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Tips for effective and polite emails

Some suggestions for making your emails more readable.

Email messages are different from other written messages. They are not formally structured like a letter or as short as phone texting.

In this issue we have some suggestions for making your emails more readable by your correspondents. It’s not a complete list, by any means. And not all the ideas will apply to you.

Separate topics / separate emails

Email suits shorter messages on a single topic rather than longer messages on a variety of subjects. There are times when it’s better to split the emails into separate ‘threads’ for each sub-topic.

In a business negotiation, it might be helpful to have separate threads for different parts of a complex contract or quote before bringing all the sections together in the final stages.

For example, Peter is planning a trip with a friend in the USA. He’s exchanging many messages with a separate subject heading and discussion for each destination. This keeps all the information and ideas apart and reduces the confusion. To raise many issues or questions in a single email is likely to result in a delayed response till the recipient can respond to every issue or question raised. Of course, sometimes you’ll have more general messages, but it’s an idea worth keeping in mind.

Clear subject line

Try to make your subject lines clear and helpful.

If you’re emailing a company, putting a short description of your enquiry can help direct your email. Messages with a subject like “Help” or “It doesn’t work” don’t shed any light on the matter.

Long subject lines (even entire messages in the subject) can be hard or impossible to read in some email clients.

Get to the point

In business letters and personal letters you can have some opening remarks before getting down to the main topic. That doesn’t work very well with 21st century software or people.

Most people don’t fully open emails, rather they use the side pane to look at most messages and prioritize them. Microsoft has acknowledged that by renaming the old ‘Preview pane’ to ‘Reading pane’ in recent versions of Outlook. What people immediately see in that preview pane (ie the first few lines) has to grab their attention.

People are busy these days with many more communications arriving in all sorts of ways. If your emails don’t get to the point quickly, they might not be read at all.

What you see isn’t what they’ll see

Whenever possible, keep the formatting of your emails simple.

HTML formatted emails won’t always appear to the receiver in the exact way you expect. Web page formatting isn’t always faithful to the maker’s intention.

  • Colors look different on varying screens and resolutions.

  • Complex formatting is treated differently by different software (anyone who has compared the same web page on different browsers will understand that).

  • Font choices might not match what the receiver has.

HTML formatting

HTML formatting is better, especially for messages longer than a few lines. They are easier to read.

It will let you use basic formatting like bold, italic, numbered lists but fancier formatting won’t always translate as you expect.


Your color choices should strongly contrast, especially if you’ve chosen a colored background.

What appears readable to you might not show up at all on another screen.

In fact, it’s safer to stick with a white background and avoid colored backgrounds.


In emails, avoid those nifty fonts you’ve bought or downloaded. Stick to the standard and commonly used fonts.

Fonts are not included in HTML email so there’s no way to know if the receiver has the same font.

In HTML emails and web pages, only the name of the font is sent. The email program or browser tries to find a font of exactly the same name on the receiver’s computer. If it can’t find a match it will try to choose something it thinks is close – those alternative choices aren’t always ideal.

So it’s better not to rely on the receivers computer – stick to the common fonts like Arial, Times New Roman, Garamond, Verdana, Comic Sans and Courier New. Even if the receiver uses a non-Windows operating system, the Windows fonts are well-known and the substitution should be good.


The size of the words in your message isn’t as important as other elements because more email programs have features to increase or reduce the font size.

Generally stick to font sizes from 10pt, 11pt or 12pt for standard text.

If your message needs precise formatting then consider sending a Word document with fonts embedded into the .doc file, or it’s even better to send a PDF file.

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