Email is the best communication medium available. It’s highly efficient, allowing people to send replies on their own schedule, while also creating a permanent referenceable record and avoiding the pitfalls of interruptible conversations. But it’s necessary to abide by email best practices if you want to maximize email effectiveness and avoid wasting time.
In this article, I’ve compiled the most important email best practices every emailing professional should follow.
Table of Contents
- High-Level Email Best Practices
- Email Best Practices: Sending, Receiving, and Checking
- Email Best Practices: Email Subject Lines
- Email Best Practices: Body Content
- 17. Know your audience.
- 18. Start with a warm introduction.
- 19. Get to the point quickly.
- 20. Write more than one sentence.
- 21. Use numbered and bulleted lists when you can.
- 22. Use bold and italics to draw the eye.
- 23. Be judicious with your punctuation and formatting.
- 24. Add plenty of spacing.
- 25. Watch your tone.
- 26. Summarize long emails.
- 27. Assign action items clearly.
- 28. Avoid questionable appropriateness.
- 29. Close the email appropriately.
- 30. Learn keyboard shortcuts.
- 31. Warn recipients of abnormal attachments.
- 32. Get a second opinion.
- Email Best Practices: CC, BCC, and Forwarding
- 33. Use To and CC fields separately.
- 34. Don’t spam CC and BCC fields.
- 35. Avoid “copying up.”
- 36. Be careful with Reply All.
- 37. Check every field before sending.
- 38. Don’t forward entertainment messages or chain letters.
- 39. Acknowledge emails that were sent to you by mistake.
- 40. Review and edit the emails you’re forwarding.
- Email Thread Best Practices
- Email Inbox Organization Best Practices
- Bonus Tip: Analyze Your Email Usage
High-Level Email Best Practices
Let’s start with some high-level email best practices that can make you a better emailer. These are broad and somewhat vague, but you can use them in limitless ways. You’ll see the spirit of these tips manifest in most of the other tips that follow.
1. Be clear.
The clarity of your message will dictate the actions and messages that follow. Email is not the place to beat around the bush, or type a quick note with the hope that your recipient will “figure out the rest.” If there’s any room for misinterpretation or miscommunication, you’ll be relying on luck to achieve your goal. Instead, be as direct and specific as possible in your message.
2. Be concise.
That said, don’t write your recipients a novel when a sentence or two will suffice. You should aim to state things as simply and concisely as possible, and for several good reasons. First, it will take less time to write. Second, it will take less time to read. Third, and most importantly, it will force you to think critically about the point you truly want to get across; the more concise you are, the more focused your message will be.
3. Save yourself time.
You’re going to spend a lot of time on email, one way or another, so the more productive you are when using email, the better. If you can accomplish the same email goals in half the time, you’ll be able to put those extra hours toward work that generates more value for your business. Accordingly, many of the tips in subsequent sections are focused on helping you accomplish things more efficiently. Be sure to see our post on time management skills for more help in this area.
4. Be respectful.
Email isn’t a closed system. You send and receiving messages with hundreds, if not thousands of other people. Every action you take, every mistake you make, and every bit of extra effort you exert will affect those people. You need to be respectful of their time and of their values if you want to be successful.
5. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of email.
I prefer email over every other mode of professional communication, but it’s not without its weaknesses. Email isn’t the best medium for every conversation or professional need, but it’s ideal for certain situations. Part of becoming a better emailer is knowing the right time to email and knowing when to switch to something like a phone call.
Email Best Practices: Sending, Receiving, and Checking
Next, let’s turn our attention to the bulk of your email routine—sending, receiving, and checking your email.
6. Always proofread your emails.
Almost all of us have at least once been embarrassed by a major typo or missing piece of information in a message we sent in haste. The good news is that 90 percent of these mistakes could be prevented with a simple once-over before you hit send. The bad news is that developing this habit takes some time and effort. Build some mouse-click discipline and proofread your emails before sending them.
