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How to Slow Down Email: Ignore Lists

For last week’s public Better Business Writing class, I emailed four questions to attendees in advance. They were in list form, like this:

  1. What is your job?
  2. What do you write on the job? To whom?
  3. What do you want to be able to do better in your writing?
  4. In terms of how you learn best, what do you hope happens or does not happen in the class?

Just about everyone responded efficiently. They either copied the questions into their reply and answered them in list form, or they answered them inline in my original message, like this:

  1. What is your job? Project manager
  2. What do you write on the job? Technical documents, user guides, statements of work (SOWs), knowledge base articles
  3. What do you want to be able to do better in your writing? Be more concise, write effectively to varied audiences, feel confident that my work is professional
  4. In terms of how you learn best, what do you hope happens or does not happen in the class? No lecturing. Give me writing projects and exercises–then give me feedback on how I do. 

Their listed answers were easy to find and consider. I was able to get a sense of each person’s goals and needs in seconds.

However, one person (I’ll call her Doris) ignored my list format when she responded. Instead, Doris replied in a 155-word paragraph.

I have nothing against 155-word paragraphs. But they bog me down when I am looking for quick information.

Here’s the good news: Change is easy. When I gave Doris private feedback, I told her how her paragraph had slowed me. We looked at it together, and she realized how much time it took to dig out the answer to “What do you want to be able to do better in your writing?”

Doris got it immediately.

If you write to people who ignore your lists or who make you dig out facts from swampy paragraphs, give them feedback. And tell them how easy and efficient it is to change.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

3 comments on “How to Slow Down Email: Ignore Lists”

  • That’s a great point. Sometimes when responding to a business email I feel like it’s more formal (or correct?) to answer in full sentences or paragraph style. But, you’re right. Of course the recipient’s valuable time should be a consideration. So, copy and paste I will!

  • When I answer a business email, I do it formal but short. We cannot be spending all our time reading extensive emails. I go right to the point.

  • I agree, formal but short paragraphs and get right to the point. We send out hundreds of emails from our small business loans site and it would be impossible to read long replies from other business. Thank you for the article.

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