Building a Writing Culture: Email Tips

Bad email behavior is the one thing besides personal hygiene that can ruin your office reputation. Billions of emails are sent per day. And despite the rise of workplace chat apps, email is the most common form of business communication. So it’s wise to treat email like any other skill that you work to improve. 

Here are proven tactics for better writing that apply directly to email. 

Our Email Culture

Writing better emails is a useful and practical goal. But let’s acknowledge the real problem with email today. Email has become overwhelming. People are forced to spend way too much time just clearing out their inbox. This continues despite the rise of software tools focused on reducing email loads. Chat and product management tools can increase the notification anxiety they were designed to alleviate. 

The email problem goes much deeper than just writing. With that said, these tips are evergreen and useful on multiple levels. 

Brevity

If your emails haven’t been effective, it’s likely they haven’t been getting read because they’re too long and rambly (sic). Brevity is an open secret for great writing. 

Stephen King said, “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” (Extreme example… but it’s hard to delete our own words).

  • Re-read & revise - There’s no sense in trying to cut words on the fly. Finish a draft then re-read and look for unnecessary words or bulky sentences. 

  • Scannable - People don’t read giant blocks of text when surfing the net or when they get a “text novel” from their ex, so don’t expect them to read an email without the necessary line breaks, bullet points, bolded words, etc. 

  • Show, don’t tell - Insert a screenshot or screencast whenever the opportunity presents itself. 

Quality Assurance

Put emails through your very own QA process. The first step is obvious, but can’t be overstated - proof your email. All great writing is edited, yet some people tend to send emails without re-reading them first. 

Here are some additional steps for your QA checklist. 

  • Use “If-Then” statements: Using conditional sentences such as, “if ___ happens, then ____” is a great way to clarify your message. 

  • Avoid open ended questions: Open ended questions are better served for a chat tool or an in-person meeting. Reply-all storms are office nightmares, and ineffective for collecting information. The same goes for repetitive questions or a confusing question sequence. 

  • Subject line: Titles are highly scrutinized in the content marketing world. Even though you’re dealing with coworkers or clients instead of customers, apply this thinking  to email subject lines. As more and more emails are opened on mobile devices, it’s important that readers get the purpose of the message (and if it’s urgent or not) from glancing at the notification. 

  • The big idea: We live in a TL;DR world. Even the most seasoned workers have a tendency to scan emails. Make sure you begin and end every email with the main point, the main request or the key takeaway.

  • Delegate check: Most emails are written to ask for something or assign a task. For both of these, make sure you include the who, what and when. 

Bonus Tips

  • Automate - Something that can help with brevity and proofing is using light automation with emails. Create templates for emails that are sent regularly. You’ll save time and you don’t need to type out acronyms, time zones and other small details that add to your time spent without contributing to the meat of the email. 

  • Automation Risks - Conversely, too much automation creates more problems than it solves. Avoid creating “alarm fatigue” where triggered email alerts lose their importance because they’re overdone. Also, repetitive email templates can irk team members, which leads into the next point. 

  • Humanity - Don’t lose track of your personality when sending emails. Mix in compliments when making requests. University of Tokyo researchers found that praise triggers the same region of the brain that is activated when we receive cash money

  • Rules/Standards  - Lousy email culture might not have anything to do with writing, but instead the failure to establish protocol. Guidelines for when to use reply all, whether to reply in-line and how to deem emails urgent are a few standards that should be documented. 


DocOps in Action: Create an email guide with guidance on quality writing, formatting and expectations. This will squash any internal debates and helps new team members assimilate faster. Get more ideas for documents here.

The Art and Science of Great Note Taking

The word, hypomnema, was invented by the Ancient Greeks. It has many translations - a reminder, a note, a public record, a commentary, and similar variations. It’s no surprise that the origin of note taking goes back so far. 

Notes are an integral part of modern society. From Post-its to Evernote, every generation of humans aims to revolutionize the note taking experience.

However many people still overlook how great note can help us work. Don’t go through the motions when it comes to note taking, use this guide to make your notes a formidable tool.   

