A pencil resting on a notebook, being sharpened.

On email and brevity

I write a lot of email.

As I've written more of it, I've gotten better at it. By which I mean I've become more considerate of the person receiving the email, trying to keep my emails brief but also thorough. But these are competing goals, and brevity takes too much time.

As the famous saying, attributed to Blaise Pascal, goes:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

So often being thorough wins over brevity. Because while thoroughness takes time, it's an easier kind of writing.

On the receiving end, it's a different story. Getting a thorough email is disheartening: a wall of text with no end in sight. What should you respond to, if anything?

I have three tricks to make these emails more palatable:

  • If I'm not expecting a response, I mark the email explicitly FYI ("for your information") or NAR ("no action required").
  • If part of the email is actionable while part of it is not, I clearly separate them with a heading and write something like: "You can stop reading here. The rest of this email contains the supporting info that guided my decision" (or whatever is appropriate).
  • Finally, if I am expecting a response, I ask closed questions and style them in bold.

Even with these tricks, I know that when I send a long email, I've made the recipient's day a little bit worse.

Leo Babuta presents another approach to email:

5 sentence emails: I got this idea from Mike Davidson, whose article came at a perfect time as I was limiting other things in my life, and was also trying to keep my emails short at that time. His 5-sentence rule (no email can be longer than 5 sentences) fit in perfectly with everything else I tried to do, and I've adopted it. It forces you to write only what's essential. I broke the rule at first, but I've been pretty good lately. This rule also limits the amount of time you spend replying to email, and makes processing a breeze.

This idea resonates a lot with me. The kinds of email I like to receive are as short as possible, to the point. If I'm missing some information, I'll just ask for it. This approach treats email more as a conversation and less as an exchange of elaborate monologues.

But when I tried this method, I found that I would recast my sentences to squeeze more and more words into them. Short sentences aid understanding. But this method demonizes them.

It's often thought that short sentences cater to the hoi polloi. But Sara Vincent, in talking about how 25 words is the limit on GOV.UK sites, notes that:

[T]he more educated a person is, and the more specialist their knowledge, the more they want it in plain English.

These people often have the least time and most to read. Which means they just want to understand your point and move on, quickly.

Let's say that your typical sentences are verbose, but not uncharitably serpentine. Say, 25 words per sentence. Instead of five sentences, you can give yourself 125 words to work with. So you can retain the spirit of Babuta's suggestion by counting words instead of sentences.

Counting words is more of a hassle, especially since email clients don't provide a word count. But that's only a minor problem for me. I do all my non-trivial writing, including email, in a text editor and then review it with Marked. At my suggestion, the developer of Marked provided instructions to highlight sentences of over 25 words. It chokes if the text has a lot of markup, but it's fine for straight prose – which is most of what I write.

I find the objectivity of counting words rather than sentences to be worth the minor hassle. I still go over this limit, but at least now I have a clear sense of my own long-windedness.

If an email reaches 300 words, then it's time to consider that perhaps this isn't an email at all.

It turns out that I often need to include supporting material. This material isn't really part of that communication, in the same sense that linking to a website or attaching a file is not. None of these should count towards the word limit. After all, the point is to streamline communication not to reduce everything to secret handshakes.

One approach is to keep the email brief and include supporting material as a separate document. Google Docs, with its strong collaboration features, is an excellent choice for this purpose, especially if you want concrete feedback on the supporting material.

There is a danger here that one may send brief emails with links to novella-length documents. All heuristics are subject to misuse. And there are even reasons to abandon brevity altogether.

Guy Kawasaki, who also adheres to the 5-sentence rule, makes the best case for this:

There is one exception to this brevity rule: When you really don't want anything from the recipient, and you simply want to heap praise and kindness upon her. Then you can go on as long as you like!

I like that even more. We are so unpractised in gratitude, that it is almost impossible to overappreciate. But Kawasaki also implies that verbosity stems from the sender's ego, their fear of being misunderstood.

Instead of trying to be thorough, or even brief, we should make the effort to write in good faith, with the intention to be understood. After all, an email's recipient is always another human – like us.

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