Everyone who uses email should do so conscientiously and sparingly. Here are some general rules that should be followed, though this is not an exhaustive list.
1. Be concise. The most concise email is the one never sent. Is a phone call or a walk across the hall more appropriate? Can you find what you’re looking for in a reference guide or online? If so, do not send the email. If you must send an email, keep it short. A good rule of thumb is to strive to keep emails to one line or less. Your recipient may be checking the message on a phone, and shorter is easier to digest – which means you’re more likely to get a response.
2. Communicate “action steps” first, not last. Make it clear what you are asking of your recipient. By listing action steps first you keep the attention on the items you want to draw attention to.
3. Number your questions. Break out multiple points or questions as numbered items in all email correspondence. If you don’t, you risk having your recipient only respond to the first question that happens to catch their eye. (And now you have to write another email to ask them about it again.)
4. Make the way forward clear. Be explicit about what you are asking for, and re-read emails before you send them to make sure there are no ambiguities. Avoid pronouns whenever possible.
5. Include time constraints. For example, “For the project to stay on track, I need a response from you by 1/18.” If a response is optional, communicate that as well: “If I don’t hear back from you by 1/18, I’ll proceed with the solution I’ve proposed.” Only include time constraints that are important to you, and that are affected by the reply of that particular email.
6. Always use expressive and compelling subject lines. The subject line is a key place to indicate importance and time sensitivity, for example “FOR APPROVAL:” or “SCHEDULING REQUEST:”. Use “FYI:” to indicate when action is not needed. Think of subject lines like newspaper headlines or paper titles – they should be expressive and compelling. It’s your chance to hook the reader in.
7. Tell them that you’ll get to it later, if someone sends you an urgent email that you can’t get to today (or whenever their time constraint is). You’ll save yourself a future email and preserve goodwill.
8. Never send an angry or contentious email. Email is forever, and you don’t want to damage professional relationships in the heat of emotion. Sometimes writing an angry letter is cathartic. If you must write an angry email, save it for later and then revise extensively or delete. If a confrontation is necessary, a conversation in person or on the phone is almost always best. In this case, you may want to email to request a phone meeting or in person meeting. In general, emails leave too much room for misunderstanding.
9. Never “reply all” (unless you absolutely must). If the sender was qualified to send the group email, typically they can be relied on to be the point person who collates the responses. If using the “reply all” feature really seems necessary, you are probably having a conversation that would be better (and more efficiently) had face-to-face.
10. Be polite. Use opening salutations (“Dear Prof DeAngelis”, “Hello Dr. DeAngelis”) and closing salutations (“Sincerely,” “Best wishes,” etc), and sign your name. Say “please” and “thank you.” Ask questions, and avoid sounding demanding. Avoid emoticons, slang, exclamation points, ALL CAPS, and other informalities. Be sensitive to the recipient’s situation and relationship to you, and edit your email accordingly. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend, mentor or colleague to review and edit an email before you send one. If you don’t have an email mentor, I will happily fill that role. Email me any draft emails you’d like feedback on.
These are not hard and fast rules, and there are loads of places online that offer guidance (this list borrowed heavily from here). I do expect you to use emailing with me and with your labmates as an opportunity to practice good email etiquette.