The Science of Note Taking 

Sometimes the hardest aspect of writing is knowing where to start. There’s a mix of culprits for this, but one way to address it is both practical and scientific - note taking. And if possible, handwritten notes. Not only do notes provide a reference point to get you started, they help you remember and retain information for longer. 

The support for this dates back more than 20 years ago, when UCLA researchers presented the idea of “desirable difficulty.” This showed how students improved their long-term retention when their  learning process was designed to be more challenging. Spacing out lessons, or making them less organized and harder to read actually improved learning. This principle applies when you write by hand. You’re forced to spell out difficult ideas and convert complex concepts into bite-sized notes. 

Three more studies in the past decade confirm the power of hand-scribed hypomnemas.

  •  A study published in Psychological Science showed handwritten notes allowed participants to perform better than their laptop counterparts. 

  • Research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology had a more compelling conclusion. They found that handwritten notes had no advantage for memory retention...temporarily. After the first 24 hours, participants who took the handwritten notes were able to recall the original material better and performed better on tests. 

  • Trends in Neuroscience and Education published a study that showed how children who had yet to learn to read and write, had increased brain activity in key areas when they wrote letters by hand. Researchers are now trying to confirm if this same effect can help prevent diseases like Alzheimer's and Dementia. 

Even if your notes result in a garbled mess, there’s still a strong chance you’ll retain the information longer, and get added cognitive benefits. 

The Art of Note Taking

There’s no right or wrong way to take notes - lists, mind maps, grids, etc. Use whatever method you’re comfortable with. However there are certain methods for optimizing effectiveness.

Choose your template - Create a structure for notes. Popular methods include the Cornell method which separates the page with a vertical line so one-fourth is to the left and three-fourths is to the right. The left is used to note the main topics while the right is used for sentences on each topic. Mind-mapping, which begins with a center topic and bridges other topics with lines can be effective for visual learners.  

Recap and complete - After a note taking session, don’t put everything away just yet. Force yourself to complete your notes by running through them to fill in the details and add context while the information is fresh. 

Review your notes - We’ve learned how taking notes helps with information retention but that doesn’t mean you should never look at them again. There’s an immediate loss in value if you never review notes. It’s an opportunity to improve your skill in terms of legibility and how comprehensive notes should be. 

Adjust the medium - Even though handwritten notes might be better for memory retention, that doesn’t mean you should always notate by hand. If you have to spend more than ~25 minutes transcribing notes, typing is the better choice. But handwritten notes make sense so you don’t spend an entire meeting typing notes without contributing

Follow UX Principles - An objective piece of advice for good note taking is to follow the advice of UX writers. UX writing is copy for interfaces, it must be clear and easy to understand. Apply these principles to note taking. 

Be Clear: Use phrases, words and concepts that you understand and won’t have to look up later

Stay Concise: This comes natural when writing by hand, but typed notes can become straight transcriptions which isn’t always helpful.

Make it Useful: Underline or circle to emphasize importance

Stay On Brand: Avoid doodling (unless it’s related to the subject).

Remain Consistent: Pick your layout and use the same format each time.

Use note taking as a tool to improve your memory retention and effectiveness at work. This simple but powerful method of learning has been around for thousands of years and will continue for many more. 

How to “Face the Blank Page” at Work

Lee Isreal was a successful writer in the 60’s and 70’s. By 1993, her career was in shambles, she began forging letters by deceased actors and writers to pay rent. She sold more than 400 letters before being caught by the FBI. 

Moral judgement aside, how was she able to fool so many scholars and literary savants? And why did she write, “I still consider the letters to be my best work.”?

Because her byline wasn’t on the letters. She was removed from criticism.

The fear of criticism, failure and rejection is what prevents us from facing the blank page at work. Every email we send, document we type and report we create has our name attached to it. Everyone knows feedback is a good thing, but few are eager to sign up for it.   

Here’s how you can overcome fear and write better at work. 

Fact vs. Fiction: Writer’s Block

Many people find themselves unable to begin when they set out to write an email, a document, a presentation or even a lengthy chat message. Some attribute this to, “writer’s block.” 

