More excellent rules for writing emails that don't waste anyone's time

Nobody likes having their time wasted. And when you're paying someone for their time, you would hope that they're not wasting any of THEIR time — because if they are, you're paying for it, both literally and figuratively. 

As a freelancer who generally charges clients hourly for the time I spend working on their projects, I have to be careful about how much time I spend composing email communications to those clients. After all, my clients are paying for that time, too. In addition, I have to consider the time it takes for them to read my emails. So I owe it to them to strike the right balance of being brief yet thorough, businesslike yet friendly, and clear yet not overly detailed. 

Lawyers and other legal professionals have to remain consistently mindful of this as well — not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because their hourly rates are sometimes challenging for the average pocketbook. A client of mine, John O'Grady — an impossibly lovely and always conscientious estate and trust lawyer based in San Francisco (let me know if you want a referral!) — has a true passion for making sure his own emails to clients, as well as those written by his legal staff, adhere to principles designed to waste *no one's* time. (In fact, he seems to have decided to hire me as an editor based on an early blog post I wrote dedicated to writing more effective emails that don't waste anyone's time. Never let it be said that expressing excellent intentions gets you nowhere.) 

At any rate, my client has a fantastic set of email guidelines that he gives to his own team, and he has been gracious enough to allow me to share them with y'all. The guidelines are designed to help make sure his team's communications are focused on providing value to the firm's clients while not wasting their time, money, or focus. You'd be supremely well-served to make them your own guidelines, too. And if you're saying, "I don't have clients, so this doesn't apply to me," hush. Because you do have clients: your clients are your colleagues and other stakeholders.

Without further ado, guidance on how to send emails that provide significantly more value in exchange for everyone's time (for your reference, the bold marks his guidance; the explanations are mine):

  • One email per topic per client. If your email is too wide-ranging, you risk diluting or losing your client's focus. It's a courtesy to keep each missive focused on one matter only; that way, the client can easily digest it, attend to it, and file it where it belongs.
  • If you have three questions, send three emails, so that you get three answers. Again, don't risk diluting or losing their focus. Furthermore, you are much more likely to get one answer quickly than you are three, because different questions require different answers — answers that may differ greatly in nature and complexity. Easy, short answers can be provided promptly, while answers requiring careful decision making or extended contemplation can be processed in their own due time. 
  • Make it 25 words or less whenever possible! This is an excellent goal sure to be cherished by any busy human in any walk of life. Nobody has time for your extended treatises. That being said, if length is required for clarity or the client really will benefit from having the information centrally united, adhering to the 25-words-or-fewer rule may not be possible, and that's okay. The idea is simply to be conscious about your choices, and to make sure you have bulletproof reasoning for any wordy, lengthy emails. 
  • “The 'e' in emails stand for evidence.” –Willie Brown In sensitive situations, it's important to be careful about what you put in writing. If a dispute were to arise, your emails could be used as evidence against you. (Let's take a moment to raise a glass to Donny Jr., who — in dashing off a quick response relating his excitement regarding potentially incriminating information about a political opponent — gave us a compelling example of email "evidence" that none of us will soon forget.)
  • When clients send a question by email, it is rarely the best question. Schedule a telephone appointment. Conversation is a lot more interesting on the telephone, where anything can happen. Having one question turn into a string of 14 back-and-forth explanatory emails isn't the goal. The goal is to understand the question and provide a timely response. In many situations, it's going to be more efficient and effective to simply pick up the phone and thereby avoid constructing a long and potentially confusing email chain. 
  • As a disembodied form of communication, email is great for transmitting data. It sucks for nuanced technical discussions. Do not use for interpersonal conflict if you value the relationship. If you're dealing with a complex matter, it's often best to pick up the phone. Nothing expedites a solution more than real-time, two-way communication. Anyway, even the best writers struggle to make their tone and message crystal-clear on the page. 
  • One email per client. We have a duty of confidentiality regarding even the names of our clients. Do not mention the name of one client in another client’s file. Don't be lazy and wanton in sharing your clients' information. Consider your responsibility to each of your clients in every communication you make to any client or colleague, because your clients' files should only include information pertinent to them.
  • Be gracious: say “thank you.” Every communication benefits from a "thank you." After all, they're giving you their time in reviewing what you have to say. "Thank you" belongs somewhere in absolutely every email you write. 

Taking the minor bit of time required to review your emails with these guidelines in mind can make a massive impact on the value of your communications to your clients and colleagues. It's an investment you can make in your relationships. And it's an investment you can make in no longer wasting your own time composing yet another over-long, lazily worded email.