7. Use Undo Send as an insurance policy.
Sometimes, you’ll click send prematurely anyway—but thanks to Gmail, there’s a way to get a second chance. Head to the Settings menu in Gmail and scroll down the General tab. A few lines down, you’ll find the Undo Send option, which will give you a prompt to cancel a send within 5, 10, 20, or 30 seconds of your initial deployment. It’s a nice failsafe to limit your potential embarrassment. This is one of my favorite email best practices because it has saved me so many times when I accidentally sent an email before I meant to!
8. Turn off notifications (when appropriate).
If email isn’t the main part of your job, learn to turn off notifications when you can. You’re much more focused on your current task when you’re not hounded by notifications constantly. You’re even better at emailing, since you start reading and preparing messages when you’re ready, and not as a knee-jerk response to a noise or vibration. Definitely turn off notifications during heads-down work, and try to establish “available” and “away” periods for the sake of consistently.
9. Don’t constantly check your inbox.
It may not seem like much, but every time you open your inbox or glance at your current messages list, you lose a bit of time. Over the course of a day, that can seriously add up. It’s much better to close out your inbox and only open it when you’re ready to dedicate some time to messages.
10. Gauge your emotions before sending.
We’ve all drafted an emotional email or two, complaining about an injustice or snapping back at someone who emailed us with an attitude. But most of the time, you’re much better off sending an email with a neutral state of mind. If you’re stressed out, angry, or otherwise emotional, save your email draft and wait until you cool off. Double check it before sending, and adjust your tone to be more neutral and professional. You can’t take back a message after it’s sent.
11. Respond to emails quickly (but not immediately).
Most people greatly appreciate a quick response time, and the faster you respond, the faster the rest of the team can move forward. Accordingly, it’s important to respond to incoming messages within a business day, and within an hour if you can. That said, don’t feel pressured to respond within minutes; responding immediately will make you a less efficient worker, and could establish an expectation that you’re always ready to respond or engage in conversation.
12. Follow up respectfully.
Following up is crucial in many scenarios. If you don’t hear a response from a boss, a coworker, a client, or a prospect, a simple, polite follow-up message can help you get the results you need. However, there are a few best practices you’ll need to follow to make this work. For example, always wait a day (sometimes longer) before sending a follow-up, and don’t send more than a few follow-up messages in succession. Be respectful of the other person’s time and current priorities.
Email Best Practices: Email Subject Lines
We’ve written a few guides specifically about the importance of subject lines, so be sure you check them out if you want to dig deep into the mechanics of subject lines. In the meantime, these email best practices can help you improve email effectiveness through your subject lines:
13. Always include a subject line.
It’s tempting to fire off an email with no subject line if you’re emailing someone you’re personally close with or if your message is short, but it only takes a minute to add one. Subject lines are vital for organizing and tidying your inbox, as well as the inboxes of others.
14. Keep the subject line descriptive, but concise.
Every subject line you include should be descriptive and concise. A descriptive subject line will convey information about the content included in your message, and a concise one will ensure it doesn’t take up too much visual space.
15. Avoid exclamation points and other sources of “messiness.”
Your subject line should also be optimized for visual cleanliness. Including excessive punctuation, like multiple exclamation points, will make your subject line harder on the eyes—and in some cases, make it less likely to be opened in a reasonable timeframe. All caps, all lowercase letters, and subsections can also compromise the visual conciseness of your subject line.
16. Alter the subject line to reflect new changes.
Let’s say you send a message with the subject line: “Client A Onboarding,” and a week later, you need to inform a coworker that this client has withdrawn from the contract. The subject line “Client A Onboarding” is conceivably relevant, but it could cause confusion because of its similarity to the first subject. “Client A Departure” would be preferable.
Email Best Practices: Body Content
Earlier, I stressed the importance of being clear and concise, but how exactly are you supposed to do this? In this section, we’ll explore the email best practices that can make the core content of your message easier to understand (and faster to write).
