Emails Dos and Don’ts : Successful Writing

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Emails Dos and Don’ts :

How you handle email depends on whether you are writing casual correspondence (to friends, relatives and so on) or professional correspondence (to clients, prospective employers, government agencies and others you need to be a little bit more formal with).

Three larger issues cut across those personal versus professional boundaries :

  • Privacy

  • Snap responses

  • Dealing with unwanted email

  • Privacy :

    Whether you are engaging in casual correspondence with friends or working out secret arrangements for your company's takeover of a competitor, the fact of the matter is that email is almost never totally private. Once you hit SEND, your document exists forever, somewhere in cyberspace and anyone with enough power and computer resources can find it and read it. Email can also be printed out and saved or circulated with one keystroke and it can be forwarded an infinite number of times the same way. In all these ways, email may seem more momentary than print mail, but the truth is actually the opposite.

    Email sent on your school's computer system is always subject to the school's scrutiny. Email sent on a commercial system is subject to the controls of that system's own administrators. Email sent on your employer's system is always subject to your employer's scrutiny and people have lost jobs over that. Off-color jokes sent on the company's system need to hit only one person wrong and you're in trouble. Office romances are never secrets anyway, but when they are planned and carried out over company email, they can seriously damage the individuals involved.

    Even deleted email still exists on some server somewhere. Not long ago one of us needed to retrieve some email that had been deleted two months earlier from an individual account in our university's system. A simple visit to the university's computing help desk and the files were restored in fifteen minutes. That’s all it takes.

    If you put something into email that you do not want others to be able to see, you are probably making a mistake.

    If you really need to protect your correspondence, consider using one of the privacy programs, such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), that are available free at many sites on the Web. There are also services (called encryption services) that will in effect lock each piece of your mail shut for you as it travels through various computers on the way to the ad¬dressee. Typical encryption services include HushMail (at, PrivacyX (, Anonymizer ( or Freedom ( Each of these provides a basic free service (or 30 days of free service), with upgraded service available for a fee. With such encryp¬tion, no one other than your intended recipient can read your mail. Of course, any administrator who wants to can still see that you're sending and receiving encrypted mail which could be a problem in itself. But no one else can read it.

    Snap responses :

    There's another way email may seem like casual conversation but in fact is not: snap responses. In some situations, for you to respond instantly may well be a mistake. One such situation is the experience of receiving a piece of email that is just infuriating and instantly sending a response you will very quickly come to regret.

    In a professional setting, the scenario often goes something like this. On August 25, a client who had told you the deadline for your work is October 15 sends email saying the deadline has been moved up to September 10, blithely assuming you have absolutely nothing else to do dur¬ing the interim - no other clients, no other pursuits - and that the work can in fact be done in that short a time even if you work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on just that project. If that email comes at the end of a long day or on a Monday morning, you may well be tempted to pound out a red-hot reply instantly. Still in the adrenaline rush of the moment, you hit Send. Two seconds later you think, "Oh-my-gosh-what-have-I-done!"

    Or you read something on one of the email discussion lists you be¬long to - maybe the one for your women's studies class - that really sets you off. You write a blistering response - meaning to send it only to the original message's author not to the whole list - and hit Send. A split second later you realize that because of the way that particular list is set up, anything not specifically designated to go to only one person automatically goes to the entire list. But in the heat of the moment you didn't make that specification. And now that flame you sent out will not only be read by everyone on the list, but also will live forever in cyberspace.

    Many of us have made such mistakes. You can help yourself out a lot by instituting a policy of never ever responding instantly to email that provokes you in any way. If you read it in the morning, wait until after lunch to respond. If you read it at the end of the day, wait until the next day. Over and over again, even in many situations that are not quite as extreme as these but that still require some reflection before a response, you will find this policy helps you avoid dangerous mistakes whether due to bad temper or just bad judgment.

    Dealing with unwanted emails :

    With so many people on the Web, perhaps it is not surprising that there are such things as unwanted email (bulk mail sent electronically, often referred to in the Web community as spam), even mail that is used to ha¬rass someone (mail that is sexually offensive or physically or sexually threatening). Certainly you do not want in either your personal life or your professional life to be involved in sending such mail.

    Many people like to send jokes, chain letters, prayers and so on to others on the Web. From the amount of such mail we ourselves receive, there must be people out there somewhere who welcome it. We believe, however, that the vast majority of recipients do not want such mail. The evolving etiquette seems to require senders to ask their would-be recipi¬ents first whether they mind receiving jokes (or inspirational stories or surefire investment schemes or whatever) from time to time.

    Mail that is intended to be sexually offensive or that is physically or sexually threatening (called harassing mail on the Web) is a much more serious issue. Some college students who have sent offensive mail to casual acquaintances or even to strangers have apparently been surprised to learn such behavior will get them expelled (and perhaps arrested). Even though the email is casual (i.e., not professional), just sending it can have serious consequences.

    What do you do if you receive such mail? Obviously, that depends on how bad the content is. In some less severe cases, simply deleting it may well end the matter. If the mail is repeated, you can save that piece of mail for record - keeping purposes and then send something like this to the sender:

    On [date] you or someone using your account sent me unsolicited email which I found offensive. I am putting you on notice that I do not wish to receive any further correspondence of any type from you. Continuing to send me messages may constitute harassment that is a violation of state and federal law. Again, do not send me any further email or contact me in any other manner, electronic or otherwise.

    [Signed, your login name]

    If there are repeated instances, you can then go to authorities (your school's system administrators, your Internet service provider or even the police) for further assistance. It's easy to delete something without even reading it if you recognize the sender's address as one that has been sending you harassing or threatening email, but there is a strong argument that people have a civic responsibility to deal actively with harassment and threats (but in ways that are safe) rather than passively endure them. If the threatening nature of the mail or its offensiveness seems great, you need to save the email and take it to the appropriate authorities.

    To continue the section on
    Sending Electronic Communications,

    Writing for Online Readers

    Handling Casual Correspondence

    Handling Professional and Academic Correspondence


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