A third of student emails make me cringe. Not from scorn (well, maybe a little scorn) but mainly sympathy. Distressing sympathy.
Here are 12 pieces of advice. I welcome others from readers. (Examples of terrible emails are welcome, so long as the sender is anonymous.)
1. Kick the email address from high school
It’s time for “firstname.lastname@example.org” and “email@example.com” to rest in peace.
2. Greet, Politely
Launching straight into the message is bad, but “Hi!” is poor form and “Hey Prof!” is an unmitigated disaster. “Dear” and “Hi” are fine, so long as you follow both by a name or title: “Hi Professor” or “Hi Mr. ____”.
3. On second thought, be careful with the Mr. and Ms.
I could care less if strangers address me as Mr., Dr. or Prof. Blattman. Few of my colleagues seem to feel the same way. Sadly your approach must conform to the average (or even greatest common) ego. If you’re not sure if the person is a Dr. or not, three seconds on Google should tell you.
4. Capitalize and punctuate
otherwise we will lol at yr sad attempts
5. But not all punctuation
Of the exclamation point, Elmore Leonard said “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” That’s roughly one exclamation point for every 500 messages you send. Use them wisely, for their overuse is the first sign of an immature mind. (Related, from Terry Pratchett: “Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.”)
6. Death to the emoticon
Keep them for your friends. And recall that, for centuries of the printed word, writers managed to convey sarcastic and funny without the semicolon and parenthesis. If you think your comment needs an emoticon, this is a sign you need to rewrite (or delete) the remark.
7. Avoid fancy typefaces or “stationery”
One word: cheeseball.
8. Be clear and concise
Write short messages, make clear requests, get to your point rapidly, and offer to provide more information rather than launch into your life story. Most of us get over 200 emails a day we need to read and respond to. So say what you need in 2-4 sentences and ideally ask for simple answers (like yes or no).
9. Don’t ask for information before you’ve looked on Google
“Can you send me paper X?” is annoying. But the best I’ve received: a request to explain the Cold War.
10. Don’t sound presumptuous
Many people are busy and important (and everybody thinks they are). If you are asking for anything requiring time or energy, it is courteous to be demure.
11. No quotes from famous people in your signature
See “cheeseball” above.
12. With your juniors, do the above as fastidiously as with your seniors
Allow me, momentarily, to break rule #11: “Modesty is not only an ornament, but also a guard to virtue” — Joseph Addison