Writing isn’t the only task that requires perseverance. Yet we don’t throw around terms such as Coder’s Clog or Designer’s Deterrence. The idea of writer’s block has been around since the 1940's. But if you look up how to overcome writer’s block, the internet will tell you: you’re lazy and stop making excuses!

Novelist Philipp Meyer put it best.

He said writer’s block is your internal critic being turned up too high when it’s time to write, it must be turned down to zero when it’s time to write or create. This applies to the workplace as well. Fear is one of the main factors when it comes to the inability to write, along with several other influences.

Fear - The fear of failure impacts many at work. Perhaps your boss has distressing, unfair standards and they impede your work. Fear could mean imposter syndrome where people don’t feel qualified for a position. It could be a fear driven by perfectionism, and not being able to start because you’re already thinking about potential mistakes. 

Exhaustion - There’s a long list of things that the tired brain struggles with, one of those being cutting out distractions and staying focused on a task. Studies show our brain cells have a harder time communicating when we’re tired, which leads to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.

Time & Preparation - Many consider stress and anxiety the biggest contributors to their writing problems, but time and preparation should not be overlooked. Traditional writing preparation requires gobs of research, even for fiction writers. In a work setting, this could mean talking the situation out with colleagues, reviewing similar items (past emails, reports, etc), and other internal resources. 

The main takeaway for overcoming writer’s block is if you sit there and wallow in your perceived failure, you’re unlikely to get a literary epiphany. Take a lap around the building, find a creative outlet or grab some snacks instead. Return to the task when you have the first sentence or note in mind. 

DocOps in Action: The DocOps methodology applies a strategy to help you prepare for any form of writing. The creation of a Preparation Document before you begin writing allows authors to gather five necessary components for clear and powerful writing. 

  1. Write down a description of the intended audience: Is this content for a manager, a team or the whole company? Thinking about this first will impact everything else.  

  2. Write down your intended goal for the reader: Listing the goal of an email before you write it takes seconds but might prevent an entire thread of confusing replies and follow up questions. 

  3. Briefly outline your strategy and constraints: Decide how you’ll go about delivering your message and list out any constraints, such as who else needs to approve it, deadlines or maximum length. 

  4. Create a set of writing prompts to reinforce the strategy: Creating a set of linear writing prompts provides a head start so you can jump into writing without fear of veering off track. 

  5. Gather relevant source material: Gather screenshots or media assets that you’ll need. If nothing else, it’s a good way to make sure you don’t forget the attachment! 

Make Writing Skills a Priority

Don’t overlook how important it is to face the blank page. Each effort made is a step toward better writing skills. And writing skills matter across all professions and industries. Clear writing demonstrates clear thinking. Every boss, co-worker and customer appreciates when writing is easy to and takeaways are immediately known. And the benefits go beyond that. 

Creativity & Persuasion: A Linkedin analysis of their data which has up 50,000 skills said the two most important soft skills for professionals were creativity and persuasion. Writing is a great way to improve both. 

Protect Your Career: We already have bots who can write basic news stories or post-game reports, but creative writing that drives human interest is another story. Writing skills are good to have as automation becomes more prevalent. 

Build Confidence: According to Susan K. Perry, Ph.D, depression and anxiety tend to cause rumination, repetitive dreary thoughts. When you’re in the flow of writing (whether personal or at work) you become deeply involved. Frustrations are pushed aside and confidence builds gradually. 

Tackle writer’s block. Write without fear at work, and do it often. Your career, brain and mental state will benefit.

The Importance of Building a Writing Culture

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to use clear, understandable language in government communication so the public can understand and act accordingly.

Imagine creating writing legislation for your business...

It would be against the law for Vicki from accounting to send that typo-ridden email on a Saturday morning. John from sales would be legally required to not disregard the meeting agenda by bombarding everyone with weekend escapades. 

That reality isn’t possible. Suing co-workers would get ugly. 

But it is possible to create a strong writing culture that extends to every nook and cranny of the company. A focus on excellent and thoughtful writing improves company culture, productivity and efficiency. 

