How to Write Concise Emails – Lessons from Journalism

I have only made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the opportunity to make it shorter.
Blaise Pascal

We all know we should keep our emails short. But still I receive (and at times also send) those bulky essays of emails. After all that’s what we learned at school: Every text needs introduction, main part and conclusion. This series on writing concise emails is meant as a quick reference for everyday life, and as an explanation why I may have sent you a one-word-email.

But I have to describe a complex issue…

Life is complicated and often we have to describe complicated stuff. So let’s get inspired by the masters of describing complex issues: Journalists. Have you ever noticed you could read only the first few sentences of a newspaper article and already know most of the facts? Meet the Inverted Pyramid.

The inverted pyramid basically means: Most important things first. Then describe details and at the end talk about background info and context. This is quite contrary to the way we tend to tell stories and so using the inverted pyramid for everyday communication can feel quite strange in the beginning.

Graphic of the journalistic concept "Inverted Pyramid" showing a pyramid standing on its tip
by The Air Force Departmental Publishing Office (AFDPO) from Wikipedia

 

The five Ws

In order for the inverted pyramid to work, any random news report will start with a sentence answering most of the following five W-questions:

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened? (In case of emails also: What might happen in the future?)
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it take place?
  • Why did it happen? (The why-part gives so much contextual info you should never leave it out anywhere)

Your emails should do the same or have a very good reason why you leave out a question. (When and where can often be clear from the context) The key is to explain everything that’s important to your recipient in the first sentence.

After you’ve answered these questions in one or two sentences, you can add the remaining details. Very often you will find there is no need for details because you just explained everything. Young journos spend a considerable amount of time practicing only how to express complicated situations in one sentence by answering the five Ws.

While not perfect for all email-situations, the five Ws is a framework that makes sure you don’t already start babbling in the first sentence and as such is the most powerful tool in writing. Added benefit: If your recipients only read the first sentence, they already know everything important.

Example

Let’s pretend you received a feature request for your new app and you want to ask your friend who happens to be a user experience hack what he thinks about the new feature. Normally one would write something like this:

Hi, do you remember we made this app to share photos of your cat’s food? We decided to put it on the app store a month ago and now drown in feature requests. Yesterday I received a feature request from a lady who has two cats and always is on the go because she only takes her cats to eat at restaurants. The thing is she would like to be able to add posts from her smartphone. In order to do this she would have to edit her timeline from the mobile app.
As you are quite the UX expert I’d really appreciate your input on how to prioritize this feature and how we could design it.

WRONG! Move the backstory to the end (Your friend can wait one sentence to read the context) and start with the important info:

Hi, yesterday a user told me she would like to edit her timeline in our mobile app so she could add posts while she’s on the go. I’d love to hear your view on this from a UX standpoint. Are you free this afternoon?

Just as a reminder: we made this app to share photos of your cat’s food and put it on the app store a month ago. Now we get loads of feature requests each day and I’m not quite sure how to prioritize them.

 

Now you know the basics. Start practicing in your next email and you’ll notice how your emails become shorter featuring more precise language.

The Tawny Cat III by NCBrian on flickr

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