Guide for Writing and Managing Email at Work

Make writing and managing email easier and more efficient

Get faster responses and control your inbox with these 5 hacks

The ability to write and manage email is a major factor in how productive you can be each day. Statistics show that people receive more than 100 emails each day, not counting the ones you already have read and completed that are just hanging around in your inbox — like party goers who refuse to leave. Every time you open your inbox, you have to look at them. Over and over and over…

Here are 5 ways of taking charge so you can write and manage emails that get results.

1. Write to Get the Email Open

When a bookstore displays books on a shelf, most are placed spine out. The spine is designed to get people to take the book off the shelf. The possibility of their buying it goes up when they start interacting with it.

When you open your inbox, what do you see?

Subject lines.

They are the spine of your emails and need to be written in a way that gets the email open — in 60 characters or less.

A successful subject line sets the reader’s expectation about the content of the email and gives them a reason for opening and reading it. Think of it as an invitation and a promise: If they open and read, they get something they want. It answers the marketing question, What’s in It for Me?

This means that you must decide the relevance of the email to the reader. Relevance means that the reader will find the information useful in some way. The more enticing the subject line, the more likely it will be open. However, the body of the email must deliver on the promise.

Use Keywords

You also can use the subject line to tell the reader that they need to take an action. You do this by using a keyword. The email keyword is the first one or two words of the subject line that communicates the action you want the reader to take.

For example:

  • Review by [date]: [Name of document]
  • Approval needed by [date]: [What is to be approved}
  • Deadline [date]: [What’s due on that date]
  • Decision by [date]: [The decision you want them to make]
  • Update: [What is being updated]
  • Reminder: [What you are reminding them]

Never use “Urgent” in a subject line; if it’s truly urgent, state the urgency and precede the email with a heads-up phone call or text.

You also can use keywords for project management by creating an abbreviation for the project name and having the project team start all emails with the abbreviation. By setting up a rule or filter, you can have all project-related emails sent to a dedicated inbox.

2. Write Emails from the Top Down

More than 50% of us are reading email and other electronic documents on portable devices. You want to put the most important information above the fold — what someone sees when they open an email or other document.

If you are using an iPad or large-format tablet, you see a lot. On a smartphone, you see less. Then there are watches…

Also factor in how people read on electronic devices. Most people will scroll once. Some people will scroll twice. Few people keep scrolling.

You must get to the point above the fold.

Before writing an email, decide the most important point you want the reader to know and remember since most people will not read to the end. When you start with the important information, they can stop anywhere in the email and not miss what they need to know.

This is the journalism inverted pyramid: most important to least important.

Make sure you proofread before sending. See 5 Common Writing Mistakes that Kill Your Credibility

3. Use the Right Tone

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Credit: geralt @pixabay

Have you ever read an email and felt as if you were slapped across the face?

Tone is what you hear when you read as you sound out words in your head. It affects the emotional response the reader has when they open and read the email.

You can control tone by:

  • Use the right pronouns. First person singular pronouns (I, me, mine) communicate personal responsibility. They represent you, the writer. First person plural pronouns (we, our, us) show accountability and authority. They represent your department, business, or company. Second person pronouns (you, your) are used for communicating good news and avoided as much as possible for bad news. Third person pronouns (he, she, it) create a neutral tone.
  • Soften the tone with longer sentences and passive voice and firm it with shorter sentences and active voice.
  • Never bark orders. Make polite requests and show courtesy. Please, thank you, would you, could you…all contribute to a more pleasing tone and are more likely to get results.

4. Use Formatting to Improve Readability

No one wants to read a solid block of words. While you may have limited options for formatting, you can break up copy with paragraph breaks. Generally, keep your paragraphs between three and seven sentences long, so they look easier to read.

If an email is going to a customer or vendor, make it look like a letter with a salutation: Dear [the person’s title] and their last name. When an email looks like a snail-mail letter on stationery, the more seriously the reader approaches the content.

5. Manage Your Email Inbox

Email clutter refers to completed emails that remain in your inbox instead of being filed or trashed. Like paper clutter, email clutter can be emotionally draining and contribute to delays, frustration, and stress.

Maybe you have hundreds of completed emails — or even thousands. Just the thought of sorting through all of it is overwhelming.

You don’t have the time or desire to do it. So they stay and grow and grow as more and more are added to the clutter.

What if there was a way to get rid of that clutter with just two simple steps? Would you do it?

Magically Vanish Email Clutter
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Credit: 47301 @pisabay

The key is to get email clutter out of your inbox — and not add to it!

  • Set up a new folder in your inbox and label it: Pre-[today’s date].
  • Move completed emails from your inbox into this folder.

Voila! Old Emails Gone!

Let’s face it. Be honest. You probably will never have to open this folder again. However, if you want to organize it, open it when you have time. Either move emails you want to keep to more permanent, labeled file folders or trash them.

Tackle What’s Left

Now you can tackle what’s left — the unread or unfinished emails still in the inbox. This process is based on Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Open email one at a time and do the following with each one:

  • Do it. Take whatever action is needed to complete the email, then file it in a properly labeled folder or dump it in the trash.
  • Delegate it or pass it to someone who should handle it.
  • Trash it if no action is needed, and you don’t have to keep it or read it.
  • Diary it if you cannot complete it now.


It’s not what you think.

Dear Diary

A diary is a follow-up system that allows you to find email later when you need it while getting it out of your inbox now. (David Allen calls it “pending.”

You can use any system that works for your business. The objective is to move incomplete emails out of the inbox without losing track of them.

The simplest diary system is based on the weeks of the month.

  • Set up diary folders — Use four folders labeled for each week of the month: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, and Week 4.
  • If you cannot complete an email, and it requires follow up, file it in the folder for the week you want to review it
  • On Monday each week, open the appropriate folder and review the emails inside. Take whatever action is needed.
  • If this completes the email, file away or trash it.
  • If this email needs additional follow up, re-diary it and place it in the folder for the week that you want to review it again.

You can follow this same system with new, incoming emails: Do it, Delegate it, File it, Trash it, or Diary it.

Write and Manage Email for Results

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to create emails that work. Keep these tips in mind to increase the odds of your emails moving to the top of your reader’s inbox.

When you write emails that people want to read, you get the results you need, and you gain a reputation for being someone who doesn’t waste people’s time and who gets to the main point quickly.

By clearing email clutter and keeping your inbox under control, you will feel less stress and will be more productive. Sorting and responding to incoming emails will go faster, and you will gain a sense of satisfaction of having a streamlined inbox.

Additional Resources

For an excellent article, check out The Most Popular Productivity Pieces of Wisdom from David Allen by The Mission.

For my e-course on being more productive and effective, see this blog post Ramp Up Your Effectiveness.

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