Before starting to write your email, know how it’s going to end.
An email to a tutor or a potential employer should have a clear purpose and spell out a clear action as soon as possible. A good place to start is the subject line. Assume your recipient is ten times busier than you are. If they are expecting an email from you, what can you say to convey that ‘this is the email that you are looking for’? If they aren’t expecting an email from you, how succinctly can you put what you want to talk about?
Directly emailing somebody is one thing, but adding more people into the message via CC (Carbon Copy) comes with its own challenges. To include somebody via CC suggests that this email is for their information, but that you don’t necessarily need a reply from them. Be careful, though: flagging an email up with a superior might come off a little aggressive if your tone is critical of the recipient.
Next to letter writing, with an email, you may be forgiven for relaxing your tone a bit. Use Hello and Hi when you know the person well, and Dear for anybody between an acquaintance and a total stranger. If you are unsure of your relationship with a person, you are probably in the Dear category.
When writing to somebody you don’t know, finding out their name and preferred title is a good start. If you can’t find this, rather than assume someone’s gender, use Dear Name Surname.
If you have absolutely no idea who you are talking to (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), adopt a professional, neutral tone and err on the side of caution. To whom it may concern may be a little outdated, but Good afternoon still does the trick.
If you know the person, this is the point at which you express how much you hope they enjoyed their weekend, or hope that they are well. Leaving it to the end looks like an afterthought.
If you don’t know the person you are writing to, instead leave a line to introduce yourself. You don’t need to provide an autobiography but should aim to give a bit of context as to what you do and its relevance to the purpose of the email. For example:
Dear Ms X.
My name is David and I am a current student at City and Islington College. My student number is _____.
If you have been directed to the person by somebody else or from a website, follow up by linking the relation back, as in:
The Head of Department for History advised I contact you with regards to the Module 220 assignment this term.
Write your email to answer the six key questions (where appropriate): who, what, where, when, why, how? Make the body of your text easy to interpret so that your recipient can work out what they need to do with the information you’ve given them. Be clear if you need this done by a certain time, and try to facilitate the process as much as possible. Include the full names and relevant contact info for anyone you mention that needs to be followed up with.
Make sure everything is spelt correctly before sending it over. You look a lot less credible if your level of attention to detail doesn’t even cover four lines of text. If you’ve referenced an attachment, make sure you really have attached it – and that it’s the right one! Make sure your links work and read what you’ve written out loud before pressing send.
For people you know, there’s a whole range of informal endings to an email, but Kind regards and Best wishes are your safe bets. Many thanks and Regards bridge the gap into formality, and Yours faithfully and Yours sincerely retain the most professional tone.
Yours faithfully should be used if you are addressing somebody you don’t know the name of. Yours sincerely is appropriate for an audience that you are at least familiar enough with to know their name, but not enough to have a chat with.
If any of your endings feel a little cold or abrupt, it’s perfectly polite to preface them with Thank you for your consideration/time/input or a Please let me know your thoughts. Slowly, as the written word starts to converge on spoken language, we see the courtesies of yesteryear fade out, and text looks less and less formal.
Still, when you find yourself typing out an email devoid of gesture and intonation, it’s best to ensure you do the best you can with the tools you’ve got, presenting yourself in the best possible light through these simple steps.
Take a moment today to check through your work before pressing send and ask yourself if this is something you would be happy to receive.