ones do you read and actually take in? Which ones do you ignore because they’re short and meaningless? Which ones do you find long and boring? Learn from everyone, and find the right length for your own emails.
Don’t make them too short!
Finally, while you’re pruning your emails down to size, be careful not to prune the meaning. It’s good to keep your emails brief. But if you’re not careful you can confuse people by not being clear enough. Bear in mind this quote, attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”