17. Know your audience.
You wouldn’t talk to your boss the same way you would a close friend, so don’t write them emails in the same way. If you want to maximize email effectiveness, you need to speak directly to your intended audience. Sometimes, you’ll need to write more formally, and sometimes you’ll need to write more casually. Sometimes, you’ll need to adjust the terminology you use. This takes some practice and close attention, but it’s worth it to make your message land with the right impact.
18. Start with a warm introduction.
Always pick a solid introduction for your email. It’s a small and seemingly subtle choice, but it can have a measurable impact on how your message is received. Include the recipient’s name (instead of something like “to whom it may concern”), and choose a greeting that’s appropriate for this level of formality. For help, see our post on email greetings.
19. Get to the point quickly.
Conciseness and directness are two of the most important qualities of an effective email. People don’t want to waste time reading multiple sentences of fluff before discovering the purpose of your message. Unless you’re carrying on a friendly personal conversation, get to the point right away, and don’t be ambiguous about it.
20. Write more than one sentence.
Even though you should strive for conciseness, try to make your messages longer than a sentence. If your message is just “thanks!” or “sounds good,” it probably doesn’t need to be sent (unless you’re answering a question or responding to a requested prompt). Otherwise, your email could simply be a text message or instant message.
21. Use numbered and bulleted lists when you can.
Effective emails are easy on the eyes. They can be parsed quickly and at a high level, and are extremely easy to read. If your text is blocked in lengthy, messy paragraphs, people will find it hard to get through. Your message will be much better received if it’s neatly organized into numbered and bulleted lists. They aren’t always the best choice, but they’re perfect for grouping pieces of similar information.
22. Use bold and italics to draw the eye.
Similarly, you can use bold and italic formatting to call attention to certain elements of your message. For example, you might call out specific people whose attention you want, or identify action items that need to be accomplished in the body of your text.
23. Be judicious with your punctuation and formatting.
All your formatting and syntax choices should be optimized for understanding. If you want your message to be easily read and well received, you should employ the use of semicolons, colons, commas, and periods in a way that makes it readable. Instead of focusing on perfect use from a grammatical standpoint, focus on readability; do your punctuation marks lead to a better flow?
24. Add plenty of spacing.
You’ll also want to add plenty of spacing. Emails are easier and faster to read when you have a line break between paragraphs, and adequate spacing between your lines as well. It’s a simple change that doesn’t take much time, but could make your message much more effective.
25. Watch your tone.
Tone can be tricky to perfect over email, since you won’t have the benefit of body language or vocal inflection to help you out. Accordingly, you’ll need to pay extra attention to it. Be cautious when using sarcasm or dry humor, and always assume that someone could potentially misinterpret what you’re writing. One missed phrase could lead someone to misread your entire message.
26. Summarize long emails.
Occasionally, you’ll need to write a long email to someone, like if you’re assigning a new project or are bringing them up to speed on something complex. If this is the case, make sure you also include a secondary summary—a quick “TL;DR” version of your bigger message. In many cases, the best way to do this is with a bulleted list of next steps, or main points that you want to highlight.
27. Assign action items clearly.
If your message is partially intended to assign new tasks or action items, make sure you call these out clearly. Again, bulleted lists and/or bold formatting are your friends. You can also create a subsection of your email (usually at the end) with action items and takeaways for each person attached to the message. This will prevent confusion, and provide direction for the next chain of messages.
28. Avoid questionable appropriateness.
Any inappropriate content could instantly jeopardize the effectiveness of your email. There are opportunities where you can push the limits with a questionable joke, or a tongue-in-cheek reference, but email isn’t one of them. Over email, tone is too hard to discern and the medium is too permanent to exercise this safely. Always be more conservative than usual.
29. Close the email appropriately.
Just as you must choose a proper greeting to make your email more effective, you should choose a strong closer. These don’t have to be complex—usually a single word like “sincerely” or “cheers” will work fine. Just be sure to consider your options, and adjust for your audience when need be. For help, see our post on how to end a professional email.
