For many of us, much of our time every day is spent on written communication. If you follow my column, you know I've shared advice regarding how to know if others hate your emails and the surprisingly important role your sign-off plays.

But working with countless organizations, there's one email practice that stands out as the single biggest mistake people make -- and it's a difficult habit to break:

People write too much.

Over and over, I see emails with lots of unnecessary details, emails that become accusatory in nature, and emails that take jabs at the recipient or others (each make you look unprofessional). I bet you're seeing the same thing.

At other times, we are the accused. Our natural response is to defend ourselves. 

To illustrate:

You've landed a star client, and you've gotten steady work from them for a while. They love you and you love them. But suddenly you receive an email that looks like this:

Dear Justin,

I was informed that you are thinking about changing [details about a very important arrangement... ] I thought we agreed that we would [details about the previous meeting or conversation...]. Can we please stick to that?

There are loads of potential complications if we change things now and I feel like it's better when we move ahead according to our original plan.

Sound familiar?

So, there are two ways to respond to this email.

Option 1:

Thanks for your email.

First of all, I was never even aware the schedule had been finalized. [Next comes a lengthy defense, followed by a sum-up of the current circumstances, putting the client's mind at ease.]

Option 2:

Thanks for your email.

I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding. [Followed by a quick sum-up of the current circumstances, putting the client's mind at ease.]

Did you notice the subtle difference?

Both responses are polite, and both contain a quick summary of the way things currently stand, in reality.

But the first response includes too much information.

In most cases, the client could care less if you're right or wrong. Business is business, and things change constantly. We all make mistakes. Writing a lengthy defense is a waste of your time and the client's.

What they do care about is that things are right in the end. That's why the second part of the response is necessary information.

Are you in the habit of responding to emails off-the-cuff?

Careful. Emails have this funny tendency of getting read by persons who were not the originally intended recipients. In some cases, that means thousands of people.

As The Daily Beast contributor Olivia Nuzzi put it perfectly:

Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.

How to fix it

So, how do you break the vicious vice of verbosity?

If you need to write a sensitive email, follow five easy steps:

1. Save your email as a draft.

2. Schedule a time to look at it again. If the email is urgent, as little as five minutes (or another cup of coffee) can make a huge difference.

3. Re-read your email. When you do, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Am I writing too much? Will the recipient care about the details?
  • Is there anything here that could be easily misinterpreted, or that sounds angry, emotional, or flippant?
  • Would it be better to communicate this by phone?
  • Is there anything unnecessary I can remove from this email?

4. Adjust as needed.

5. Above all, remember: When in doubt, leave it out.

It's as easy as that. To be clear, I'm not discouraging politeness and common courtesy, or even business small talk. These all have their place.

But if you can eliminate all of the other stuff, I guarantee your emails will be better than 90% of what's out there. You'll save time. You'll save others time. And you'll leave clients, colleagues, and everyone else with a better impression.

I'll conclude with some classic wisdom from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, the timeless English writing guide:

"A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

I'll stop here. I've probably said too much already.

Published on: Oct 9, 2015