Style of Emails and Letters
For the style of your emails and letters, you should concentrate on being clear and precise. Because audiences tend to read emails and letters quickly, opt for shorter sentences and paragraphs than you would use in a formal report or journal article. Also, in your emails and letters, you should consider carefully the tone. Tone is difficult to control in correspondence. For instance, in a job application letter, how do you talk about your accomplishments without sounding boastful? Or in an email complaining about faulty workmanship, how do you motivate the reader to repair the damage without alienating the reader? The answers are not simple. Often, engineers and scientists lose control of tone by avoiding simple straightforward wording. When some people sit down to write a professional email or business letter, they change their entire personality. Instead of using plain English, they use convoluted phrases such as "per your request" or "enclosed please find." Because these phrases are not natural or straightforward, they inject an undesired attitude, usually arrogance, into the writing. For more information about the style of correspondence, see Lesson 9 of The Craft of Scientific Writing. To gain practice in identifying common problems in correspondence, perform the following exercises.
Middle paragraphs for a professional email or letter.
Email (more formally known as electronic mail) is the dominant form of professional correspondence. Still relatively new, email is changing in terms of sophistication in format and expectation by audience. The principal advantages of email over other types of correspondence are its speed and ease of use. For instance, in minutes, you can send out information to many recipients around the world. Included in this section is a sample email format.
One disadvantage of email is the crudeness of the format. Some electronic mail systems do not allow such things as tabs. For that reason, the look of the message often is not as attractive as a memo or letter that has been printed on letterhead paper. Because the message does not look formal, many people mistakenly adopt a style that lacks the "appropriate formality" [Markel, 1996]. For instance, these people include needless abbreviations (such as "BTW" rather than "by the way").
Another disadvantage of email is also one of its advantages: its ease of use. With letters and memos, you must print out the correspondence before you send it. That printing out allows you to view the writing on paper--a step that makes it easier for you to proof for mechanical mistakes in spelling, usage, and punctuation. With email, though, you are not forced to print out on paper before you send. For that reason, electronic messages often are not as well proofed as regular correspondence. Remember: Because most networks archive email, you should take the same care with electronic mail as you do with printed correspondence. That care means using the appropriate formality in style and carefully proofing your message before you hit the "send" button.
A document that often accompanies correspondence, especially a job application letter, is a résumé. A résumé is a summary of your education, work experience, and accomplishments. Your résumé is important. Employers often use résumés to decide whether to interview you for a job, and proposal reviewers use résumés to decide whether you are qualified to do the proposed work. Therefore, you should highlight your best attributes.
In your résumé, you should arrive quickly at the important points. Résumés are often read in less than a minute; therefore, you should format your résumé in such a way that your outstanding characteristics are quickly seen (for an example, see the following sample template). In a résumé, you should be clear and concise. A résumé should be as long as it needs to be, but no longer. If possible, keep your résumé to one page. Second pages often are not read. If, however, you have several publications or much work experience, you may have to use two pages. Because of the speed with which people read résumés, vertical lists are preferable to paragraphs. Remember to keep those lists parallel and to use action verbs where possible. Action verbs, such as "designed," "analyzed," "measured," and "managed," put your accomplishments in the strongest light. Finally, proof your résumé--no mistakes are allowed.
Beginning paragraph of a professional email or letter.
Formats for letters vary from company to company. For instance, some formats call for paragraph indents; others don't. Included in this section is a sample format for letters. Also included in this section is a sample thank-you letter written by someone after a job interview. In this letter, notice how the writer gets to the point in the first sentence of the first paragraph. Notice also the simple and straightforward salutation ("Sincerely"). As with a memo, people who are mentioned or directly affected by the letter should receive a copy.
Ending of a professional email or letter.
Before we had email, we had memos (more formally known as memoranda). Memos are still used in companies and laboratories. Traditionally, you wrote memos to people within your place of work, and you wrote letters to people outside your place of work. One major difference between memos and letters is the title line found in memos. Because readers often decide whether to read the memo solely on the basis of this title line, the line is important. Another difference between letters and memos is that you sometimes write memos that serve as short reports. In such cases, the format for the memo changes somewhat. For instance, in a memo serving as a progress report for a project, you might include subheadings and sub-subheadings. Notice that people who are mentioned in a memo or are directly affected by the memo should receive a copy. Included here is a sample memo format and a sample memo. Also included is a sample memo report
Analysis of audience for a professional email or letter.