Email is a standard communication format in most organizations and among most groups. It’s rapid and easy, and it helps you maintain a written record of communications. Email is so ingrained in most of our lives that we often don’t stop to consider how to compose an email before sending it.  Aside from a very brief email, however (e.g., “remember that we have a Skype meeting at noon”), you do need to consider communication variables and format expectations in order to write effective emails.

Email Do’s and Don’ts


Always consider your primary and secondary audiences when sending email.  Primary audiences are people from whom you expect a reply, people who are main and active participants in a group or project. Primary audiences are listed in the To: line. Secondary audiences are people who may not be main or active participants in a group, but still need to be informed.  Secondary audiences are listed in the cc: line.  There is also a Bcc: line (blind copy), which hides the recipients.  There are two cases in which you might choose to use a Bcc: line: 1) You don’t want to disclose email addresses to multiple recipients, and 2) you need to inform someone but don’t want other audience members to know.  In the latter case, make sure to use the Bcc: line ethically.

The following video reviews email audiences and how to use cc: and bcc: lines.

Know that very few emails are secure, given the ease with which emails can be forwarded, so you always need to plan for unintended audiences.  Be careful with both your content and language, and assume that whatever you send via email is public, both within and outside of your organization. Do not use all caps, which show anger.  Do not use expletives or language that is biased or inappropriate. As you consider your audience, consider as well the level of privacy you need in the particular communication, and whether or not you should use email, even if it is an expected format.

Subject Line

Make sure your subject line is short and specific, so that your reader knows immediately what the email is about. For example, say this, “2nd floor copier not working,” and not this, “equipment problems.”  Or say this, “IMTL 4/9 meeting notes,” and not this, “meeting notes.”  The less specific examples might be interpreted in ways you did not intend, depending on your reader’s situation and experiences, or they may not even be read by recipients, who may not understand the importance of reading the email because of the vague subject line. Having a specific subject line also is useful in retrieving previous email messages, since there is a specific key word that can be searched.  Consider as well the usefulness of using an initial word to introduce the specific subject in the subject line, in order to prompt your reader as to what is required.  You might use Action:, Request:, Info:, Summary:, or any other word that lets your audience know immediately if they will need to act or simply read.


The body of an email should be short.  A good gauge is that an email should not be longer than one screen’s worth of information. It is common for people not to read all the way though long emails or only read with half of their attention. Ask yourself whether you are conveying your message in a way that will be best understood and minimize misinterpretation. Are there plentiful facts, background information, or documentation that must be included?  You might notice how challenging it is to include as much information as possible while also trying to keep the email short. Are you writing in long, compound sentences? Take note of your sentence structure and make sure each sentence has one clear idea or connected ideas to make the sentences more digestible. To summarize information, you can also use bullet points in your message to keep it brief but thorough.

Most emails use a direct approach, providing key information at the start, or immediately after a short greeting, although this might differ depending on the situation and audience. Carefully choose your content, language, and tone.  Both should be polite, professional, and neutral, keeping in mind that emails can be forwarded to unintended audiences.

Do not ramble in an email; make sure you get to the main idea quickly and directly.  If you need to write more than a couple of very short paragraphs, consider using headings to break up the information by category, and/or consider putting lengthier information into an attachment.  Also, do not include too much information unrelated to your main purpose.  If your purpose is to inform your audience that the copy machine on the second floor is not working and will be out of commission for two days for repairs, don’t include additional information about the office microwave, other office machines, or personal comments.


Depending on the situation, audience, context, your role, and other communication variables, you may or may not want to include a closing and repeat your name, position, and/or contact information at the end of the email.  You may delete closing information if you are writing internal emails and your audience already knows how to contact you. If you are writing emails that may be sent externally, then it is good practice to include your name, role, and contact information in a signature block at the end, so your audience understands how to connect if needed.

Do not include quotes of the day, images, or any other information irrelevant to the message.  Although you may like to personalize your emails, this information may function as noise and distract your reader from your message at the end.


Email is an immediate medium; try to reply within 24 hours if possible.  The biggest thing to avoid in replying is “reply all,” especially if your response is intended for the original sender.  Consistent use of “reply all” may result in others immediately deleting your emails without reading them, or in getting annoyed that emails unimportant to daily work are making them waste time.

Applying the Do’s

Here are some steps you can take to help your audience understand your email:

  1. Briefly state your purpose for writing the email in the very beginning of your message.
  2. Be sure to provide the reader with a context for your message. If you’re asking a question, cut and paste any relevant text (for example, computer error messages, assignment prompts you don’t understand, part of a previous email message, etc.) into the email so that the reader has some frame of reference for your question. When replying to someone else’s email, it can often be helpful to either include or restate the sender’s message.
  3. Use paragraphs to separate thoughts (or consider writing separate emails if you have many unrelated points or questions).  Overall, strive for both clarity and brevity.
  4. State the desired outcome at the end of your message. If you’re requesting a response, let the reader know what type of response you require (e.g., an email reply, possible times for a meeting, a recommendation letter, etc.). If you’re requesting something that has a due date, be sure to highlight that due date in a prominent position in your email. Ending your email with the next step is useful and clear (e.g., “I will follow this email with a phone call on Tuesday,” or “Let’s plan to discuss this further at the meeting on Wednesday.”).
  5. Format your message so that it is easy to read. Use white space to visually separate paragraphs into separate blocks of text. Bullet important details so that they are easy to pick out. Highlight critical information such as due dates using bold or italic type.


The following video offers a short review of expectations for emails.

There are also informative videos on LinkedIn Learning and a useful web page from the University of North Carolina:

Finally, depending on your sense of humor, and even though you get an ad at the end, you may enjoy the following video, which points out common errors in email usage and etiquette.