Here’s more on this issue, why it matters and how you can implement an effective writing culture. 

Communication Culture vs. Writing Culture 

“The importance of communication.” We see it everywhere. On annual reviews, emails from bosses, inspirational memes and posters. When teams or businesses fail, we often assume it’s due to a communication breakdown. Too much information was withheld while frivolous details ran rampant. In actuality, the culprit of failure might be too much communication. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos immortalized this line of thinking more than a decade ago. During an offsite retreat, a group of Amazon executives presented their ideas on how to connect distant teams. Bezos famously retorted, 

“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out ways for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”

Of course, the statement was meant to help employees improve and innovate on their communication, not eliminate it. Bezos installed this into the culture at Amazon. He addressed it with the two-pizza rule. Teams and meetings should not require more than two pizzas for everyone to be fed. This rule was a philosophy and didn’t mandate an exact number. Large teams mean more bureaucracy, more confusion and less effectiveness. 

This communication paradox doesn’t apply to just internal communication. Ryan Fuller, co-founder of analytics firm VoloMetrix (acquired by Microsoft), shared a productivity analysis case study of a billion dollar tech firm. The firm worked with a large network of outside partners (vendors, manufacturers, etc), and estimated 700 employees managed this partner-facing side of the business. They wanted to analyze the value of this communication. VoloMetrix discovered that in reality, 7,000 (not 700) employees spent at least one hour per week interacting with outside partners. The review concluded that 50 percent of time spent on this form of communication was unnecessary did not translate to real value. That’s equivalent to 500 full-time workers and one million annual work hours. 

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF -  https://withoutbullshit.com/

COURTESY JOSH BERNOFF - https://withoutbullshit.com/

It’s not just that we communicate too much or in a disorganized fashion - we can also be bad at it. Author Josh Bernoff conducted a survey with 547 business people who read and write for work more than 2 hours per week (excluding email). The survey inquired about the quality of writing they review. The research identified telling figures, 

  • 65 percent of respondents said that what they read is poorly organized

  • More than 65 percent of respondents say that what they read is too long 

  • 54 percent of all readers thought jargon was a frequent problem

  • 44 percent of supervisors, managers, and directors think their writing is not direct enough; it’s their top issue

Also, the majority of the respondents say their own writing is not poorly organized or too long. This shows the problems are not due to individual limitations but the failure to institute a system that encourages and incentivizes quality writing. 

The Workplace Disruptor 

The data above shows many businesses (even successful ones) have widespread communication problems. And many smart people are bad writers or think they read bad writing all day. 

How did we get here? There’s more availability of data and information sharing. But there’s also been a transformation in how we work. Email, project management software, wikis and the most divisive addition, Slack (workplace chat). 

Slack was originally thought to be a replacement for internal email. Faster, easier and more fun. But the increase of messages doesn’t always mean more clarity. Time Is Ltd. is a research firm working with 10 large companies who have more than 500 employees. They estimate it would be physically impossible for workers at those firms to check every Slack message every day. Remote employees feel the pressure to hover around Slack to show they’re working. This decreases the amount of time we spend on ‘deep work’ or concentrated periods of high productivity. 

Back in 2012, McKinsey predicted new communication software (such as Slack) would increase productivity. Their data showed an estimated 28 percent of the workweek was managing email and 20 percent looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues for help. However we now have information in more places than ever. Chat and email, project management software, internal wikis or file servers, etc. Despite powerful search functions and detailed organization of information - it’s still a grind to find exactly what you need. 

Solution: Guides & Guidelines 

Talk to any leader in company culture and you’ll hear about the importance of writing culture down. Define the values, mission statement, goals and other important aspects of company culture that all employees see and hopefully follow. This usually includes a branding guide with typography, brand colors, logo treatment and company info. This is important, especially for startups looking to build cohesiveness. 

But to build a great writing culture, consider creating a company style guide with guidance for all writing that occurs in the organization. 

