I’ll be honest with you. I’m wearing pajamas right now.
Not exactly the professional look, is it?
But it doesn’t matter much. I work from home. Nobody sees me wearing pajamas. Nobody’s hearing me blast Led Zeppelin as I write this. And nobody can judge me on the multiple empty coffee mugs I still haven’t cleaned on my desk.
I should really clean those…
But that’s not my point. My point is, professionalism isn’t necessarily about who you are. It’s about how you present yourself. How you look to others.
If I were to jump on a video call, you can bet I’d take the time to put on a suit jacket, turn off the music, and put away the mugs. Why? Because I respect others and because I want to give the best possible image of myself.
So why wouldn’t you do something similar for the emails you send?
Proverbially, we’re going to clean the dirty mugs out of your email. We’re going to turn down the obnoxious music in your email. We’re going to slap a suit jacket on your email.
We’re going to make your email presentable. Professional.
In this guide, I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about how to write a professional email.
Yeah. Let’s do it!
Table of Contents
- 4 Scenarios When Your Email Needs to Be Professional
- The 8 Elements of a Professional Email Format
- How to Write a Professional Email: Other Things to Keep in Mind
- Your 6-Point Checklist for Proofreading a Professional Email
- How to Write a Professional Email: Additional Tips
4 Scenarios When Your Email Needs to Be Professional
Sure, not every email needs to be professional. You can send dumb memes to your buddies and tease your cousin about her questionable new eyebrow styling techniques—no professionalism required.
But there are certain situations where you really need to send a professional email.
1. Your audience expects professionalism
Your audience expects you to be professional. Simple, right? But it’s something you really have to think about sometimes.
Generally speaking, your boss, your clients, and your prospects all expect you to be professional. They don’t want dumb memes or eyebrow jokes. They want polish.
2. You’re trying to make a good impression
You’ll also need to be professional if you’re trying to make a good impression.
I know, but it needs to be said.
Are you trying to make this person like you? Are you trying to get hired? Do you want to start this relationship on a good note? Then write a professional email.
Occasionally, you’re going to be the bearer of bad news. Or you’ll need to strike up a conversation about something serious.
If that’s the case, you’ll want to leave the jokes, emojis, and memes at the door. It’s just good etiquette at that point.
4. You aren’t sure
Okay, here’s the most important situation: you don’t know.
You’re not sure if this should be a professional email or a more casual one.
Boy, tough decision, huh?
Not really. If you’re not sure, or if you’re trying hard to figure out whether this person can take a joke or not, the answer is clear.
Send a professional email. It’s much better to err on the side of being professional than to screw up and make yourself look like a jackass.
The 8 Elements of a Professional Email Format
I find it’s best to think of the format for a professional email as unfolding across several sections. How can you convey professionalism in each of these sections?
Let’s explore the 8 elements of a professional email format.
1. A relevant subject line
The subject line is probably the first thing your recipient is going to see, and boy is it important.
Your subject line has the power to set the stage for your email and give recipients an idea of what they should expect inside the email. It’s also a great opportunity to make a good first impression.
Rule one? Use a subject line. If you leave the subject line blank, you’re going to look unprofessional. Easy fix.
Rule two? Keep it concise. Just try to flatly explain the purpose of your message. Something like “Request for time off?” or “Following up on onboarding…” Don’t overthink it. As long as you keep it short and direct, you’ll be in good shape.
I’ve written a small handful of guides on subject lines, including this one on sales subject lines, so feel free to peruse them for some specific examples.
2. The right CC and BCC recipients
Your CC recipients will receive a copy of your message without being a direct recipient. They’ll also include copies of subsequent replies to the conversation.
The BCC recipients will also receive a copy, but they won’t be seen by other recipients and they won’t receive subsequent replies.
These are best used when you want to loop someone into a conversation, when you’re making an introduction, or when someone has specifically asked you to include them. Make sure to include them in the “To” field if you expect a response from them.
You should also avoid including someone unless truly necessary. Most people don’t want their inbox to be cluttered with random responses that aren’t relevant to them. Go figure.
Also, importantly, don’t use CC or BCC as a way to tattle on someone or rope in a superior when not necessary. It’s both unprofessional and uncool. Don’t be that guy.
