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Written by thoughtbot

Using Writing Smells to Refactor Your Email

I’ve recently started applying some code refactoring techniques to writing emails. Yes, emails.

Your goal as the writer

1) Get the reader to read the most important thing
2) Get them to respond quickly or do something quickly

We all get too much email and the following is my approach to try and make emails simpler, easier to respond to, and more readable.

I adapt the concept of code smells for use in email as “writing smells”. Here’s my process and an example. It’s not perfect but it’s useful for me.

Skunk

Writing Smells

Forest for the Trees

Break every sentence into a separate paragraph (each on a new line with a blank between). This helps to highlight long sentences. Also, it narrows your refactoring focus to one sentence at a time and improves readability.

More Than One “and”

Break long sentences down into shorter ones, especially if they have two ideas/goals. Example offender:

“If you haven’t already, take a look at our site http://thoughtbot.com for some examples of projects we’ve done and our playbook (http://playbook.thoughtbot.com) for more detail on our process and approach to building products”

Sentences > 20 Words

Start at the top and focus on one sentence at a time. Play Sentence Golf - use as few words as possible and still be clear.

Now What?

Your goal as an email sender is to convey information and get some kind of action to take place. If someone reads your message and it doesn’t address what they should do, it’s going to get ignored.

First Sentence Doesn’t Convey Everything

The most important thing for the reader to pay attention to should be at the top. Most email readers only get to the first sentence - make it count.

Open-ended Choices

You should offer the recipient only one decision and it should be a “yes/no” choice. If your question requires work, you have a lower chance of getting a response. For example, when proposing to meet up, say

“I like Cafe Madeline on New Montgomery. Let’s meet there Tuesday at 4pm.”

instead of

“Where should we meet?”

If they don’t like the date/time, they will propose something else.

More than 5 Sentences

Keep it to 5 sentences or fewer if you can.

Meh

Throw a joke in there. Email sucks and we have tons of it. Amuse your reader somehow.

And I Know You From…?

If it’s your first message to someone, demonstrate how you know each other, “We met at last night’s meetup”. Throw in some connection like “We are both from Quebec!”

Kinda Sorta

Avoid being wishy washy. Be direct. For example,

“If you’re still going to be in town next week I’d be glad to meet with you and talk about what you guys are doing at example.com, what we do here at thoughtbot and how we could help you out.”

becomes

“If you’re in town next week, let’s meet up. I suggest Cafe Madeline…”

Overuse

I overuse the word ‘that’. When finishing an email, I do a Ctrl-F on ‘that’ and either delete it or replace it with ‘which’ when appropriate. Or use a tool to find words you tend to overuse.

Like the Plague

Avoid cliches. Like the plague.

Here’s an example

Before:

“Hey Ralph,

I’m glad I got to meet you last night. If you’re still going to be in town next week I’d be glad to meet with you and talk about what you guys are doing at example.com, what we do here at thoughtbot and how we could help you out. If you haven’t already, take a look at our site http://thoughtbot.com/ for some examples of projects we’ve done and our playbook (http://playbook.thoughtbot.com/) for more detail on our process and approach to building products. If you are interested I can also send you a document which provides an overview of our process. Looking forward to hearing from you. -Rolf”

After:

“Hey Ralph,

I’m glad to meet another fellow Quebecois and lover of poutine last night at the meetup.

If you’re in town next week, let’s meet up. I suggest Cafe Madeline for coffee on Tuesday at 3pm.

I’m interested to learn more about example.com and tell you more about thoughtbot.

If you haven’t already done so, take a look at thoughtbot.com to see some of our recent projects.

Also, take a look at our playbook (playbook.thoughtbot.com) for more detail on our approach to building startups.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

-Rolf”

Further reading:

Photo: Skunk Encounter by vladeb, on Flickr