There is a reason e-mail is the leading communication tool for business. Nearly everyone appreciates it for its efficiency and immediacy and even for its casual tone. For recent graduates accustomed to the shorthand of Facebook, text messaging and tweets, that means adapting relaxed writing styles to workplace e-mail may come naturally.
But it is important to remember that business writing is business writing – even in e-mail.
All too often, the breeziness of casual notes to friends drifts right over into business e-mails. And that can leave the wrong impression. Consider this excerpt from an article by Sarah E. Needleman that appeared in The Wall Street Journal last summer:
After interviewing a college student in June, Tory Johnson thought she had found the qualified and enthusiastic intern she craved for her small recruiting firm. Then she received the candidate’s thank-you note, laced with words like “hiya” and “thanx,” along with three exclamation points and a smiley-face emoticon.“That e-mail just ruined it for me,” says Johnson, president of New York-based Women For Hire Inc. “This looks like a text message.”
In the PR industry, where good writing is a valuable skill, how you communicate in e-mail is even more likely to be noticed. Just as improper spelling and lack of punctuation may be seen as representative of overall writing ability and professionalism, well-written e-mails can convey that you have what it takes to be a professional communicator. So, whether you’re looking for a job or have recently started one, here are some tips for keeping your business e-mails polished:
1. Use a comma after “Hi” or “Hello” in your greeting. Omitting the comma after the initial greeting in an e-mail (such as “Hi Calmetta”) is so commonplace that it may eventually become standard usage. Until that happens, though, leaving out the comma can send the message right off the bat that the writer does not understand punctuation rules. And that’s the wrong message to send when you’re not sure whether a boss or potential employer is a stickler on writing rules.
Here is the general guideline: Use commas to set off the name of a person written to in a direct address. (Example: Hi, John.) Note that this greeting is different from “Dear John,” which is often used in writing letters. “Dear John” doesn’t require a comma because “dear” is an adjective – adding a single-word description to the name of the person you are addressing. However, both “Dear John” and “Hi, John” require punctuation after John to set off the name at the beginning of a letter or e-mail. For “Dear John,” use a comma; after “Hi, John,” use either a period or a dash.
2. Capitalize appropriately. One of the best features of e-mail is speed. Sometimes we’re typing so fast that we don’t take the time to capitalize even our own names. In personal e-mails, that’s OK. But when it comes to business communication, we should all be more conscious. Slow down to capitalize the first letter of each sentence as well as proper nouns.
3. Use paragraphs. Reading a message that is one continuous string of text can be exhausting. And if you’re reading it on BlackBerry or another mobile device, it can even be confusing to sort out one subject from the next. Separate different topics in an e-mail by beginning a new paragraph – just as you would in, say, a cover letter.
4. Avoid too-casual closings. Ending messages with a standard sign-off such as “See ya” or “Later” can add a touch of your personality when communicating with friends, but play it safer in business e-mails. Opt for a standard complimentary closing such as “Sincerely,” “Respectfully” or “Thanks in advance.” And remember to use a comma after the closing before adding your name on the next line.
5. Spell check. As a director of editorial services for a communications company, one of my worst fears is that I will send a client an e-mail with a misspelled word in it. As professionals in the communications industry – and even more so as job applicants and new hires – we should all be a little anal about this. If you’re writing an e-mail on your computer, use the spell check function and proofread your e-mail for words that spell check might miss. If spell check isn’t available, read your full message with an eye for spelling before sending it.
These tips are just a few basics for writing business e-mails. Beyond these, the most important thing to remember is to be professional. Write messages in a way that you wouldn’t be embarrassed if they were forwarded along to your company’s CEO or to someone who hires freelance writers. Either scenario could easily happen.
(Calmetta Coleman was a Wall Street Journal reporter before working in media relations at JPMorgan Chase. She now is Senior Vice President and heads editorial services at Ketchum.)