Romy's Blog

My 7 Rules of Email Etiquette

Today's post isn't just for writers, but for everyone. Most of this should go without saying, and if you've ever worked in a business that uses email correspondence you'll probably roll your eyes and say "duh!". However, since I've recently had a run of 'offensive' emails in my Inbox, which ignore these basic rules of email use, I figured it was worth a refresher.


Do not SHOUT. Typing all in capital letters is considered shouting. If you type all in caps you're likely to get the person on the other end of your email stressed and annoyed before they've even started reading. To protect my blood pressure, my spam filter is set to simply move emails written all in capitals straight to my trash folder, so if you write to me all in caps, I'll never even see your email. Unless your intention is to piss your recipient off before they've even read a word, JUST DON'T DO IT.

Rule #2 - Formatting

Not all computers have the same fonts. Using fancy fonts and coloured text might make your email look pretty on your end, but it might also make your email unreadable on the recipient's computer. Stick to the basic, standard computer fonts for professional looking emails. This will also prevent your emails from getting caught in spam filters, which flag emails that are filled with different fonts and colours.

Another recommendation is to delete long email tails. Have you ever been part of an email conversation where several people reply to the same original email until each new email is hundreds of lines long? If you're having a lengthy to-and-fro conversation, it's worth doing some judicious editing and cutting out a few of the earlier emails from the 'tail' of your email. Your recipients will not only still be able to follow the conversation, but it'll also be eaier for them to find your latest contribution to that conversation, especially if they view emails in Gmail's conversation mode, rather than individual email mode.

Rule #3 - Respond Timeously

If you've worked in a service related industry, you've probably already had this drummed into you. You should never, ever keep a customer waiting days and days to hear from you. In my day job, if I haven't had a response within 4-6 hours, I've already written you off. In the less pressurised world of writing, a couple of days' delay should be the maximum (and yes, I've broken this rule myself a few times, but I do try to reply to the important stuff quickly!)

I'm often amazed at how slack email responses are in South Africa. When I'm sourcing a supplier online I'll often email 4-5 companies for a quote. If I only receive a response from you a week later, you've already lost my business because by then I've probably already bought and paid for goods from your rival who replied within 24 hours of my email.

As a writer, if you only check your writerly email Inbox once a week, you might have missed an important request from a book reviewer, a blogger inviting you for a guest appearance, or even your publisher offering you a special promotional opportunity. If you reply five days after the email was sent, chances are you've already missed the window of opportunity. Check your emails at least every couple of days, and reply to most emails as quickly as you can.

Rule #4 - A Hundred Recipients

Most email service providers have fancy filtering systems to separate spam from regular emails. One of the ways they use to detect spam is if an email is sent to hundreds of recipients. Yes, we know you want to share the happy news of your new book release with every acquaintance you've ever made, but sending one email to everyone in your address book at once is likely to (a) ensure most service providers mark your email as spam, so most of your friends will never even see your email, and (b) get your email address marked as a spammer address, ensuring that most of your other regular emails also get relegated to people's spam folders rather than their Inboxes - meaning that all your other regular emails will also never be seen!

Plus, it's considered rude. If I receive a generic email sent to thirty people, I think "how rude, this person didn't even care enough to take a few minutes to send something more personalised" and I hit delete. If you are only a distant acquaintance, there's a 99% chance I'll delete your email wiithout reading it. If you are a close friend then I'm going to think "is that how little (s)he values my friendship that I'm only worthy of a generic group email?"

Rule #5 - Reply All

This is sort of a continuation of Rule #4. If you receive an email sent to thirty people, and you'd like to reply to the sender saying "thank you for the information", do not hit the 'reply all' button. Check that you are sending your response direct to the sender only, or at least only to the relevant parties who need to know the information you're sending.

If you reply to emails on your cell phone or other portable device, it's worth taking two minutes to check that your settings do not default to 'reply all' so you don't annoy thirty other people every time you reply to an email.

If you have school-going kids, you'll probably already know what I mean. Is there anything worse than receiving an email from one parent, sent to all the other forty parents in the class, saying "Little Timmy didn't come home with his soccer shoes today. If your child took them home by accident, please let me know" and the next time you log in to your emails you have thirty new messages all saying "sorry, not us"? Who cares?! The ONLY person who should reply to that message is the one saying "Yes, we've found Little Timmy's shoes and will send them back to school tomorrow."

Rule #6 - Time Waster Emails

This is sort of a continuation of Rule #5. You know that clichéd piece of advice that says "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it"? The same applies to emails. If you don't have anything worth saying, then don't say it.

Or, to put it in a more writerly way: like in story writing, if you have a scene that doesn't forward the action, then it shouldn't be there. Sending an email that says "I will send you an email" is one of those.

Another Time Waster email is the kind that asks questions to which (a) the answer is obvious, or (b) the answer can be found by typing the question into Google.

You'd be amazed at how many emails I receive asking "how can I get published?". Sure, I could spend the next (unpaid) half hour of my life explaining how publishing works to a complete stranger (and once upon a time I did, until I started working for myself and realised my time = money). These days I might just send you to Google, and suggest you come back to me when your email says something more like "I have a book, and am looking for advice on how to polish it ready for submission". Because that shows me you're serious enough about writing to have put in a little effort, and you're not just wasting my time.

For me, and maybe this is just me being picky, but another Time Waster email is the one that says nothing except "thanks". Yes, I know you want to be polite. And I know you want to acknowledge the email I just sent. And I know you want to have the last word in what has probably already been a lengthy email conversation, however it's not necessary. It's just another email in my Inbox that I'm going to have to waste five seconds of my life to delete the moment I open it.

Sure, if the person you're emailing only receives two emails a day, then getting an email that says nothing more than "I got your email" probably won't annoy them much. Maybe it's even the highlight of their day. But for the rest of us who have overflowing Inboxes and a To Do list that covers several pages, so help preserve our precarious sanities, if your email doesn't forward the action, think twice before sending it.

Rule #7 - Being Needy

This is the reverse of Rule #5. Rather than being the person who sends emails saying nothing more than "thanks", this is the person who emails to say "I didn't receive your email saying 'thanks' so I'm just checking you got my last email saying 'thanks'?"

Yes, we know you're just being polite, and yes, we know you want to check your email was received, but unless you are waiting for a specific response from me, this just makes you seem very lonely and desperate. You can safely assume that if I received your previous emails in the same conversation, I probably received your one word email that saiid 'thanks', even if I didn't reply to it.

What are your thoughts - have I completely over-reacted to stuff that other people see as normal, civil behaviour? Do you have any pet hates when it comes to the emails that arrive in your Inbox?

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