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Email writing tips

By Dave Riches

Email writing has become a large part of modern communication, particularly in business. The world has become much smaller now that we have the ability to send and receive email messages over great distances at an incredible speed. Due to the ease of use it has the potential to be abused and you should try to keep the following points in mind when writing email.

How much should I write in an email?
Do spelling and grammar matter in email?
What do cc: and bcc: mean?
What are plain text and HTML format email?
What is a good email program?
What is a signature file?

How much should I write in an email?

Email is meant for quick, simple communication. As a general guide that means roughly 4 or 5 paragraphs at most. Due to the limitations of formatting and layout, anything much longer than that is probably best sent as a separate attachment such as a Word file. Most people have a limited attention span with email - if they are receiving a lot of mail you want to get the main message explained in the shortest possible space.

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Do spelling and grammar matter in email?

We think it does. Poor spelling and grammar show a lack of attention to detail and sends the wrong message about yourself and how you do business. Most email programs today have built-in spell checkers so there is no excuse! You wouldn't send a letter that was poorly punctuated and uses no capital letters - why not make sure your email messages look professional too?

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What do cc: and bcc: mean?

There is a certain etiquette with email, especially in the use of the carbon copy (cc:) and blind carbon copy (bcc:) fields. It is courteous to add addresses to the 'cc:' field if those people need to know about the subject but are not required to act on the contents.

The 'bcc:' field is useful where discretion is required. People in this field are concealed from other recipients in the 'To', 'cc:' and 'bcc:' fields. They can themselves see others in the 'To' and 'cc:' fields but not the 'bcc:' fields.

Email addressing exampleIn this example, an email is sent directly to John by Bob. He copies Tom by including Tom's address in the cc: field. Harry and Sue are blind copied - they can see who the original recipients were but Tom and John won't see their names.

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What are plain text and HTML format email?

Plain text email is exactly that - plain. There is no formatting using different fonts or colours. Email messages can only contain characters typed on a keyboard, known as the ASCII character set. Creative use of characters like '*' and '+" can be used to highlight passages or create headings.

Most plain text email is written using a character set like Courier which is a fixed width font (characters are all the same width). This is useful for perfectly aligning characters between rows, as shown below. Note the headings and separators in use here as well:

Example of Courier plain text email

HTML email allows you to add formatting to your text as well as images or links using HTML code. Many online newsletters are written in this format as they provide a more visual medium and are pleasing to look at at. The example below is the same message as shown before, including some basic formatting such as different fonts, colours and underlining as well as a hypertext link.

HTML email example

So which email format should you use? Increasingly, email is being read on devices such as mobile phones or PDAs. Plain text email can be easily interpreted on these whereas HTML email often won't display and is usually too large to download anyway.

If you want your email to be readable at all times, plain text is the way to go. It doesn't always look the best but it has other advantages as already mentioned. If you are only sending email to friends and family then HTML format email with the fancy background that you send with Outlook isn't going to cause too much trouble!

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What is a good email program?

Most people use the default mail program available on their system. For many that means Outlook Express which is a component of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Outlook Express (otherwise known as OE) is a good email program that provides all of the necessary features for the average user.

A step up from OE is Microsoft Outlook which includes email as well as a calendar and other organiser functions. Outlook is a more powerful email program and being bundled with Office it is very popular in the business community.

There are many other email programs and all have their devoted users. Probably the best known alternative is Eudora. Or you may opt to use an entirely web-based option like Yahoo Mail or Hotmail.

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What is a signature file?

Signature files can be attached to every outgoing message you send, usually containing contact details and other relevant information. If you are in business you should almost certainly use an email signature in your communications. It is a great way to draw attention to products or services you offer, and you are making yourself easier to contact as well. Other uses for an email signature include:

  • confidentiality statements
  • drawing attention to web site addresses
  • promoting a newsletter
  • adding other contact details such as ICQ or AIM

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