When it comes to writing business letters, there are books, templates, and guidelines galore. Work emails, on the other hand, are a whole new game, relatively speaking. The rules aren’t nearly as rigid, and, in many ways, they’re still being defined.
While emails lend themselves to a more casual tone than formal business letters, you do still want to keep your communication professional. This murky middle ground is sometimes difficult to maneuver through. While much of it depends on your individual workplace culture, there are some clear dos and don’ts when it comes to writing work emails. Let’s take a look at some of them.
What not to write to your boss (bigwigs) at your company
An overdone subject line
Like an overeager kid in the classroom who just can’t stop waving their hands in the air and shouting, “me, me, me!” a subject line in all caps and with superfluous punctuation is too much except in extremely urgent situations. (And even then, think twice.) Instead, make sure it’s clear and concise, so they know what the message is about, and they can find it easily later if they need to refer back to it.
Don’t: UPCOMING CLIENT MEETING?!
Do: Question Re: Upcoming Client Meeting
Within the body of the text, avoid using emojis. They’re simply not professional. When trying to evoke emotion, go back to good old-fashioned words.
Don’t: Ugh, this project! 😡 I’m going to turn things around though! 😀
Do: This project has been a bit frustrating for me, but I have a plan that will turn things around.
Just don’t use just
If we had to pick just one word to avoid when corresponding with your boss, we’d have to go with just. It’s OK as an adjective, meaning “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness” or an adverb to explain that something just happened, but as a qualifier, skip it at all costs. It makes you sound timid, hesitant, and unsure, and it’s just unnecessary.
Don’t: I just don’t think this is the right direction for this campaign.
Do: I don’t think this is the right direction for this campaign.
Hopefully you’ll stop using hopefully
Hope is a wonderful thing, but when it comes to work, you need to come off as confident that you will get things done, not hopeful that you might.
Don’t: Hopefully we will blow them away with our presentation tomorrow.
Do: We are going to blow them away with our presentation tomorrow.
What not to write to your coworkers
Slang or overly casual words
As chummy as you may be with your cohorts over lunch and Friday happy hour after the workweek is done, you still don’t want to get too informal when it comes to work emails. You never know when your email might be forwarded on to others, and you don’t want to come off as unprofessional.
Don’t: Yo Joe, sup? Friday night was dope. Let’s rendezvous to chat about the mtg.
Do: Hi Joe, let’s get together before our meeting to sync up our thoughts.
ASAP isn’t clear
If you need something from a fellow employee, telling them you need it ASAP isn’t clear. Instead, provide a clear-cut deadline, so they can meet it.
Don’t: I need your notes from the meeting ASAP.
Do: I need your notes from the meeting by 3 p.m. today.
What not to write to your employees
When it comes to people who report to you, you want to follow all the rules above, but there are some additional keywords you should avoid as well, including the following:
Need is too needy
Telling an employee you need them to do something feels a bit, well, needy and demanding. You can still be direct, but there are better ways to dole out tasks.
Don’t: I need you to call everyone on this list by Friday.
Do: Please call everyone on this list by Friday.
Fine isn’t fine
When it comes to dining and wine, fine is an obviously good thing, but beyond that, it’s a pretty meh term. You want to be direct with your employees so they know what you expect and how they can gauge their performance. Fine is nebulous at best.
Don’t: Your presentation today was fine.
Do: You did a good job presenting today, though I would like you to include a little more research up front next time.
What not to write to a prospective employer
When you’re applying for jobs, you want to come off as confident and sure of your abilities. Avoid all the words and phrases listed above as well as the following:
Unless you’re apologizing for something you said or did that you’re sorry about, don’t say, “I’m sorry.” For example, if you’re following up after an interview, you have nothing to be sorry for.
Don’t: I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m just wondering if you’ve decided yet about the position.
Do: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me last week. I’m following up to see if you have decided yet about the position.
If you think it, say it, you don’t need to tell them you think it. Again, it takes away from the direct, confident vibe you want to convey.
Don’t: I think my abilities and experience will help me excel in this role.
Do: With my abilities and experiences, I will excel in this role.
As for greetings and closings
For everyday emails with your boss, coworkers, and employers, you don’t need to address them each time with overly formal greetings and closings like Dear X and Sincerely, Y. Instead, Hi, X and Thanks, Y are usually fine.
For emails to a prospective employer, you want to be a bit more formal, with something along the lines of Dear X and Regards, Y, but you should stay away from vague greetings such as To Whom It May Concern or outdated closings like Sincerely, Y.
For all business emails, the following are big don’ts and should be deleted immediately if they creep into your copy:
- Hey there!
- To (name),
- Hi (misspelled name),
- Hi guys, (Avoid gendered language)
- See ya,
Work emails can be a great way to communicate, but you want to make sure they communicate the right things about you too.
Before you hit send, give your emails a once-over to make sure they’ll help you get ahead, instead of leading others to question your level of professionalism.