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Writing effective emails

Original article by Graham Jones  |  Adapted by David V. Appleyard

Email messages have a tendency to become way too long, especially when you feel the need to give a comprehensive overview of some complex business situation and quote much of the material sent back and forth in previous exchanges.

Clifftop laptopMost people find that letters and emails which are short and to the point are the ones they respond to most positively. Lengthier written communications are generally only given a positive rating if we share a close and warm relationship to the sender. We rarely feel positive about people we don't know sending us long messages, and this has important implications for those using email in business. The vast majority of your emails at work are going to be sent to people whom you don't know or only have the slimmest of relationships with. Because anything other than a short email is likely to generate negative vibes in your reader, play it safe — keep it short!

This is all very well in theory, of course, but in practice, particularly at work, you often need to be precise and cover a lot of ground. The answer is to treat the actual email as though it were a cover letter and then attach the main body of your text as a separate word processor document. Virtually all email programs allow file attachments, yet the vast majority of emails are sent without using this facility. The advantage of confining the nitty-gritty details to an attachment file is that your recipient immediately sees your email in a more positive light The attachment contents will have been neatly summarized in a few lines that enable your reader to grasp your key points. If later on an in-depth explanation is required, then you have provided it.

Never rush off important communications. After composing the detailed version of your message in your word processing software, it is always a good idea to take a break, do something different and then return later in the day to read it through. Only then should you create that short summary for your covering email. Attempting to summarize something you have only just written is difficult because all the fine details will still be in your head. Taking a break helps unclutter your mind and makes summarization a whole lot easier.

One of the benefits of the "reply" button on email programs is that you can quote previous email. In this way the recipient can easily see what you are responding to. However, since many business emails end up going back and forth between various individuals in various departments, messages can quickly become very long indeed, with much of the material emanating from previous exchanges. The solution is to only quote enough to make your reply comprehensible. By all means, press the "reply" button to quote the original email, but then go through the quoted text and delete anything that is irrelevant to the current situation. Doing so is seeing the message from your reader’s perspective — they do not want to have to wade through vast swathes of text (often their very own words!) just to identify the point you are commenting on. In other words, use selective quoting rather than the wholesale quoting of emails so commonly practiced.

An additional reason why some emails are overly long is because their authors attempt to cover too many topics at one time. They are almost "brain dumping" everything they can think of that might be of interest to the reader. The unfortunate recipient is then left to figure out what actually is of relevance. Good communication, particularly when dealing with people we don’t know, is focused communication. That means, in essence, that each email should be about one topic and one topic only. A hint to this effect is given by the email program itself when it prompts you to type in a "subject" for your email.

So if your emails are about more than one subject — stop! Your recipient will react far more positively if you send four shorter emails about four separate subjects rather than trying to cram all you have to say into one single message. And if these separate emails receive a reply, which they are more likely to do, the volume of quoted material is slso going to be considerably reduced.

  • Graham Jones is the author of Effective Email, now available in both paperback and Kindle editions.
    For more details, go to

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English has come a long, long way

Original article by David Leonhardt  |  Tech terms updated by David V. Appleyard

I often wonder what would happen if Shakespeare were to be transported in a time machine to our world today. What would he think? How would he react?

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)Yes, Willie would probably tell me "thou hast too much time on thy hands if thou spendeth it wondering about such flights of fancy." But only after he found his feet.

You see, Willie would be blown away by some of the comforts we take for granted. For instance, that box we walk into. The doors close all by themselves...just like magic. When they open, we are magically in a different place.

"What callest thou this contraption?" Willie would ask in utter amazement.

An elevator. You would think nothing would faze a man who just landed his time machine 400 years into the future.

"Ah, I see. It was not magic after all. It elevated us, because it is an elevator."

This Willie guy is pretty handy with his English, isn't he? But that won't get him far these days. A hundred years ago, even fifty, he could have figured out just about every new word by tracing its roots (often to Greek or Latin). But not today.

"What are those...those...those, things?"

Why that's an LED HDTV, with an HDD and DVD player. Over there, it's a CD player, an AM and FM radio and an amp. This is a PC, with DVDRW and USB flash drives, a powerful CPU, and more SDRAM than a MAC.

"What? Thy alphabet seems a bit confusing."

Once upon a time, the meaning of a word could always be guessed by simply tracing the entomology of the word back to its lowest roots.

"Thou meanest 'etymology', dost thou not? Entomology is the study of insects and bugs."

I knew that. I took out a Kleenex because my nose was running.

"But how dost thy nose run?"

I suppose the same way I drivest on a parkway and parkest in the driveway. Or how it doesn't matter whether we fill in a form or fill out a form...either way, the taxman gets the last laugh.

I offered to take Willie for a ride.

"That is more like it. There is nothing quite like a horse under one's bottom."

No, no, no. We don't ride horses anymore. That is a barbaric way to treat such majestic beasts. Now we drive cars...and kill the horses off with the exhaust.

"I have no idea what you are talking about."

Just have a seat in the BMW, Willie, while I turn on the AC and rev up the RPMs on this old V6. Before you know it, we'll be doing 100 mph down the 102.

"More letters and numbers. Have words become redundant in the future?"

Pretty much. As life got more and more complicated, words got more and more complicated. Pretty soon it was taking several minutes just to pronounce a single government department. So real word groups had to be replaced by acronyms from the first letter of each word. Pass me a CANDY.

"What does CANDY stand for?"

