Pick a writing resource—any writing resource. Your favorite business writing blog will do, as will a copy of Strunk and White or any other style manual. You can even pick a textbook used for a college writing class. Take a good, long look through whatever resource you chose, and you’ll find the word “clarity” or “clear” somewhere within it, probably in bold or italic. Clarity is critical in any kind of writing, from fiction to business reports. But we shouldn’t forget how important it is in email communication.
Now, imagine an international team of people with varying levels of English language proficiency, using emails to work together on a project. Members of the team might have a hard time communicating with each other as it is, and if they don’t do their best to keep their email writing clear, mistakes are bound to happen because of a lack of understanding. But it’s not that hard to improve the clarity of writing in emails. All it takes are a few simple steps.
1 Limit the number of topics the email addresses
Ideally, each email should address only one issue. Emails that address multiple issues are often too long and too complicated. If the recipient can’t immediately address all of the issues you brought up, he might put off responding to any of them until later. You will often read advice to keep business emails five sentences long at most. That might not always be possible, but it does speak to the importance of being economical with the number of words or sentences you’re using and the number of topics you want to mention in the email.
2 Use formatting and structure to add clarity
We can’t always write emails using only five sentences. Sometimes it might be better to bundle a couple of related topics in a single email instead of sending out one short email after another. In those cases, structuring and formatting the email correctly will go a long way in making your writing clear. Using bullet points or numbering to clearly separate topics is one way of doing it. Writing short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs is another.
3 Write using simple and effective language
One thing that should never find its way into the email correspondence of an international team is jargon, except industry-specific jargon that everyone on the team understands. Using active voice whenever possible is common writing advice, and it can be useful for email writing. Be concise and use simple words. Whenever possible, use the “if-then” structure to discuss possible outcomes, and state clearly what you expect as the result of the email.
4 Make full use of the subject line
Subject lines are usually compared to newspaper headlines. They need to reflect the body of the message in a clear and informative way. They’re not the place to write the whole email, but there’s also no need to keep them to only one word. Use the subject line to clearly indicate what the topic of the email is. So, if you’re sending a report to your coworkers by email, writing “April sales projection report” as the subject line would be better than writing only “report.”
5 Review before sending
You should have a mental checklist of things you should pay particular attention to when proofreading for clarity. Pronoun references can get messy, so you should probably check them. Multiple negatives can be confusing. Writing too many nouns one after another is a sure way to make your writing unclear. Writing lists without using parallel construction is another mistake you should watch out for. If you implement all the advice from this article in your writing, you will only need a minute or two to review your emails. It’s always a good idea to take that minute and proofread, even if you’re entirely sure you did everything right on the first try.