Most of us in the business world use emails as the main, and in some cases the only, means of written communication. For many students studying Business English and practising their business email writing skills is an important part of their course.
While most of us are happy to write informal emails to friends that might have grammatical mistakes in them, the same is not true when writing to colleagues and clients with whom we want to make a good impression.
Or where we need to be a bit more careful or more diplomatic than usual.
So, how can you ensure that your email writing skills are up to standard? Here are some general tips I’d like to share with you:
1. Subject Line
Always have a subject line that summarises briefly and clearly the contents of the message (example: Re: Summary of Our Meeting with ABC Suppliers).
2. Simplified Sentences
Don’t make your email look overcrowded by trying to use too many technical terms or long words. It is good to use complex and compound-complex sentences, but ensure that they are easy to understand.
The most common mistake that many of our students make is to translate directly from their own language. This can often lead to confusing sentences. A popular rule that you could adapt is to use the KISS Test – Keep It Short and Simple.
3. Think of who your reader is going to be
Is it a colleague, a client or your boss? Should the email be informal or formal? Most business emails these days have a neutral tone. Note the difference between Informal and Formal:
Informal – Thanks for emailing me on 15th February
Formal – Thank you for your email dated 15th February
Informal – Sorry, I can’t make it.
Formal – I am afraid I will not be able to attend
Informal – Can you…?
Formal – I was wondering if you could….?
Some emails to colleagues can be informal if you have a long working relationship and know them well. This is the style that is closest to speech, so there are often everyday words and conversational expressions that can be used. For instance, ‘Don’t forget’, ‘Catch you later’, ‘Cheers’.
The reader may also accept or overlook minor grammatical errors in informal emails. However, if the email is going to a client or senior colleague, bad grammar and an over-friendly writing style will most probably not be acceptable.
4. Be very careful of capital letters, punctuation, spelling and basic grammar
While these can be tolerated in informal emails, they are very important in business emails as they are an important part of the image you create. Give yourself time to edit what you’ve written before you push that Send button.
In today’s busy world, it’s very easy to send out many emails without checking them thoroughly: as an English learner, you should make a conscious effort to double check before sending.
5. Think about how direct or indirect you want to be
In some cultures, it is common practice to be very direct in email correspondence. However, this can cause a problem if you’re writing to someone in another country and in a language that is not your mother tongue. They might find your directness rude and possibly offensive.
Direct – I need this in half an hour.
Indirect and polite – Would it be possible to have this in half an hour?
Direct – There will be a delay
Indirect – I’m afraid there may be a slight delay.
Direct – It’s a bad idea
Indirect – To be honest, I’m not sure if that would be a good idea.
By adjusting your tone, you are more likely to get a positive response from your reader.
6. Be positive!
Look at these words: helpful, good question, agreed, together, useful, I will do my best, mutual, opportunity.
Now look at these: busy, crisis, failure, forget it, I can’t, it’s impossible, waste, hard.
The words you use show your attitude to life, so choose your words wisely.
7. Get feedback
Try and get some feedback on the emails that you write. This could be from your English Teacher or someone you know whose English is at a good level.
Study the English in any emails you receive. If it is a well-written email, look carefully at some of the language used. Start your own phrase book by collecting a bank of phrases from what you hear or read all around you; they may be useful in the future.
Author: Shanthi Cumaraswamy Streat
Shanthi graduated in Politics and International Studies from the University of Southampton, UK in 1989.
After 20 years in the world of Finance in such varied fields as life assurance, stockbroking, fund management and wealth management, she decided to re-train as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Trainer.
She studied the CELTA at International House, London in 2009 and has since been a freelance English Language Trainer. She is also the co-owner of Language and The City.