This is an excerpt from the third edition of Words@Work: A Business Writing Handbook For The Internet Savvy.
Style still counts. Treat all your business email as communication from you to another person or group. Worry about your content and don’t alter what you have to say because the message is being transmitted electronically instead of going on paper. What you write represents you so make it clear and polite. An email letter is still a letter and your reader should be shown the courtesy of being taken seriously as an educated person with good standards of language.
Next time you read or write your e-mail, imagine what it would be like if your letter was the electronic equivalent of an open letter to anyone on the globe, including your boss, the government and your friends and family. Well, you don’t need to have to have a very vivid imagination, because it is!
Nothing is totally private in the contemporary world of e-mail. The technical reasons for this are varied, but the principal causes include the proliferation of network monitoring/tracking software within corporate networks, government searches for illicit on-line content, and the near-universal practice of server backups and archives. Even if you compose and get your e-mail on a non-networked PC, remember that the Internet is a network and most of the servers it passes through backup and archive all content that runs through them, including your e-mail. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that everything you send or receive over the Internet is in the public domain. It is a brutal fact of life that if the government, your boss or your competitor really wants to read your e-mail, they can acquire the technology to do it and some already have and use it routinely.
Even mail you think you may have deleted may reside on some server archive or can be found by a technological wizard who wants to find it badly enough, as several high-profile computer executives have found out to their determent in antitrust or copyright infringement trials where their company was the defendant.
Here is some practical advice on how to handle e-mail. As for what is already out there, just accept the fact that it’s floating out there in cyberspace and move on. You cannot undo what has already been done. By following these simple rules, you can stop worrying whether your e-mailing will get you in trouble and start taking advantage of one of the truly remarkable inventions of our century.
Rules For Safe And Smart Emailing
- · Assume your correspondence will be read by your boss, your spouse, your co-workers, friends, enemies and so forth and write accordingly. A little diplomacy and judgment go a long way toward avoiding problem e-mail.
- · Resist the temptation to send copies of your e-mail to too many people. We all get too much e-mail and any cc mail that causes the reader to ask “Why is this being sent to me?” should not have been sent. There is too much room for misunderstanding if an email is not received in a crystal clear context.
- · Don’t ever email jokes (no matter how seemingly funny) or ‘politically incorrect” messages. Save them for face to face discussions with friends.
- · Avoid the temptation to hide behind the supposed anonymity of e-mail sent to even the technically unsophisticated. Headers usually give the sender away and easy-to-use network software can trace the origins of almost any e-mail indefinitely.
- · Haste is dangerous, especially in a convenient and instantaneous medium like global Internet e-mail. Next time you are tempted to dash off an e-mail motivated by a strong emotion like anger or greed, whether to a friend, foe or stranger, don’t hit the “send” button until you have had a chance to calm down. Place what you have written on hold to revisit after a few hours or even a whole day. If it still seems to be the right thing to send, revise it using the other rules you find here before sending it.
- · Resist the temptation to reply to unwelcome and unsolicited e-mail. It usually encourages mailers to send you more. Ignoring it is usually the best policy. An exception to this rule is when the mail is slanderous, libelous, threatening, fraudulent or simply untrue and may have been disseminated to a large audience. In this case, send a polite but firm e-mail telling the sender you offended by his or her untruth and warning the sender to cease and desist. If it continues, do not engage in continued nasty exchanges, but take appropriate, measured and legal steps to deal with the matter as the situation might warrant. In the case of threatening or fraudulent e-mail, do not reply to the sender. Inform the proper legal authorities and follow their advice.
- · Style still counts. Despite the convenience of e-mail, the conventions of good and polite communications that respect your reader have not been repealed. You demonstrate respect to your reader when you start with a greeting (Dear Madam, Sir, Bill, Mary, etc.), end with an appropriate closing, (“Sincerely” or “Regards” are appropriate words in business communications). Also, it is good e-mail etiquette to identify yourself by signing your letter with an electronic e-mail signature. This is usually just a little file created in your e-mail software that includes your name, title, email, web site and only the briefest marketing message, if at all. Keep it to four short lines or fewer.
- · Remember that an e-mail letter is a still a letter and should follow the common-sense rules of good letter writing. Have a purpose for writing, write with your reader in mind and take pains to make your mail well-composed, organized and concise. Even an informal note should be well-written and never sloppy. or cryptic.
- · Mind your personal and business image because everything you write is an expression of you and your business and you don’t have a second chance to make a decent e-mail impression. Use your spell-checker and proofread what you have checked after the spell check and before you send it since spell check can lead inadvertently to the wrong word. If your spell checker does not allow you to do this conveniently, change software to one that does. Also, if grammar is not your strong suit, it is OK to use a commercial grammar checker. It may make your writing bland if you follow it too slavishly, but it will also make it grammatical.
By following these simple rules, you can stop worrying whether your e-mailing will get you in trouble and start taking advantage of one of the truly remarkable inventions of our century.
Jeffrey R. Orenstein, Ph. D. is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Suncoast Digital Press, an eBook-age book publisher in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. During his previous 25 year career as a political science professor at a large Midwestern state university, he wrote several textbooks and public policy analyses for Harper Collins, Praeger, Kendall Hunt and others and scores of policy monographs for professional meetings.
Since retirement from his first career, he has been a newspaper editor, author of business articles in national magazines and guest editorialist in daily newspapers.
He is the publisher and executive editor of Living On The Suncoast, a glossy lifestyle monthly magazine in the greater Sarasota area of Southwest Florida. Feel free to e-mail your questions or comments about business writing to him at jorenstein@
Orenstein has a B.A. from Ohio State University and an M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, all in political science.