30. Learn keyboard shortcuts.
Part of being an effective emailer is learning to write and send messages in less time—and one of the best ways to do this is to learn the dozens of built-in keyboard shortcuts in Gmail. You’ll save a few seconds here and a few seconds there, but over the course of months or years of email management, those will add up to hours of time savings—and more convenience along the way.
31. Warn recipients of abnormal attachments.
There are times when you’ll have to send attachments to your coworkers are clients, and most of the time, you won’t have to do anything special with them. However, if you’re sending a large number of attachments, or an attachment of abnormal size, it’s polite to warn your recipient; if they have a firewall or company filter that prevents such messages, they can help you find an alternative solution.
32. Get a second opinion.
Whenever you’re not sure about your message—like if you’re not sure about your tone, or if you’re stating your opinion clearly enough—feel free to get a second opinion. Chances are, there will be someone in your office more than willing to give you their perspective. Oftentimes, we have blind spots to our own strengths and weaknesses, but someone else can help you identify areas for potential improvement.
Email Best Practices: CC, BCC, and Forwarding
CC and BCC lines, as well as the forwarding option are great features—but they’re easy to misuse. Rely on these email best practices to maximize your effectiveness and abide by proper email etiquette:
33. Use To and CC fields separately.
Understand the difference between a “To” field and a “CC” field; both can contain multiple recipients, but if you simply add everyone to one or the other, it can become unclear what your intentions are. “To” recipients should be the primary people responsible for this message, and people from whom you expect a response. The “CC” field is just a courtesy, more than anything else. Don’t miss our in-depth post on what CC means and how to use it properly.
34. Don’t spam CC and BCC fields.
Because there’s no immediate cost to adding people to a CC or BCC field, you’ll be tempted to add many people to these lines. However, this can work against you; you’ll be increasing the complexity of any thread that forms from this initial message, and causing extra notifications for people who may not want them (and filling up their inboxes with irrelevant messages). For more, see our guide on how to use BCC for email properly.
35. Avoid “copying up.”
Copying up refers to the practice of CCing someone’s supervisor or boss in an effort to make them look bad, or to try and leverage the conversation to get your way. It’s generally seen as bad form. If you truly must talk to someone’s superior, do it in a separate message. Otherwise, your reputation is the one that might be hurt.
36. Be careful with Reply All.
Reply All is a great feature for keeping a cluster of people together on a shared thread, but it can also be dangerous. If you’re not careful, you could accidentally send a message to an unintended recipient, or you could keep people on a thread who want no part of it. Only use it if you’re confident you’re using it in a way that increases your message’s effectiveness.
37. Check every field before sending.
While you’re proofreading (in line with point 6), make sure you check every field of your email before you hit send. Are you sending this message to Alice Johnson or Alice Johnston? Have you CC’d all the right people? Did you happen to click Reply All by mistake? This is your chance to make correctios.
38. Don’t forward entertainment messages or chain letters.
Forwarding messages can be a valuable function, but not if you’re just forwarding chain letters and dumb jokes. If you forward these messages too often, you’re going to annoy the people in your office, and they might take your messages less seriously moving forward.
39. Acknowledge emails that were sent to you by mistake.
If and when you receive a message that clearly wasn’t intended for you, take the time to write a courtesy message to the sender. This will help them identify and email the correct party, and prevent the issue from recurring in the future. Plus, you’ll foster good karma that might help you if you’re ever in this unfortunate position.
40. Review and edit the emails you’re forwarding.
Whenever you’re forwarding someone else’s email, do yourself a favor and double check the content of the forwarded messages. Occasionally, you’ll find remnants of past threads or other messages you may not want your forwarded recipient to see. Feel free to make choice edits if necessary.
