While various types of online business writing are done, let’s focus on the differences between traditional paper, and email writing: format, length, and tone.
Format can be an issue. If you are part of an intranet, it is likely, in fact even probable, that the screens of all the computers on that intranet will be set the same. This will not be true for emails going to computers outside of your intranet. So if your email is format-dependent, it will be a good idea to send it as a pdf attachment.
How about length? The maximum length for an email should be not more than one-and-a-half to two screens. Any more than that is too hard on most readers’ eyes. The result of this can be an almost imperceptible eye irritation that may result in a not-so-imperceptible reader irritation – definitely not what you’re looking for.
Tone, always a critical element in any written communication, is especially important in an informal communication like email. “Tone” is the relationship the writer establishes or reinforces with the reader.
There are four types of email:
- The original
- The reply
- The cover letter
- An attachment
The original may be a very short message, requiring a very short answer. The original will be most effective if the first paragraph follows the who-what-when-where-why-how formula, and when you do this, you will most likely also reduce the number of emails in the string.
The reply to the original may also be very short. Depending on the amount of detail required for a complete answer, it may also be very helpful to use the who-what-when-where-why-how formula to reduce the number of questions going back and forth on this subject. Remember: no more than five lines in that first paragraph.
The cover letter for an attachment is an important, but frequently-overlooked option. The writer will forge ahead, saying everything he or she has to say in the email. This often results in a multi-screen email that increases the odds of misunderstanding, or even lack of understanding on the reader’s part. If your email will be more than one-and-a-half to two screens, “attach” it, and use a who-what-when-where-why-how cover letter.
An attachment may be as long as you need it to be. The first paragraph of each section, assuming there will be more than one section, should also be a who-what-when-where-why-how paragraph.
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