Students in online degree programs understand the nuances of digital communications, including the importance of well-crafted email.

If you have young children or a fondness for Dr. Seuss, you may recall a compassionate elephant named Horton.

As Horton single-mindedly protected an egg belonging to the irresponsible bird, Maisie, he repeatedly stated, "I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful one-hundred percent!"

Saying exactly what one means in written communications, particularly in email, requires equal single-mindedness of purpose – and a laser focus on professionalism, clarity and precision.

The advantage online students have in the workplace

Email is ubiquitous – and so are email blunders. That's because digital communication lacks two key elements found in face-to-face communication: the non-verbal clues associated with body language and tone of voice. Without these, meaning can be easily misinterpreted.

Online students, however, understand these differences and have on-going opportunities to strengthen their written, digital communications skills.

Speaking at Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning commencement, Dr. Jeff Borden – now the university's associate vice president for Teaching and Learning Innovation – said that graduates of online degree programs have a clear advantage when it comes to the type of communication skills businesses are looking for in new hires.

More than half of all communication in the workplace does not take place face to face; it occurs digitally, he said. "And you, as graduates of online degree programs,  have a tremendous leg up because you have been doing this for years as an online student."

Why writing better email matters

Unlike face-to-face or phone conversations, email is a permanent record that can be saved, forwarded and archived.

How you present yourself online is important because it says something powerful about you. It reflects your attention to detail and organization and contributes to your credibility and personal brand.

Whether you're sending an email to your professor in your online degree program or to a colleague at work, there's always room for improvement.

Here are tips to help ensure that when you write an email, you "say what you mean and mean what you say."

Keep email professional

  • An email is not a text. Don't use texting shortcuts. LOL and OMG do not belong in a professional email.
  • Don't use email if the message is sensitive, confidential or emotional.
  • Use a professional email account, not something cutesy, if you're sending an email for business reasons. Use your university email to correspond with professors, university staff and other students.
  • Bag the emoticons.
  • Use exclamation points sparingly. Using an exclamation point too frequently dilutes its impact. Using more than one (!!) is overkill.
  • Don't write in all capital letters. It's like shouting at someone. Be judicious when using the bold command as well.
  • Always be polite. No matter what.
  • If your emotions are running high over an issue, wait. Close the email and move on to something else. If the issue demands immediate attention, consider calling the person.
  • Include an appropriate signature at the end. There's nothing wrong with a simple "Thank you."
  • Some people do not like having their email address visible in mailing lists. When emailing a large group, consider sending an "undisclosed recipients" email.
  • Use CC as a professional courtesy to keep colleagues who are not expected to act on the email informed about its content.
  • Be careful replying to all if you are a BCC recipient in an email. Others in the list may not be aware you received a copy, which could lead to problems. 
  • Respond within 24 hours – sooner, if possible, if only to say you received the email and you're going to respond in more detail, or you need time to give it more thought.
  • How long should you wait before sending your email again if you do not get a response? A week is good; and then keep it short.

  • If you need a response by a certain time, state that clearly and early in your email.

Keep email clear

  • Keep your language simple. Inflated or overstated language can be unclear and appears self-important.
  • Active voice is more effective than passive. It also shows that you take responsibility for your actions. For example, say, "I sent the report to the vice president" not "The report was sent to the vice president."
  • Make subject lines meaningful by being specific.
  • State why you are writing in your first sentence; then elaborate as necessary, making sure you are achieve your purpose in writing in the first place.
  • If you have never written to the person before, identify yourself.
  • Format the email so it's easy to read. Short paragraphs are good. Bullets are even better.
  • Be succinct. If people need more information, they'll ask. And if you keep the email thread in place you can always highlight and refer to information below.

Keep email precise

  • Make sure that sending an email is the appropriate form of communication to use for each situation. If you need to send an electronic file, reach a group of people, have record of the communication, or contact someone who is difficult to reach or in a different time zone, then an email is appropriate.
  • Spelling, grammar and punctuation count. Always reread your email before sending.

  • If you refer to an attachment in your email, be sure to attach it.
  • If sending an attachment, open it before sending the email to make sure you attached the correct document.
  • Always double check the spelling of names.
  • Beware of the autofill function. Double check the "To" box (and the CC and BCC, if you're using) before hitting send to make sure you are sending to the correct name(s).
  • Include your name and contact information/phone number.

What tips would you suggest for writing stronger emails?

The Writing Center, UNC-Chapel Hill; Daily

Image Credit: Ben+Sam/Flickr Creative Commons

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