People get dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of emails (let’s not even talk about how many unread emails are sitting in my inbox right now) and it’s easy to miss—or just plain ignore—them on a scroll. So when you’re writing an email, you want to do everything in your power to ensure the recipient sees, opens, reads, and acts on it the way you’re hoping they will.
The truth is that some emails are more effective—and likely to get a response—than others. “Your email will be noticed and get the attention it deserves when it is written appropriately and professionally geared specifically to your audience,” says Muse career coach Lynn Berger.
No matter what field or industry you work in, or would like to work in, knowing how to write emails that achieve your goals is vital. Here are the basics to help you get started—if you’re new to the workforce—or to make sure this email is just right.
Elements of a Professional Email
No matter what your email is about, it can be broken down into the same basic pieces. Depending on the situation, you might not need to use all of these elements, but you should always consider each one.
Your subject line goes in its own field above the message itself, but it’s still very much part of your email. And you should never leave it off—or your message is likely to remain unopened, whether the reader skips over it or it lands in their junk folder.
This short phrase (along with your name or email address) will be what the recipient sees before they decide whether or not to click on your email, so you want to make sure you’re clearly stating what your message is about and setting the right expectations. Stay away from subject lines that just say “Hello” or “Please read” unless you know the person well. Instead try something along the lines of these examples:
- “Can we set up a meeting?”
- “Requested resume for Matthew Li”
- “Question from a fellow UT-Austin alum”
- “Feedback on report draft needed by EOD Monday”
- “Question about apartment listing - 123 Maple Street”
Note: If you’re applying for a job via email, sometimes the job posting will tell you to include something like your name or the position title or number in your subject line, and you should always follow these directions.
The only time you don’t need to write a subject line is if you’re responding to or forwarding someone else’s message: In this case, you can just leave the existing subject line—unless you want to highlight a specific deadline or action item.
Would you walk up to someone at work who you don’t know well and just start talking about the report that’s due without saying “Hi” or even their name? Probably not. So you shouldn’t do it over email, and you definitely shouldn’t do it if you’ve never communicated with the person before. Start your message with an appropriate salutation (most commonly “Hi,” “Hello,” or “Dear”) and the recipient’s name if you know it.
In most workplace communications, a first name only is just fine, unless the person works for a more formal company where using their full name might be more appropriate (or, say, you’re emailing the head of a division or company). Including a first or full name is always better than accidentally misgendering somebody with a “Ms.” or “Mr.” For professors and doctors, however, their title followed by the last name is usually best.
If you don’t know who your email will go to, you can sometimes skip the name entirely and just write “Hello” or “Hi there” to start your message. “To Whom It May Concern,” might be just fine If you’re emailing a customer service department or similar, but never use it in a cover letter.
This is where you actually write the information that you want to send the person you’re emailing. Every email has a body, whether it’s a single word (“Thanks!”) or paragraphs and paragraphs long—but please don’t make it too long! For professional emails, make sure that you keep your language appropriate for the situation and clearly state why you’re sending the message and what (if any) action you’re hoping the recipient will take after reading.
Closing (or Sign-Off)
Your email closing is the (usually single) line before your name and/or signature. Skipping this can come off as rude or abrupt, so be sure to include one unless you’re emailing with someone you know well or you’re several emails into a thread. The most common professional email closings are “Best” and “Thanks.” But you can definitely change it up based on your preferences and the circumstances.
Typically, you end an email by signing just your name at the end. Your first name is usually enough here, but for more formal emails (such as a cover letter), your full name might be warranted. You might also choose to include additional information after your name (often on the lines below), such as your contact information, title, company, pronouns, or links with more information about you or your company. You might also create a default email signature that contains some or all of these components.
Tips for Writing a Professional Email
Here are a few things to help you ensure that your emails are effective and professional.
Keep It Concise
Emails are one of the main ways we communicate at work, so people get a lot of them. If someone is sifting through an inbox with 50 (or 500) unread messages, they’re more likely to respond in the moment to something that’s a few short paragraphs at most as opposed to something that’s much longer. So be respectful of others’ time and keep your emails short and to the point.
