Rules and guidelines on writing Emails

My musings on composing emails. This is non technical. I have other pages for that. This is the human side of SMTP.

I originally wrote this in 1998 - there are some revisions!


All rules are there to be broken. If they couldn't be broken, they wouldn't be there.

"If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun." ~ Katharine Hepburn.

The One Concept and Five Key Words rule

Keep it short, sweet and simple. Analyse the content.

Remember: your email should have no more than one concept and five key words.


By concept I mean:

Don't start talking about holidays, decorating the server room or your cat.

Never have more than one concept. Compose and send separate emails if required.


Look at every noun and verb. How many are key?

Realise the guy you're writing is not an idiot - even though he appears to be a very good emulation of one. He is very busy, and is handling many other queries and problems that you know nothing about. (Probably.)


Focus on what you have to say. If you ramble off topic your reader will lose interest. Loosing focus means you'll break the One Concept and Five Key Words rule.

But I really do have a lot to say!

Then make it a report, a separate attachment to an email.

Compose it as a Word document, or link to a web page. Your report can have a beginning, middle and end. A story with an introduction, a main point or a thesis, evidence and arguments, maybe refined details, then a conclusion.

Subject field

The subject field serves several purposes:

Either make the subject a brief summary - no more than 5 words. Or copy a key sentence from the body of the text.

The subject field should be relevant

Ensure the subject is relevant and remains germane. When starting a new thread / topic create a new subject. Don't be lazy and reply to an old thread...

Subject: Flying Lessons
Body: Dear Nick, please send me money: my girl friend is pregnant, love Deknoi.

The following would be more acceptable as the subject relates to the content...

Subject: Flying Lessons
Body: Dear Nick, forget the flying lessons, I'll need the money for something else: my girl friend is pregnant, love Deknoi.

This would be better still - it's more concise...

Subject: Miss Noy pregnant
Body: Dear Nick, I need money now: my girl friend is pregnant, love Deknoi.

The subject field should not be a teaser

Ensure the subject is relevant complete as possible. We are surrounded by marketing teasers and "click here for more". No, don't make it any worse - just come out with it.

This example has a teaser...

Subject: There's something I have to tell you about Miss Noi
Body: Dear Nick, please send me money: my girl friend Miss Noi is pregnant, love Deknoi.

If you're not telling a story in an email then include the punch line in the subject. 


If there is an existing thread - stick to it! Don't be lazy and create a new thread because you can't be bothered to find the original one. (Worse ... why not just click send with no subject. That really does say "Screw you! Do this now! I have no responsibility for my communication, nor you, you inferior nothingness!")

 Your recipients will have to think... now what is that idiot saying? Does he mean this? Shall I reply on both threads?

Absolute Time

Don't use relative time. What I mean is don't say now, or this year, next Tuesday, last year. That's more mental gymnastics your poor recipient has to go through to get the absolute time. So that's now: 21:45 pm on 16/1/15, 2015, Tuesday the 27th January 2015, and 2014. 


As you write excitedly about your friends and colleagues make sure you are clear about the individuals are prattling on about. Try not to use unrelated "he" or "she". (Or "Ken", "Mick" or "Barbie" - sod's law - you will have many chums with the same short names.)


Never ever flame.

You may have experienced it happening to you - don't do it!

Overcome the temptation to vent your spleen by dashing off some ill-thought rant.

Go through the motions of composing the email - yes. Show a friend in the room what you've typed. (Do this by hauling him over, don't email it to him.)

You are probably angry - explain to yourself why. Is it justified?

Does the person matter? If not then don't bother. Use the "trash can". (Rubbish bin)

Don't reply immediately. Control your rage. Sleep on it: send your reply tomorrow.

When your time comes, and you are explaining all to St Peter, He will not be very happy with you if you've ever flamed.

Encourage Emails

Get the other party to send you an email, not just "phone up" It will make him think what he has got to say. It may even help him to answer his own question.

Speech is Silver, Silence is Golden

If you've got nothing to say, don't say it.

Spel Check

Always run your email through the spell checker. Sending messages with words mispelt will turn off your reader, he will loose interest quickly.

Then check the words that have been corrected. It's too eyes to write complete gibberish.

Use proper English for Brits, and use the American dialect for our friends over the pond.


Don't use "texting", the gibberish all teenagers seem to generate with ease. Such lingo: "CU L8R M8 TTYL"

(TTFN is correct however!)

You've got a keyboard with 104 keys on it. Use them!


not bothering to capitalise text is slovenly. SHOUTING IS RUDE.


Get a book on punctuation. The rules are easy. Its simple to learn! Never over do exclamation marks: they are like you laughing at your own feeble joke!!!!!!!


Get a book on it.

Being defamatory

Don't. In a corporate you'll be shown the door. Neither be sexist, heightist, colourist or sizest. That dykey porg, that's as black as the ace of spades, and that you don't get many of those to the pound, should not be referred to as such in your email.

The pen is mightier than the sword.

Take care that an email, especially if copied to others, doesn't unintentionally upset. It is very difficult to compose English. Subtle nuances may be missed.  Words are cold, hard and impersonal. Something said in jest can too easily be misinterpreted.

Death, and expressions of regret

Don't try to send sympathies by email. (Delicate and tender sentiments don't carry well over the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.) A phone call, or a personal visit is preferable.

Instant Messenger

Instant Messenger is fine for casual, temporary messages - arranging meals, pub visits. Never attempt a serious dialogue.

HTML Emails

Don't. Most people set their email clients to read text only so your artistic creation will be lost. Does having a green wall paper add to your message? No. It's just trash isn't it? So just get rid of it. Now!

Animated Auto-appended Signatures

Don't use them. Cheap trashy gimmick. When I receive them I usually swear, then delete the email, not bothering to read it.

He or She - the personal pronoun.

We know that women capable of using computers, and some have started to work alongside us men. (It's amazing that they seem to get away with it!)

Being sexually neutral can make reading difficult! Your reader will find you message more understandable if you stick to "he" or to "she".

In a document it is usual to have a statement: '"He" means "He or She"', but an email should be short, and such a statement is clutter.

Remember: never be sexist!

I have never found bad sexist attitudes in any place I've worked. This doesn't mean that it should be ignored. To be sensitive you have to be aware.

Where do you draw lines? Gays and Transsexuals (pre and post re-assigned) we meet are part of our lives. And cats.

Multiple destinations

Sending an email to everybody in my address book is rare. May be for a change of address. Even then I would blind CC. (BCC) I don't want all my friends and work colleagues to know I correspond with [email protected]


When I "CC" to people I never expect a reply. CCing usually happens in an "arse covering" exercise. The "To" recipient has done something wrong, or is just being stupid, or just not engaged their brain. You have to be see as squeaky clean. Take care, don't flame!


It's now 2015, and this page looks a bit dated after 17 years. I still agree with my comments, although I have edited the "The One Concept and Five Key Words rule" above.

The "The One Concept and Five Key Words rule" used to allow for two concepts. Why have I downgraded this? Now I write regularly to people where English is not their first language; one concept is far more clear and direct.

I have also added "The subject field should be relevant" and "The subject field should not be a teaser".

Also added are gripes about absolute time, misunderstood pronouns and thread usage.