Bad writing habits have a way of piling up like household clutter. It’s worthwhile to periodically cull one’s accumulation of surplus coffee mugs and forgettable T-shirts, so why not take similar stock to rid your emails of a few clichés and deeply “meh” workplace expressions?
We should admit we’re guilty too: It turns out calling clichés “threadbare” is itself something of a cliché, so we deleted that. Indeed, your humble writer is not proud to think of the volume of utterly lifeless emails he’s mashed “send” on. We can all do better.
With that in mind, we’ve collected some of the more bland, stale, and otherwise generally substellar phrases you might decide to throw out as you spring-clean your emails—along with a few tidy, crisp alternatives.
1 I hope this email finds you well.
You might intend this in a caring way, but this phrase is so exhausted and generic that it now risks suggesting the opposite: less a thoughtful sentiment than just meaningless chaff.
It’s often best to strike this bit and skip to the point, but if you really want another line after your salutation, acknowledge the reader by speaking to them specifically:
I love your latest post on the blog.
I appreciated your presentation last week on lowering our servers’ carbon output.
The pictures you shared on Slack of your new puppy are adorable.
If you’re writing to someone you don’t know well, or at all, you might still compliment them or start with some hint about how you’re acquainted or why you’re reaching out:
We met briefly at a conference through our mutual friend, Arjun.
Two people have now told me you’d be the perfect guest for our podcast.
The goal is to show the reader that you put thought into what you were writing.
2 Just following up . . .
You might deploy this overworked phrase when nudging someone who hasn’t responded to an email. Sometimes that’s necessary, but this phrase too often falls flat in its goal of getting a response. So it’s worth first asking yourself: “Does my message require a reply?” If the answer is “yes,” then find a more direct option.
Suboptimal example 1: Just following up to see if there’s any interest in . . . [the press release, for example]
Suggestion: Honestly, we recommend cutting the line altogether.
Suboptimal example 2: Just following up to see if you have any input before we send this iteration on to the client.
Suggestion: The client expects something from us this afternoon, so I’d love to get any final tweaks by noon.
Note that the last suggestion manages to communicate more information—more compellingly—without being longer or less polite.
3 Just circling back . . .
All of the same issues as above, except more roundabout. You can do without it.
4 New normal
A nonexhaustive list of the reasons to retire this phrase might include that it’s overused and vague, it leaves no one typing or reading it feeling good, and that it purports to acknowledge an array of unpleasant realities while arguably minimizing them.
This might be one you simply toss and move on:
Suboptimal example: Our team is still adjusting to the new normal, and we need to retool our interview process accordingly.
Suggestion 1: It’s time to retool our interview process.
Another fine option is to be more specific and a teensy bit more human:
Suggestion 2: The pandemic wrecked our old interview process, so let’s take some time to develop a new one.
That feels much less like a computer wrote it than does the example we started with—and in fewer words.
5 As discussed . . .
This is commonly used when the email refers to a to-do after a meeting, but it tends to be vague. Ask yourself: “What’s a better way of reminding the reader what conversation I’m referring to?”
Suboptimal example: As discussed during Wednesday’s all-staff meeting, I’ve now drafted the attached guidelines.
Suggestion 1: Based on feedback from staff who want to bring dogs to the office, I’ve drafted some guidelines.
Suggestion 2: Always bring dogs to the office.
(That last one is a joke. Sort of.)
6 Sorry for the delay.
One benefit of email is that you can often wait until after your next meeting, or after lunch—or even until tomorrow—to respond. So how often do you really need to apologize for making use of that feature?
As with many of the other phrases above, it’s often OK to cut this idea without replacing it, but if you must use it, look for ways to make it new or distinct. Yours truly once apologized for forgetting a Friday afternoon email by paraphrasing the venerable Gandalf: Darkness took my response, and it “strayed out of thought and time.”
I managed to keep getting work from that editor anyway, so points for ingenuity, at least?
7 If not, no worries!
We want you to know it’s OK to ask for help at work or to communicate to the reader that you need to finish something before a deadline. It’s not being imperious; it’s just the truth.
Suboptimal example: Would it be possible to let me know if you’re interested today by 4 p.m.? If not, no worries!
Suggestion: My team is looking to finalize the panel lineup later today, so if you’re game, please let me know by 4 p.m.
It’s worth noting that the last suggestion takes up a bit more space. It’s allowed to. So are you.
8 I look forward to your reply.
What would it say about the email you’re writing if this weren’t true? This notion tends to be inessential and easily cut, but if you mean to underscore that you’d like a timely response, try drawing from the last example above, which gives both a reason and a specific time frame.
If you’ve noticed a theme with our suggestions here, it may be that many forms of email clutter are best simply removed, not replaced. After all, the point of spring-cleaning isn’t to upgrade stuff you never use, but to be rid of it. As with a tidy home, the same is true of tidy emails: Among the greatest luxuries is empty space.