Mastering the Short Email

“I apologize that this letter is so long. I did not have the time to make it short”

— BLAISE PASCAL

Good writers know that lean, vibrant language is almost always preferable to verbose, rambling writing. There is virtually no writing in the world so good that it can’t be made better by making it shorter. There are exceptions, of course – a contract needs to cover every possible potentiality, as does the text of an international treaty, but these documents are not really meant to be read, they’re meant to be enacted.

When you send email, though, you most definitely mean for it to be read. By a person, even. With everyone’s inboxes bulging at the seams with unwanted come-ons, weekly newsletters, Amazon notices telling them about the latest product that people who bought whatever they bought also bought, status updates, listserv posts, and who knows what else, you face an awful lot of competition in your recipient’s inbox for their attention.Getting read is no small feat in and of itself; getting your reader to take action even a greater accomplishment.

Writing well is one key – good prose is engaging and persuasive, no matter what the aim. And writing concisely is a big part of writing well. But writing concisely offers benefits on its own – the short email, particularly the email whose contents fit into the preview pane without any scrolling, has a much higher chance of gaining a reader’s attention than one that starts off with three pages about trivia.

This is what Mike Davidson figured out – if his recipients were half as slammed as he was, he figured they could use some relief from long-winded emails that ramble on and on in the guise of pleasantries. Instead, he committed himself to writing emails that were five sentences or less, every single time. To explain his decision, and to encourage others to follow suit, he created the site five.sentenc.es, which explains:

The Problem

E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.

The Solution

Treat all email responses like SMS text messages, using a set number of letters per response. Since it’s too hard to count letters, we count sentences instead.

five.sentenc.es is a personal policy that all email responses regardless of recipient or subject will be five sentences or less. It’s that simple.

You add the link to your email signature, dash off your five-sentence response, and let your recipient know that you are looking out for his or her time. (For the really daring, Davidson set up domains with even fewer sentences, down to two.sentence.es.)

That’s all well and good, of course, but how can you make sure you say what you need to say if you limit yourself to five sentences? (Or even if you make the less-radical commitment to just write as short an email as possible?) You don’t want to leave anything out, right?

Unfortunately, concision isn’t really taught or, to be honest, valued sufficiently. The huge novel is seen as more significant than the slim novella, the fat envelope more important than the thin one, the 10-page essay as more A-worthy than the 5-page essay. Teachers actually encourage wordiness, giving students instructions to write papers “at least” 500 words long, or 6 pages, instead of encouraging the shortest possible length in which you can fully express your thoughts.

Fortunately, super-entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki has offered a good guide to the five-sentence email (scroll down to point #9). He says,

Whether UR young or old, the point is that the optimal length of an email message is five sentences. All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.

(Don’t ask me what purpose the seemingly out-of-place IM-speak serves there – let’s just chalk it up to 5 saved keystrokes.)

If we take Kawasaki’s advice to heart, a good outline for a five-sentence email might look something like this:

  1. Who are you? This might be skipped if you already have a relationship with the recipient; otherwise, in as little space as possible, explain the relevant facts about yourself.
  2. What do you want? Explain why you’re writing the email, what you expect your recipient to do about it, and any relevant information they need to respond with the appropriate action.
  3. Why should you get it? Or, more to the point, why should they bother? Explain why your request is important, and if relevant, what’s in it for them.
  4. When do you need them to act? Open-ended requests get open-ended responses – that is, they get responded to whenever the recipient gets around to it. Be as specific as possible, so that your recipient a) has a sense of urgency, b) feels that their response is important to you, and c) feels inspired to act.

So, for example, emailing a professor to ask for an extension on an essay (that must be at least 10 pages long…) might look something like this:

Professor Wax,

I’m a student in your Thursday afternoon anthropology class, and I’m having some trouble finding enough references for my term paper. Could you please give me an extra week to complete the assignment? I realize this might affect my grade, but I really want to give you the best paper I can, not just 10 pages of filler to make up for the missing information. Please get back to me by tomorrow morning so I can plan my writing schedule.

Thanks,

Ace Tuden

Or an email to a colleague asking for data you need to finish a report might look like this:

Dustin,

I’m working on the report for our proposal to Acme, Inc. and really need the figures from the marketing analysis you ran. Could you get those to me by the end of the day so I can wrap this up? As you know, this report is crucial if we want to land that co-branding deal with Acme!

Best,

Emma Ployee

Notice that both of those examples are less than five sentences – the point isn’t to shoehorn your work into a particular format but to write as little as you need to get the point across.

Sometimes, of course, that means writing more than five sentences. Kawasaki’s advice presupposes that most email is requesting some kind of information, but that’s not always the case. But if you force yourself to think in terms of a five sentence email, and you go over a sentence or two, you will be far more effective than if you dash off a 2,000-word treatise.

While emails are technically just text, just writing, and therefore could theoretically be as long as you care to make them, in reality longer emails are more likely to go unread , and less likely to be read carefully, as short ones. If more information is needed, a formal report, a webpage, a memo, or some other form of document is probably going to be better-suited to presenting it than an email. Send an attachment, send a link, or schedule a face-to-face meeting if necessary; don’t blast off a giant email that takes you hours to write in the vain hope that it will be read.

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