You know those emails you read once, read again and still aren’t sure what the sender’s trying to say? It’s annoying, right? We all recognise a terrible email when we get one, but we’re often guilty of the same email sins ourselves.
It seems unmistakably obvious: In order to be understood, any form of communication needs clarity. But email is a fast-paced medium, and essential writing values like clarity often take a back seat to time. The problem: Rather than taking a few extra minutes to re-read and vet your email, you send it, no one understands it, and you spend more time working out the miscommunication.
Let’s talk a little bit about how you can introduce more clarity in your email.
Note: When we talk about email writing values this week, we’re talking primarily about work-related email. If you’re emailing a note to a friend, go nuts with whatever style of writing you prefer.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
As Gina put it in the the Lifehacker book:
The old computer science adage, Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) means that if you give a computer the wrong input, it returns useless output. Humans are a lot more forgiving than computers, but in many ways GIGO applies to email correspondence as well.
When you’re composing (or editing) your email, the purpose of your email should be clear from the subject line and maintain that clarity throughout. Don’t make the recipient decipher what you want. Be up front from the start and don’t muddle down your email with unnecessary language.
Clarity Is Better Than Cleverness
You may fancy yourself a masterful wordsmith, but don’t let your words get in the way of your message. In The Art of Unix Programming, author Eric Steven Raymond lays out the Basics of Unix Philosophy, and as we’ve pointed out before, these rules often apply beautifully to other areas of personal productivity.
Consider, for example, the Rule of Clarity, which argues that “Clarity is better than cleverness”. We receive hundreds of emails in the Lifehacker inbox every day, and I thank the gods every time I see an email with a clear subject line and an easy-to-grok question, suggestion, or tip; I curse the email providers whenever the message is buried in its own language.
Next time you’re composing an email, give an extra ounce of attention to clarity. Can you understand what the email is about by the subject line? Are you burying your message? If not, good for you! If you’re not a saint (I’m not), re-evaluate your email miscommunications. Lack of clarity is almost always the culprit in my inbox.
How about you? Let’s hear about the email rules you live by in the comments.