Every day, more than 100 billion business emails are sent and received. And if, like me, you feel that you personally receive most of them, you may not be that far off: the average person spends a reported 28% of the workweek reading and answering email.
As this necessary, albeit time-consuming, form of communication has become a staple of working life, the style of email writing has continued to evolve. Gone are the lengthy letters of the past; the motto of the day is “get your point across quickly or it’s not getting read.” It’s why successful CEOs like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are known for writing succinct if not painfully short emails—we all want the most important information as quickly as possible.
As a technical editor, I often encounter similar feelings editing a document as I do sorting through extremely long emails, cringing each time I have to interpret five sentences that could have easily been expressed in one. I’ve found that the simple techniques we use to write effective emails every day can help make our lengthier technical communications more effective as well. Below are the top three lessons from email writing that can help make us all better technical writers:
- Be direct. Like emails, effective technical communication leaves little to no room for interpretation. It isn’t an advertisement or the next great American novel—it’s clear, crisp facts that drive home your message in the clearest way possible. There’s no room for vague references and flowery, million-dollar words. Get right to the point.
- Be succinct. While a technical document obviously requires more words than a brief email, there is a way to get your point across without leaving your audience exhausted. Succinct doesn’t just mean “short”—it implies a prioritization of information that elevates the information your reader needs and wants to know above all else. If you’re including details that aren’t critical to the central purpose of the report, consider placing them in footnotes or an Appendix.
- Be helpful. Make things easier for your reader whenever possible. Like a subject line that conveys what an email contains before you even have to open it, strong organization and well-written headings and subheadings can help guide a reader through the important points of a document. Make your document scannable with the opportunity to dig in for more detail, and your readers will thank you.
When it comes to writing your next technical communication piece, don’t abandon all of the hours of practice you’ve put in during the workweek. Approach it like you would an email that your audience will read and respond to. Rather than being put off for later, your documents will inspire action.