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Writing Basics

The Essentials of Email Etiquette


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

April 2020

Communication is vital for a scientist at any point in their career. Students, professors, and seasoned researchers all need a way to connect, and email has emerged as the primary method to do business. Whether it is discussing important results with a colleague in a different country or something as simple as checking the status of an appointment, email allows correspondence to happen in a single, digital framework. What was once making a phone call (or sending a letter) is now a few keystrokes away.

Think about the time you spend writing, reading, and stressing about emails. In fact, checking email is probably the first and last thing you do each day. One would think that, given all this practice, emailing would be a simple task. However, the contrary is often the case; we are left wondering how to word particular messages. That is because written discussion struggles to convey the underlying meaning behind the words we use. It does not encapsulate the faces we make, the way we gesture our hands, or the tone of our words (sarcasm in particular does not translate well). The lack of these consequential elements can lead to some awkward or harmful scenarios when we are misinterpreted. Whether your communication is with a publishing journal or a professor from whom you are seeking advice, avoiding miscommunication is essential to having a stress-free inbox.

Despite the faults of the medium, there are a few things you can do to communicate more effectively with your colleagues in the scientific realm.

The most important advice I can provide is: When in doubt, err on the side of professionalism. This may sound simplistic, but many people sabotage themselves by not following this golden rule. Unless you have a rapport with someone who understands your casual style, your writing should be wearing its Sunday best. For example:

Grammatical and spelling mistakes can not only confuse your reader but also leave them wondering about your competence.

If the recipient sees that you used the wrong verb form, they may chalk it up to a quick mistake. However, they may subconsciously see you as sloppy, unintelligent, or careless. Take one minute to proofread your email, especially if it is to someone important. One tip here is to put the recipient’s address in last to avoid accidently sending out a half-written mess.

As a general rule, be concise. Keep to one question per email and make your point as quickly as possible.

We are accustomed to writing long-form prose for papers and articles, but convoluted emails will strain readers. A condensed email with an accurate heading is likely to convey the most information and generate a positive response. As a courtesy, keep the actions of “cc”, “bcc”, and “Reply All” to a minimum so that you include only the people who need the information. Doing so cuts down on the amount of needless emails, and you will be silently thanked for it.

Always use the correct email address.

I have seen many questionable email addresses, some of which were definitely not appropriate for a work or school setting. In general, your address should include your name and the company you work for or school you attend. The address should stray from anything else and omit numbers if possible. For example, if a journal receives your manuscript from huskyfan9198@yahoo.com, they are less likely to take the submission seriously. Instead, Johnsmith@uconn.edu is easy to remember, includes a name, and notifies the reader that you are part of a university.

As for signatures, think of your email signoff as a business card.

Your correspondence should leave an impression and give the reader the tools to find you outside of email. Consider adding a business phone number, personal website, and company information, as ways to get in touch with you. This, along with your title, helps you to come across as a well-rounded individual.

As a final note, like in many facets of life, patience is rewarded. Nobody wants to deal with a flurry of emails. If your matter is urgent, you may try other methods to reach the person directly. With email, give the recipient at least a day to respond to your inquiry; this is common courtesy. They may be on the road, in a meeting, or concentrated on another important task. If you were deeply concentrating on an experiment, the last thing you would be doing is responding to emails.

Send a polite follow-up message if there is an impending deadline but avoid being the person that spends the afternoon leaving eight messages in someone’s inbox.

As with any social construct, there is a standard set of expected behaviors associated with email in the scientific community and beyond. The above suggestions outline how your default behavior should look: quick, pleasant, and professional. While there are exceptions, using these tools will help you achieve good first impressions and maintain that image.

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