Add a Personal Touch
Because you want to be concise, and written messages lack the tone of speech, email “can feel curt,” says Muse career coach Barb Girson, but this is easily fixable.
Being professional doesn’t mean you need to be robotic. So before you jump into the meat of your message, “Pause and add a quick pleasantry,” Girson says, to acknowledge the person at the other end of your email. This could be as simple as, “I hope this email finds you well,” or, “I hope you’re having a great week.” If you’re friendly with the person you’re emailing, you might reference something you know about them like, “How was apple picking with the kids last weekend?” or, “Did you catch the Packers game last night?” Note: For cover letters, you can generally dive right in.
Clearly State Your Intent
In all professional messages, you should explicitly say why you’re emailing and what you’re looking or asking for. Don’t make the reader guess at your point.
You might open a cover letter with something along the lines of, “I am excited to be applying to your open sales development role.” Or after your opening pleasantry to a coworker, you might say, “I just wanted to check in about the presentation tomorrow,” or, “Following up on yesterday’s meeting…”
At the end of your email, you might also include a call to action such as “Can you get me any feedback on this deck by noon Thursday?” or even a clear statement that no action is necessary like “We don’t need anything from you right now, but we just wanted to keep you in the loop!” just to be sure that the recipient comes away with the right information.
If you’re sending multiple emails a day, it can be easy to overlook this step, but you should be rereading all your emails for spelling and grammar, Berger says. If you have the time, Berger even recommends saving your email as a draft and going back to it later to make sure it looks good with fresh eyes. This probably isn’t necessary for a note to that colleague you email multiple items a day, but for particularly important or delicate emails, it might help you catch that embarrassing typo or mistake before you hit send.
Bonus Tip: Make Sure Email Is the Right Tool in the First Place
Depending on what you’re trying to communicate, email might not be the right tool, says Muse career coach Heather Yurovsky: “While a well-written and concise email is certainly effective and allows the reader to respond in their own time, a phone call can sometimes take the place of multiple emails while getting much more accomplished and building a stronger relationship.” So if it’s appropriate given the relationship you have with the person, consider calling or sending a shorter email to set up a meeting. If it’s a colleague in your office, you might also walk over to their desk or use a tool like Slack that allows for quicker back-and-forth communication.
Example Professional Emails
What does this look like in action? Here are a few example emails:
Reaching Out for an Informational Interview:
Subject: Aspiring growth marketer—would love to ask you a few questions
I hope you’re having a great week. I’m currently a marketing generalist with XYZ Co and I saw your recent LinkedIn post about your philosophy on conducting market research. I wanted to reach out to let you know how much I admired what you said about how data tells a story if you let it.
As someone early in my career, I’m interested in learning more about growth marketing as a possible path for me. If you’re open to it, I’d love to connect and chat about how you got into this field and what advice you have for someone hoping to transition from an entry-level generalist role to a specialist role in growth marketing. Do you have any availability for a Zoom or phone call in the coming weeks?
Looking forward to connecting and thank you for taking the time to read this message.
Marketing Coordinator, XYZ Co
Expressing Appreciation and Building a Relationship:
Subject: Thank you for your talk and time!
Dear Professor Washington,
I hope this email finds you well. I’m reaching out to thank you for talking to our biology club about your research. We all found it fascinating and I really appreciated how you stayed longer than planned to answer all our questions. I was especially interested in what you said about this research having the potential to translate to other areas of the body! I’m planning on enrolling in your BIO409 class next semester and am looking forward to learning about these concepts in more depth!
Emailing a Team Member at Work:
Subject: May vendor invoices (send by EOD Wednesday?)
How was your long weekend? Did you make it out to the beach like you talked about? I know you’re probably still settling back in, but when you get a chance could you send over the vendor invoices from May? The accounting team needs them by EOD Wednesday.
How to Write Different Types of Emails:
Looking for advice on how to write specific types of emails? Check out these articles (with templates and/or examples) for when you’re emailing in certain situations:
- Asking for a job referral
- Asking for help with your job search / Asking for help with your job search during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Asking for an informational interview
- Following up on a job application
- Growing your network
- Resigning from your job
- Making a professional introduction
- Thanking someone after a job interview
- Writing a cover letter (which you may or may not send in email form)