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Read Carefully Before You Write That Email

Emails have their problems. They can suffer from old subject lines, too many topics, lack of focus, and bad punctuation. But one serious, time-wasting email problem has nothing to do with writing. That problem is reading. Actually it's poor reading–reading an email too fast or only partway before responding. 

My friend Tina (not her real name) confessed to this example at lunch yesterday: She got an email from a new acting team leader, telling team members about their new roles on the team. Tina got upset when she saw that the new leader had placed a certain older, very experienced person, Jerome, in a junior role on the team. Tina crafted a sensitive email–taking a long time to get it right–explaining why the leader's decision would cause problems for Jerome and others. She recommended that the new leader rethink the roles.

Before Tina clicked Send, she wisely took a moment to reread the team leader's original message. That's when she realized she had misread it. Jerome would still be in a leadership role. Tina had read the message quickly and mixed up the names. 

Tina shuddered to think of how much damage her email might have caused. The team leader might have been confused at first, then irritated and angry, then wary of Tina's motives–all because Tina had not slowed down to read the message carefully. 

Sure, it is possible–even likely–that the original email wasn't written well. But a rereading of the message made it immediately clear to Tina that she had misunderstood.

Can you think of times when you have not read an email closely and ended up writing a nonsensical or an unnecessary reply? Or have you received an email whose author had obviously fluttered through your message? 

I remember replying to a client to ask when she wanted to schedule a class. Too late I realized she had included the preferred date in her original message. Ouch. No harm done, but my reply made me look sloppy.

From conversations in business writing classes, I know that unread and hastily read emails lead to millions of unnecessary clarifying, questioning, and problem-solving follow-up messages. 

Read your email with a sense of responsibility, and I will do the same. Yes, writers can slow us down and drive us nuts because of the way they write. But we can't use people's writing as an excuse to avoid doing our jobs. If we click Delete or Reply before a careful journey to the end of the message, we share the blame for mix-ups, conflicts, and games of email Ping-Pong. 

Are you with me? 

Syntax Training–See our complete list of upcoming classes. 

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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.

9 comments on “Read Carefully Before You Write That Email”

  • Worth noting that sometimes when you read emails on a mobile device you miss out on relevant information (missing attachments, missing links, track changes) that the sender did include in the original email.

  • Good one, Lynn. And this problem is made worse because many times the message should not have gone out in email in the first place. I suspect “Tina’s” email situation may have been one that would have best been handled in a meeting, if possible.

  • I have removed the expression “shoot off an email” from my vocabulary and it drives me crazy when I hear it. Emails have become a central means of business communication and we can’t just “shoot” them off. Emails need the same attention as a letter.

  • Hello, Lynn! I have been out of the loop on your blog for awhile but I am happy to be following it again. I wholeheartedly agree with your final point in this post. It truly does not matter if the sender has poorly written their email. It is our responsibility as the reader to read carefully and ensure we are properly understanding the message. I think this attitude applies to more than business writing, in fact- it’s about taking 100% responsibility for our role in all situations we are involved in, instead of blame-shifting or complaining about others. I am just starting on this journey myself but have found it to be very impactful already!

  • Thank you, everyone, for your comments!

    Grinberg, thanks for your note. We do need to recognize that senders sometimes include things we can’t access easily on our mobile devices.

    Laura, you are right. It would have made sense for Tina to ask the new leader to meet with her. As she prepared for the meeting, she probably would have realized her mistake. Even if they ended up meeting, Laura could quickly correct Tina’s error.

    Patty, great point! “Shoot off an email” is a wrong-headed expression.

    Lisa Marie, welcome back! Thanks for emphasizing that important point. Taking 100 percent responsibility–even 110 percent!–is an excellent way of doing business.


  • Hi again, Lynn, I realize that I’m late to the game in replying to this post, but I just wanted to point out that many E-mail services actually offer options that delay the sending of your E-mail for a certain amount of time (anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 or even 10 minutes later) after you’ve hit the “Send” button. In Gmail, for example, this option is called “Undo Send” and can be configured from your General Settings. Once the feature is activated, you can “Cancel” the sending of an E-mail if you recognize that you’ve made a spelling error, didn’t hit the “Reply to All” button, or just misunderstood the original message that you’re replying to.

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