Say what you need to say

Volume 14, Issue 9; 15 Mar 2011

I don't know who started the [expletive deleted —ed] meme that email messages should be short, but they're wrong.

SMS messages have to be short. Instant messages are often best kept short. Anything you're typing on a phone probably benefits from brevity, at least from your perspective. Twitter and other microblogging messages have to be short. If you call me on the phone, please keep it short. But email messages do not have to be short.

Now, I'm not advocating verbal diarrhea. Among the most important skills you can acquire in life is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, both in speech and in writing. Especially in writing. I am absolutely serious. If there is only one piece of useful advice in the entire corpus of this weblog, I swear to you that's it.

Lots of useful email etiquette has been lost over the years, but replacing it with nonsense like this is not the solution. (This essay was motivated by a second reference to short email messages, three paragraphs perhaps, but I can't now find that reference.)

Your email should be as long is is required to clearly and concisely express the ideas you wish to convey. Attempting to constrain those ideas into some arbitrary length metric is stupid.

Conversely, if I take the time to craft a thoughtful and complete response to some question you ask me in email, I will not be amused if your reply suggests you couldn't be bothered to take the time to read it.

I'm just sayin'


It's a variant of an old Washington meme: "If you're arguing, you're losing." Three sentences is more than enough to give people orders with.

At $FORMER_EMPLOYER my manager espoused the five-sentence version of this, combined with a rigorous belief in sticking to the agenda at meetings. Consequently, nothing that actually needed to be discussed and hashed out ever was.

—Posted by John Cowan on 15 Mar 2011 @ 07:16 UTC #

I agree 100%. An email needs to be as long as it needs to be to fully answer the question.

I send both very long and very short emails. In my job the shorter the email coming in the longer my response usually needs to be to fully answer it.

—Posted by Derek Read on 17 Mar 2011 @ 12:21 UTC #