It's Time to Stop Writing Emails Like You’re in a High School English Class
Do you get the jitters when September approaches and think for a millisecond, Gah, I have to go back to school?
OK, maybe not, but I know I do. After it hits me though, I’m quickly relieved to remember that I don’t have to return to homework, long bus rides, early morning classes, and late night study groups.
The thing is, going to work isn’t much different—I still have daily meetings, urgent emails in the middle of the night, and a fairly long commute (which sometimes includes buses and subways).
So, even when you think you’ve escaped school, you’ll probably always be acting out a somewhat similar routine. (Although, hopefully more enjoyable—and if not, what are you doing with your life? Find a job you love!) In addition to that routine, you’re probably also still holding onto a few bad habits, like wanting to murder your alarm clock when it goes off and writing like your audience is your English teacher.
I recently read this Medium post titled, “How to Stop Writing Like a High School Senior”, and not only did it bring back vivid (and somewhat embarrassing) memories of my own senior year, but it pointed out all the typical stylistic choices I still make when writing. So while it’s geared toward college freshman, I think we can all learn from it and improve our communication at work.
Take this classic mistake for example—“letting the text speak for itself.” How many times have you sent an email with a link or attachment and merely stated, Can you look at this? or What do you think? Odds are high someone wrote back, Sure, but what exactly are you looking for from me?
Because we often assume everyone’s on the same page as us, we never think to include some (or any) background information or an explanation of what we want from the recipient. To avoid wasting time and energy going back and forth via email, it’s always helpful to give some context to your request, or even to use a detailed subject line so the receiver knows what to expect before even opening the message.
Are you guilty of “overusing adverbs?” I am. That’s why I proofread my emails and delete “really” and “very” in various places before actually sending it—because otherwise I sound like a really, really enthusiastic cheerleader. Anna Hundert, the article’s author, makes a great point: “A sentence with the word truly almost always sounds more true when you strike the truly.” So cut the fluff and get straight to your point (the shorter the better!).
Lastly, you need to get rid of the passive voice. Think about it: You come across a lot more responsible and powerful to others when you take credit for your actions (I completed the report for this week) than when you let them “get done” without you (The report is finished for this week).
High school writing and everyday email correspondence have a lot in common. You want your thoughts to be organized and clear for any reader to understand, and you want to highlight your most important points so they stand out first and foremost (hence why I love using bullet points and bolded font).
But the big difference between the two is that you want to save your co-workers and contacts time, energy, and resources by providing them with everything they need to know and have in one complete message. So it’s time for you to stop following the rules you learned years ago.
Remember: There’s no word count to hit now.
Photo of woman on computer courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
As an Associate Editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author