Email hacks and email etiquette

Updated 23 July 2009 | Communicating, Networking | Comments (0)

Emailing an academic

Michael Leddy wrote a very popular blog post on the topic. My version:

  1. Include your full name somewhere, like in the signature. A “From:” like “abc123@canterbury.ac.nz” doesn’t tell me who you are.
  2. Have contact details in your signature: website, office phone. Otherwise keep the signature short.
  3. Start with some sort of informal salutation, however brief. Hi there, or Dear Mike, depending on degree of deference. You do not have to call me Dr. Dickison. This is New Zealand.
  4. Finish with some sort of signoff: Kind regards, or Thanks, work for me.
  5. Punctuation, a few capital letters, and no txting please.

Remember that if students only write to their lecturer once a month, the average lecturer will get a couple of student emails every day, and most students expect a detailed reply. Lecturers wonder why they don’t come to office hours instead. See Weiss and Hanson-Baldauf’s (2008) North Carolina study. My favourite bit: 53% of faculty thought students were “too friendly” but only 5% of students agreed.

General email advice

  • Avoid Reply All; instead think about why you are writing to this person, and what you need them to do. Don’t make them think “Do I need to respond to this?”
  • You can always print, file, and then delete the email rather than leave it lurking.
  • When sending a bulk email, address it to yourself and BCC all the recipients. They shouldn’t be able to see everyone else’s address.
  • Good subject headers: Review needed for Smith conference paper, or Your car is on fire.
  • “Thanks!” is a perfectly acceptable reply. One school of thought suggests no reply at all is OK.
  • A 30-second telephone call can get more done than a 20-minute email.
  • Tone down your automatic email checking. Once an hour is fine. You could even set aside a couple of times each day and check manually.
  • You can always declare email bankruptcy: trash your inbox and let everyone on your address book know you won’t be replying, so they should mail you again if it’s still applicable. Then insitute Inbox Zero.
  • It’s not a bad idea to have a general-purpose email account, such as Gmail, that you can give out for online shopping or mailing lists. Gmail has pretty good spam-catching abilities.

See also: Becoming an email ninja (from 43 Folders)

Inbox Zero

Instead of filing into numerous folders, rely on the search capabilities of your email software. So you only need an Archive mailbox for mail you choose to save. Then, create something like the following mailboxes:

  • Respond: only a quick reply needed. Plough through these when you get a moment.
  • Action: needs to be turned into one or more items on a To Do list before you can archive it.
  • Holding Pen or Purgatory: for mail you can’t yet archive–either you’re waiting for a person to reply, or you need to refer to it again in the short term. Process this once a week and delete or archive the contents.

When you choose to check email, process everything into one of those mailboxes. If it only requires a “Thanks!”, do it right then. Otherwise get to each mailbox when you’ve set aside some time to blitz it. Don’t let unprocessed mail just sit there, taunting you.

See also: Inbox Zero (from 43 Folders), and Merlin Mann’s article in Macworld.


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