Why your emails are too long -- and how to improve

Flickr user Biscarotte

(MoneyWatch)  To paraphrase Homer Simpson (who was speaking not about email, but about beer): Email is the source of, and solution to, all of life's problems.

Certainly, the modern business world could not exist without the ability to exchange messages instantly, but email also causes all sorts of communication problems. For starters, there's way too much of it. Second, much of the email we get is too darned long. Long email creates bottlenecks in our in-boxes and often goes unread because it seems too complex.

Recently, The Management Ninja, which is written by efficiency expert Craig Jarrow, cataloged a number of reasons why emails are often too long. Many of the blog's items in the list are spot on. Here are the top reasons why your mail is too long, and what you should do to combat those problems:

You don't know exactly what you're trying to say. As the Management Ninja says so astutely, "Writing more isn't going to cover up the fact that you are lacking knowledge." I have another angle on this. Often, people write too much at the start of an email because they don't know how to phrase what's on their mind. It's a form of clearing one's throat. The solution? Read your lead-in, and if it doesn't get to the point right away, delete it. I believe in "Bottom Line Up Front" email.

You're sending spam. Who's on your "To" and CC lines? Do all those people need to be there? If not, prune the list. Resist the temptation to send email for its own sake, especially in a corporate environment.

You're forwarding the whole thread. Scan the forwarded bit below your new message. Do you need to include the entire thread, dating all the way back to the Nixon administration? Some context might be essential, but cut as much as possible. Otherwise, it'll feel like the recipient needs to read a novel to understand the issue.

It should be more than one email. If your email is really long, take a look and see if there are multiple action items, projects or requests included within. If so, you'll probably get better traction by sending several shorter, pithier emails.

You're not self-editing. Lastly, this issue is a superset of all the others. Don't just write and click "send." Yes, you're busy, and yes, you need to send a lot of mail. But reading, thinking about and editing your email before you send it can help you trim down your messages and make them more understandable.

What are the worst email gaffes you've sent or received? Please share your stories in the comments.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Biscarotte

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