Email Thread Best Practices
Email threads are grouped messages about a single topic, usually with multiple senders and recipients attached. They can be a great way to keep an entire team organized, but they can also be easily mismanaged if you don’t follow these tips:
41. Keep your recipient list tight.
Generally speaking, the fewer recipients you have on a list, the better. Fewer recipients means fewer responses, and fewer notifications for each new message. With too many participants, any email thread can get out of hand fast.
42. Avoid tangents, and split when necessary.
With a group of people, it’s easy for the topic of conversation to drift to something only tangentially related. If and when this happens, try to get the conversation back on track, and recommend the drifting participants to split off to a thread of their own.
43. Make it clear who should respond and why.
In line with the “action item” tips we provided (in points 22 and 27), when starting a conversational thread, make it obvious who’s supposed to respond and what they’re supposed to respond with. For example, you could include a summary section where you call people out by name and ask them to reply to the thread with their thoughts, an attachment, or a piece of missing information. The clearer your directions are, the tighter and more effective your thread will be.
44. Switch to another medium if things get out of hand.
There’s a limit to the functionality of email threads; occasionally, your conversation will get so muddled or so complex that email begins to fail you. When this happens, don’t be afraid to switch to another medium, like a phone call or in-person meeting.
Email Inbox Organization Best Practices
You can lose a lot of time if your email inbox is messy or disorganized; you won’t be able to find the messages you need, and you could miss an important notification. These tips will help you stay efficiently organized, and focused on your top priorities:
45. Pick a system and stick to it.
Everyone has unique email preferences and habits, so there’s no single system that works for everyone. Instead, what’s important is that you’re consistent in your system of organization. When you come up with a way to sort, filter, and organize your messages, make sure you stick to it.
46. Delete unnecessary emails.
Nobody wants to deal with an inbox that has 100,000 messages in it. Spare yourself the misery by occasionally deleting your unnecessary emails; depending on your habits, this might be an as-you-go system, or a cleaning you do once a month.
47. Rely on labels, markers, and other forms of ID.
Gmail has tons of built-in features to help you stay organized, including labels, markers, stars, and other ways of identifying your emails. Come up with a system for how to use these, and start employing them consistently; you’ll be amazed how efficiently you can browse your inbox when everything’s color-coded to your liking.
48. Audit and clean your inbox regularly.
Additionally, you’ll want to go through your inbox and check your organization, adjusting it to keep it consistent. Relabel or resort any emails that don’t fit in with your intended style.
49. Establish the right categories.
Gmail allows you to set any or all of five discrete categories to group your emails outside of your Primary inbox, including emails from Social Media and emails that offer Promotions. Activate these, and Gmail will automatically filter out these messages so they aren’t constantly bogging down your primary work.
50. Snooze messages when appropriate.
“Snoozing” emails used to be an experimental feature in Gmail, but now it’s built into the default package. When snoozing, you’ll set an email to hit your inbox at a later time and/or date. It’s helpful if you want to keep your unread messages as action items, but a given message won’t be relevant for another week. At any time, you’ll be able to access all your currently snoozed messages—so don’t worry about losing any content.
51. Create automatic filters in Gmail.
In Gmail, you can also create automatic filters to sort, label, categorize, or distribute your incoming messages. Use the advanced search feature to set the parameters for your incoming messages, then use the filter feature to tell Gmail what to do with those messages when they come in. If employed properly, it can save you a ton of manual effort.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to organize your Gmail inbox, check out our dedicated guide on the subject!
Bonus Tip: Analyze Your Email Usage
Now that you have a thorough understanding of email best practices, I’ve got one more bonus tip for you, and it’s an important one: learn how to analyze your email habits. How can you expect to improve your areas of weakness if you don’t even know they exist?
That’s where EmailAnalytics comes in. EmailAnalytics is a robust analytics platform designed for Gmail; once integrated, you’ll be able to tinker with and review dozens of data visuals about your email habits (as well as the habits of your employees). From there, you can make a plan to improve your email effectiveness, and measure the results of your changes. Sign up for a free trial today, and learn how you can become a better emailer.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.