Candy, actually. But maybe I should just leave old Willie guessing. After all, there is just so much to discover in this brave new world. Like why there are so few sundials around. And why some people sleep on the street, while others climb 34 stories to an office tower above to sleep at their desks. And just how they shrink those liquor bottles for the airlines.

"What is an RSVP? And ASAP? And TLC?"

I had to find just the right way to explain to him that all these crazy letters actually made some kind of sense.

Internal Department of Income Overhaul Transfer Systems.

"Ah, IDIOTS. Now, that I understand!"

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Authors: How do you make sure your story turns out true to life?

'Research, research, research...'

says Doris Pannell

I am retired and live in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I've written for about six years. During that period of time, I've had the good fortune to be published in close to twenty magazines and to win recognition in five writing contests. I'm an avid horsewoman who has owned and ridden horses since the age of ten, almost fifty years.

researchSome time ago, I perused a book on riding techniques. The author's final remark struck a chord with me. To paraphrase that sentence, a horse lover is a person who loves to look at horses, ride horses, or, if all else fails, watch horses on television or in movies. An author needs to know his or her subject with that same intensity. Without knowing it that well, it's impossible to make it come to life for the reader.

A good sense of place is an essential part of a well-written story. No matter what genre, there is no substitute for a first hand visit to the area to get the "lay of the land." Place is more than visual images, though. Authors need to describe the smells, sounds and attitudes of the time and place they are writing about if they hope to engross the reader.

If possible, plan a trip to the locale of your story. Talk with the people. Get a feel for their mannerisms. Don't be afraid to ask about regional legends and stories. These give your work an authentic, down home flavor.

Physical facts must be accurate, also. Don't put your ignorance on display by mixing topography. There are bound to be some readers who will know it's impossible for your character to go from point A to point B. That will make the read less enjoyable, and could cause them to put your story down in disgust. You don't want that to happen.

How, then, is it possible for an author to write about a time other than the present or a place they have never visited? They can't jump into a time machine to revisit a forgotten era, or climb aboard a space ship and travel to some distant planet. The answer, of course, is research.

Good, thorough research is the backbone of any story. You shouldn't have your Indian fighter astride a modern roping saddle. Those individuals rode the high-backed McClellan saddles that the government provided. Denim wasn't in use before the California gold rush of eighteen forty-nine. Don't clothe your early eighteen hundreds mountain man in blue jeans. Find out when matches were invented before you have your character use them to start a bonfire or light a cigar. Even small details must be accurate.

The Internet is a valuable research tool. I find it helpful to keep an Internet connection up as I write so I can switch back and forth between my story and my research at will. After saying that, I will caution you that while the Internet is an important part of research, don't rely too much on it. There is a wealth of information in cyberspace, but when a writer attempts to ferret it out, he often finds his patience taxed to the limit.

Research Books such as Candy Moulton's "The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West" are written for the specific purpose of educating authors on a particular time and place. They include such facts as dress, slang of the time, money, current events, plus a cornucopia of other valuable facts. A western author shouldn't ignore these books in their search for authenticity.

Museums, too, provide a lot of information. When the author can see long sharp spikes on a six-inch rowel, or how far a ten-gallon hat reaches into the sky, the objects become much easier to describe.

Of course, a writer cannot survive without a good dictionary and encyclopedia. I find the encyclopedias on CD to be a bit brief but don't reject them altogether as a source of knowledge. Since Spanish has become intertwined with cowboy lore, a good English-Spanish dictionary is helpful, also.

On your search for authenticity, don't neglect the abundance of knowledge available at your local library. Although less glamorous than the Internet, a library remains the best place to find that special little tidbit you're hunting for. Hidden within the stacks of books or folded between the pages of a periodical will be that certain fact you needed to make your western story come to life.

To most of us, research is a boring, time-consuming drudgery. Most writers yearn to skip that phase and get on to the creative part of their work. Research, however, is the framework upon which your story will hang. Take the time to do a thorough study of your subject and see how much easier it is to create a page-turning success.

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LIAR - The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous RecommendationsClassic guide to clever ambiguity

by David V. Appleyard

Robert J. Thornton, professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA., was feeling frustrated about one of the worst occupational hazards of being a teacher — that of having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious qualifications. In an attempt to address the problem, he decided to put together an arsenal of statements that can be read two ways, and he called his collection the Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations — or LIAR for short!

LIAR may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate, while allowing the candidate to believe that (s)he is being praised to high heaven. If you study the following examples, you'll soon get the hang of it:

  1. When called upon for an opinion of a friend who is extremely lazy, just say:
    "You will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."
  2. To describe a person who is totally inept:
    "I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."
  3. To describe an ex-employee who had problems getting along with fellow workers:
    "I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine."
  4. To describe a candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be better left unfilled:
    "I can assure you that no person would be better for the job."
  5. To describe a job applicant who is not worth further consideration:
    "I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment."
  6. To describe a person with lackluster credentials:
    "All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."

Thornton points out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving friendships, but it can also help avoid serious legal trouble in a time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of recommendation.

In most American states, he notes, job applicants have the right to read the letters of ecommendation, and can even file a suit against the writer if the contents are too negative. When the writer uses LIAR, however, "whether perceived correctly or not by the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof."

Professor Thornton's book first appeared in October 2003 and is published by Sourcebooks Hysteria at a list price of $14.99. If you're stuck choosing a birthday present for the person who already has everything, this highly entertaining read might just be your answer.