3. A concise greeting.
Next, the greeting. Along with the closing, this is probably the most important part of understanding how to write a professional email.
For the most part, you can follow common sense here. Trust your instincts and don’t overcomplicate it.
Definitely do include an email greeting. Going straight into a message with no headline is not professional.
You also don’t want to include something overly casual or poorly thought-out. For example, you don’t want to lead in with something like, “Hey dude!” Instead, something like “Dear Mr. Blank,” or “Hello Kyle” will suffice.
See this list of top email greetings for help.
4. The right name (and honorifics).
Here’s a pro tip for how to write a professional email you won’t hear anywhere else: make sure you have the name right. Okay, maybe that’s obvious. But seriously, if you misspell someone’s name or, God forbid, call them the wrong name, you can kiss your chances of getting hired or landing the sale goodbye.
Additionally, you should probably use honorifics if you can. Calling someone by their first name is permissible if they’ve introduced themselves as such or if you’re confident in the move. Otherwise, it’s a nice demonstration of politeness and professionalism to use a “Mr.” or “Ms.,” or whatever else is relevant.
This is pretty hard to screw up if you’re paying attention.
If you’re concerned with how to structure the chapters of the essay you’ve written in a professional email, you’ve made a wrong turn. Professional emails don’t need segmentation into chapters because they’re very concise.
If you need to convey a lot of information, maybe email isn’t the best format. You can put together a PDF, a presentation, or a Word document to better articulate your thoughts.
Otherwise, your email should be short and sweet.
Let’s kick up that idea with twin features of a perfectly formatted professional email: scannability and readability. These things go hand in hand.
Readability is all about ensuring that your text is easy to read. That means you should use a common font (the default is usually fine). You should choose a readable font size. And you should also include space between your sentences and paragraph whenever possible.
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See how much more readable this is?
You can also improve readability by using bold and italics to emphasize your key points, or to distinguish important information from unimportant information.
Scannability is all about structuring your email in a way that can be easily scanned. Much of this is dependent on your ability to follow the advice dispensed above.
However, you should also make your email more scannable by improving the structure of your content. The easiest tip here is to make use of bulleted lists and/or numbered lists. It’s much easier to pick out key bits of information when presented in this format.
7. A conclusion/closing statement.
Now it’s time to bring your beautiful, professional email to a graceful close.
It’s ideal to include a concluding statement of some kind, especially if you’ve given a significant volume of information in the body of your message. For example, you can wrap things up with something like, “I hope to hear your feedback on this soon,” or “Please let me know a time when you’re available to meet,” or “Please get this back to me by Monday if you can.”
Additionally, if you’re sending an email to multiple recipients, this is a good opportunity to clarify who’s responsible for what. Use something like “Meg, please get started on the draft. Laurie, please reach out to Client A and see what they think.”
This will clear up any ambiguities left by your message. Make sure there’s no doubt about the nature or purpose of your email. It’s your last chance.
At that point, you’ll be ready to tie things up with a closing, like “Sincerely,” or “Thanks in advance.” Again, you don’t need to overcomplicate this; speak formally, without using casual colloquialisms or cheeky expressions.
For more help, see How to End a Professional Email to Leave the Best Impression.
8. A courteous signature.
Finally, you’ll need to include a professional signature. This is your opportunity to give your name and contact information to your recipient (though they should have your email address already).
There isn’t much good advice to dispense here, other than to make sure you include a clean, concise email signature that contains all the relevant information.
If you want some further advice on how to devise the right email signature and include it in Gmail, make sure to check out our full guide on email signatures here. Head to your Gmail settings to update your signature.
This is one of the most overlooked elements of how to write a professional email. It’s the final, lasting impression of your email, so make it count!
How to Write a Professional Email: Other Things to Keep in Mind
That’s how to write a professional email, along with professional email formatting in a nutshell.
But that’s not everything there is to know about writing professional emails.
Aside from formatting, you should consider the following, at minimum:
If you heed no other advice in this article, heed this: proofread your email.
You have no idea how much professionalism you’ll undo if you leave a simple spelling mistake, or an obvious, glaring error in the middle of your work.
