Friday, June 28, 2013

Discriminative Email Writing

The best email writers that I know write discriminatively. I don't me that the are discriminating in what they write or how they phrase it. Rather, I mean that when they write they try to discriminate that email that they are writing from a thousand other emails that they have also written and also from a thousand other emails that they can imagine have recently flooded the in-boxes of people that they are writing to. They try to make sure that every email is self-contained and does not contain dependencies that need to be traced through its predecessors in order to ensure full interpretation.

At the moment, our computer science bachelors students are carrying out their final presentations and my inbox is flooded with emails that all read "Hi, here is our thesis." OK. I allowed myself to exaggerate that statement just a bit for dramatic effect. It isn't, however, that gross of an exaggeration.

I decided that I would develop a list of emailing rules, and if I can get them refined enough, I will use them to help guide students on how they can most efficiently communicate with me (hoping, in the process to help them towards writing more professional emails and at the same time keeping my own email skills honed).
  • Please put the name of the project that you are communicating about in the subject line of the email.
  • Please put a keyword that reveals the nature of the issue in the subject line of the email. For urgent issues, you can also include the words "time sensitive".
  • Please start the email with one sentence that states what you need or what you are asking. Then, if there are additional explanations, put them in the second paragraph. The supporting information is very welcome, but please do not bury the main question or request deep in the email.
  • If you are referencing a past email, please include a copy of the past email in your email. 
  • If you are referring to a date, please write Friday 28 June and not "next Friday". If you need to refer to a time, please repeat the relevant dates, e.g., "A week before our presentation, which is scheduled for Thursday 4 July."
  • If you are referring to a URL mentioned in a past email, please repeat the URL in every future mail that needs to make the same reference.
  • If you are write an email and expect that the answer will be relevant to the whole project team, please put all the members of the team on cc so that the answer can go via reply-to-all instead of forwarding them the answer afterwards. (This let's everyone involved in the communication know exactly who knows what.)
It is curious to me, because thinking discriminatively seems to come naturally to our students. The question "Which keyword query do you need to use in order to find X document that you read last week on your hard drive" is not a particularly hard one. Put differently, as humans it seems that we can think of a document,  and relatively easily come up with a word or phrase that will discriminate that document from hundreds of others we read. It would be nice if would could more consistently apply the inverse sort of thinking when we write email so that we ourselves generate documents that are very easy to discriminate.