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Does the 5-Sentence Email Work?

A participant in a business writing program recently told me his goal was to write emails of no more than 5 sentences. He is the second person in his company who mentioned this writing goal to me. But is a 5-sentence email a legitimate goal?

Or should our goal be to communicate effectively, without regard to the number of sentences as long as our message is clear, concise, formatted well, and focused on results?

I believe in providing what each communication needs. The number of sentences is unimportant as long as we recognize this truth: The longer the email, the less likely it is that the reader will finish it and reply as we intend.

I read an excellent blog post on the topic of sentence-limited emails by Georgina Laidlaw, titled "Shorter Email: Productivity Help or Hoax?"  Laidlaw described writing a 350-word email to which she received a 2-sentence reply that provided only a fraction of the information she needed. She realized the writer was a proponent of 2-sentence emails. But clearly a 2-sentence response was insufficient.

A 350-word email is a huge, risky test of the reader's patience and focus. In Laidlaw's position, I probably would have taken one of these approaches:

  • Discuss the information by phone or in person, then summarize the key points in email. (This may work as long as the person isn't limited to 2-minute meetings!)
  • Highlight the essential points and requests for action in an email, attaching the details in a memo or report.  
  • List the essential topics in an email, then follow up with a meeting request to discuss them. Attach details to the meeting request.

Of course, no matter which email approach we take, if the recipient insists on replying in 2-sentence or even 5-sentence emails, the amount of progress we can make in each round of email will be limited.

What is your view on limiting the number of sentences in emails? If you are interested in this topic, you will enjoy Laidlaw's blog post and the good discussion that follows it.

P.S. If you are wondering why I did not spell out the numbers 2 and 5 in this blog post, it is because I wanted them to stand out. Spelled out numbers would not have stood out in the text.

Syntax Training 

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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.

6 comments on “Does the 5-Sentence Email Work?”

  • Generally speaking, turning a good “rule of thumb” into a hard, fast rule is a poor idea. I think the 5 sentence test is a good rule of thumb and that we should always work toward concise communications. However, putting the confines of a rule around it means that we would be relying on rules when we have perfectly good brains to guide us. I’ve seen businesses paralyzed by too many rules; people begin to believe they’re not expected to think as long as they follow the rules.

  • I prefer short e-mails that are purely factual, because I hate typing “dissertations” and don’t like how subtle meaning can be lost in a non-factual or opinion-based e-mail. If there is a lot to cover or if there is a chance of being misunderstood, I pick up the phone.

  • I remember your writing earlier about a 30-second rule (reading, not writing).

    Yes, it shouldn’t be hard and fast, but that tip has helped me to remember to keep my messages concise.

    Another “rule” I’ve heard is the one-screen rule. That is, keep the content short enough so that the writer doesn’t have to scroll down.

    That tip is only somewhat helpful because different readers have various screen resolutions and email clients that handle font size differently.

  • I struggled with this issue just last night. Although my email was clear, I kept paring it down to make it shorter and easier to skim. I finally settled on breaking the major points out into bullet points and bolding essential sentences. I prefaced the bullets by saying that I realized this was a lengthy explanation and I had formatted it to allow for skimming.

    The outcome was that I received immediate responses from both parties on the email and they thanked me for getting to the point.

    I certainly think that there are individuals who could benefit from the 5 sentence rule, or at least the intention to hit it.

  • Thank you for commenting, David, Alfredo, and Nick. It seems as though we are all in agreement.

    Nick, your persistent editing paid off. Congratulations on the immediate, positive responses you inspired.


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