Your message should be grammatically and syntactically correct, at least as much as you can manage. This should be pretty easy these days, given that Gmail and most other mail platforms have built-in tools to make recommendations when you fudge something. But at the same time, I still receive emails—on a daily basis—with egregious mistakes in them.
I’m not a grammar snob, so I don’t care too much. But for some others out there—this could be the kind of thing to send you to the bottom of the job applicant pile. Don’t risk it. Proofreading only takes a minute.
Good professional emails are to-the-point. They don’t waste time beating around the bush or striving for small talk.
If you’re meeting someone for the first time or beginning a roundtable discussion, it’s often beneficial to lighten the mood with some conversation. Ask people how they’re doing. Talk about weather, sports, or other points of mutual interest. Tell a joke or two. It’s great.
But in professional email, nobody wants to see a message like: “Hey! How are you? I am fine. Carol ruined another batch of Snickerdoodles last night, and she was so disappointed. I keep telling her that oven’s on the fritz. But anywho…”
Likewise, no one wants to scour your message for a hidden meaning. Instead of “Hi Boss, I was wondering what our day was looking like tomorrow? Do you know if Tony is going to be in? Just trying to see how things are shaping up…” be more direct with, “Hi Boss, I would like to take tomorrow off to take care of a personal matter. Do you foresee any issues?”
Your emails should also be polite. But you knew that, right?
Use basic manners like saying please and thank you. Be respectful of people’s time. Don’t swear or use questionable language or phrasing. Try to be as amicable as possible without being over the top.
And by the way, this is especially important in customer service.
Your 6-Point Checklist for Proofreading a Professional Email
You ready for the most important tip?
For the love of all that is holy, proofread your emails. It’s arguably the most important step of writing a professional email.
A single error can instantly make you look unpolished, uncaring, and (you guessed it) unprofessional. There’s no excuse for letting one slip through.
Take a minute before you send the email and check for:
- Spelling errors. Spelling errors are ridiculously easy to prevent. Especially if your email platform checks your work for you and underlines all the mistakes for you. Still, check every word to make sure you’ve spelled it right.
- Grammatical issues. You don’t need perfect grammar to look professional. But you should at least make your sentences readable. Check with a grammar nerd friend of yours if you’re not sure about something.
- Lack of clarity. Sometimes, sentences make perfect sense in your head. But on paper, they’re hard to understand. Re-read your email and make sure every statement you make is clear.
- Names and recipients. Have you ever called someone by the wrong name? That’s a big oof. Make sure you’ve spelled every name correctly and you’re sending the email to the right people. Don’t mistakenly send an email to Mark from your psychedelic rock band instead of Mark from accounting.
- Tone. Tone in email is sometimes hard to interpret. Are you sure your email doesn’t come off as harsh or rude? Read the email aloud as a test. Is there any way someone could think you’re a jerk for writing this? Contrary to popular belief, jerks don’t easily get ahead.
- Attachments. Did you include the attachment? DID YOU?
How to Write a Professional Email: Additional Tips
Okay, last thing.
If you send professional emails regularly, there are some bonus tips that can help you out!
Enable “undo send.”
Pobody’s nerfect. Every once in a while, you might accidentally hit send on an email you haven’t proofread.
(horror movie noises)
Don’t let this happen to you. Put a backup plan in place. Go to the Settings menu in Google right now and make sure you have “Undo Send” enabled. Better yet, set the cancellation period to the maximum of 30 seconds.
From then on, if you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, you’ll have 30 full seconds to click “Undo” and recover the email before it’s sent out.
Schedule your email.
Email timing is important. Sending bad news or an unfortunate acknowledgment at the wrong time could ruin someone’s day (or put you in a bad position).
Get better timing by scheduling your email in advance. There are many third-party tools that can help you do this.
Set follow-up reminders.
Being professional isn’t just about sending emails. It’s also about following up on those emails. People get busy. People get overwhelmed. And sometimes, people get lazy.
In all these situations, you won’t get a response right away. So set a reminder for yourself to follow up in a business day or two. You can enable Gmail reminders within the Gmail settings area.
Well, now you know how to write a professional email.
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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.