A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email

Revision 2.0 -- Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

See the list of alternate sites if this site is slow for you. There are also translations into German,French, Indonesian and Chinese (Simplified and Traditional). (The Chinese versions have gone down, alas.)

You might also be interested in Finding Email Addresses or one of the books in my Overcome Email Overload series.


I believe strongly in the value of electronic mail in both corporate and personal domains. Email is cheaper and faster than a letter, less intrusive than a phone call, less hassle than a FAX. Using email, differences in location and time zone are less of an obstacle to communication. There is also evidence that email leads to a more egalitarian information structure.

Because of these advantages, email use is exploding. By 1998, 30% of adults in the United States and Canada had come on-line (according to a site that, by 2008, is no longer around, alas). A 2007 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey found that 73% of U.S. adults connect to the Internet regularly. Almost all of those use electronic mail.

Sadly, in the twenty-plus years that I have been using email, I have seen a large number of people suffer mishaps because they did not understand how to adjust their communication styles to this new medium. I wrote this document to try to help people avoid those problems.

This is not a document on the mechanics of sending email - which buttons to push or how to attach a photograph. Those details are different for every different email software package, and are better handled by manuals for the program. I instead focus on the content of an email message: how to say what you need to say. I don't think of this as email etiquette (commonly called netiquette) because I don't think these guidelines merely show you how to be a nice person. These guidelines show you how to be more efficient, clear, and effective.

This is not dogma. There will be people who disagree with me on specific points. But, if there was only one right answer, there wouldn't be a need to write this guide. Hopefully, this guide will make you examine your assumptions about email and thus help you maximize your email effectiveness. Then you can write to reflect your own personality and choice.

What Makes Email Different?

Electronic communication, because of its speed and broadcasting ability, is fundamentally different from paper-based communication. Because the turnaround time can be so fast, email is more conversational than traditional paper-based media.

In a paper document, it is absolutely essential to make everything completely clear and unambiguous because your audience may not have a chance to ask for clarification. With email documents, your recipient can ask questions immediately. Email thus tends, like conversational speech, to be sloppier than communications on paper.

This is not always bad. It makes little sense to slave over a message for hours, making sure that your spelling is faultless, your words eloquent, and your grammar beyond reproach, if the point of the message is to tell your co-worker that you are ready to go to lunch.

However, your correspondent also won't have normal status cues such as dress, diction, or dialect, so may make assumptions based on your name, address, and - above all - facility with language. You need to be aware of when you can be sloppy and when you have to be meticulous.

Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm is particularly dangerous to use in email.

Another difference between email and older media is that what the sender sees when composing a message might not look like what the reader sees. Your vocal cords make sound waves that are perceived basically the same by both your ears as your audience's. The paper that you write your love note on is the same paper that the object of your affection sees. But with email, the software and hardware that you use for composing, sending, storing, downloading, and reading may be completely different from what your correspondent uses. Your message's visual qualities may be quite different by the time it gets to someone else's screen.

Thus your email compositions should be different from both your paper compositions and your speech. I wrote this document to show you how to tailor your message to this new medium.

Go on to Context

You can send correspondence to ducky at webfoot.com but be advised that

  1. I get a lot of email.
  2. I don't get paid for this.
  3. I probably don't know the details of your particular email software.

Created 10 Dec 1994
Modified 30 Dec 1995: added introduction, shareware note, jargon link
Added mirror sites 3 Feb 1995
Added link to Business Netiquette International 28 Jun 96
Modified 29 Dec 1997: Removed the term "mirror site", after a new user pointed out that new users probably don't know what that means. Also removed the invitation to write me, as I was getting overwhelmed by email.
Modified 20 Oct 1998: Moved the mirror sites to a separate page. Removed the "shareweb" note, since almost nobody sent any money. Put cautionary note on my email address.
Modified 22 Oct 1998: Moved the bibliography to a separate page.
Modified 28 Oct 1998: Moved the copyright notice to a separate page.
Modified 30 Oct 1998: Minor tweaks to add new pages on status, formality, format, and domain names. Tweaked 7 Dec 1998
Removed redundant "post" 8 Dec 1999
Fixed typo 24 Feb 2000
Beautified slightly 23 May 2001
Took out a link to a site that had gone down; added information from the 2007 Pew Internet Life survey.

Please see the copyright notice.