Here are the basics for your company style guide: 

Voice, tone & personality: Oftentimes, a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) will communicate in emails and chats with an upbeat and enthusiastic tone, while a sales director communicates in a completely different way (or vice versa). This seems frivolous but you’re missing an opportunity to instill a sense of belonging and togetherness. Of course, we’re not robots and should not be forced into a box. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t encourage all employees to use a similar voice and tone, and the same acronyms and abbreviations. This will impact daily mood, productivity and can be extended from chat conversations to the company blog and email blasts, even the holiday party. A defined company personality can be a competitive edge in recruiting. 

Communication etiquette: If one manager sends out a daily goals through Slack while another uses email - it may seem trivial but these issues snowball as a company grows. Set standards for chat, email and meetings. Maybe you enforce quiet hours or a quiet day of the week where deep work is the focus and chat communication is reserved only for emergencies or epic gifs. To Slack’s credit, they’ve built a series of tools to help users manage their notifications. These features should be explained during the employee onboarding process. 

Meeting laws: Meetings might not come to mind when you think of writing culture but how many times have you heard the quip, “this meeting could have been an email.” This painful truth is unavoidable without clear guidelines on why meetings should take place, and it doesn’t require micromanagement. For instance, some CEOs require employees to develop a clear agenda via a shared document before a meeting can take place. Bezos created a “memo culture” at Amazon where PowerPoints were replaced by 6-page documents and meetings began with a study hall (more on this below). 

Writing guidelines: A comprehensive style guide for writing is important, but to build a strong writing culture you need to inspire employees to improve their writing or at least feel confident enough to write out their ideas. 

Ann Handley, founder to marketingprofs.com and author of the relevant best seller, “Everybody Writes” has 10 rules to follow to create a culture of writing. 

  1. Reframe who’s a “writer”

  2. Schedule time each day to write

  3. Outlaw self-slander

  4. Write badly. Then, fix it

  5. Don’t sweat the grammar

  6. Create your own style guide

  7. Hire a dedicated editor

  8. Create a collaborative writing environment

  9. Shed the idea that companies always have to buy content expertise

  10. Invest in training

There's an unlimited amount of ways to format your style guide. It should be concise and easy to digest to be effective. While a branding guide will be updated sparingly, this document should be shared early in the hiring process and routinely updated. 

Writing Culture: Real World Use Cases

All this theory and advice is great but seeing how these ideas are put into practice is more powerful. Take a look at a few examples that stretch across industries and sectors. 

Amazon - Memo Culture: As mentioned, Amazon may be the best example of a writing culture focus. Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations for all meetings. Instead, team members develop a written document that outlines the issue, such as a roadmap for a new feature or a public relations issue. Everyone in the meeting reads the document together before any discussion begins. These memos force employees to think deeply about an issue. They can take weeks to write. Oftentimes when the memos fall short, it’s because of a wrong expectation of scope, not bad writing. In a traditional meeting-presentation environment, this conclusion might not be discovered until much later.  

Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia - Writing Center: This group of 250 Philadelphia bankers, regulators and supervisors spend a great deal of their time writing. Detailed reports (up to 40 pages long) are required to explain to bankers in the region how to comply with always-changing regulations and laws. A consultant was hired to improve the organization's writing. She implemented an unconventional idea - a writing center. The program was voluntary, delivered feedback in-person or over the phone and directly to the “student.” A post-mortem analysis showed a 20-56% improvement in overall quality, organization, clarity, grammar, support and analysis. This concept can be easily applied to a business environment. 

Ogilvy - Pre-Digital Writing Culture: David Ogilvy built one of the largest creative agencies in the world. It was well known that upper level executives at Ogilvy & Mather had to be masterful writers. He demanded concise and clear language and wrote, “the better you write, the higher you go at Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well. Woolly-minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters, and woolly speeches.” This shows the importance of a strong writing culture precedes the digital age. Many people who worked at Ogilvy spent decades at the firm which was known for a strong corporate culture. 

Evernote - Elevate Writing: It makes sense that a note taking app would have a strong focus on writing culture. Andrew Sinkov, employee #6 at Evernote, explained how the company built a positive writing environment. Most of his rules have been discussed above: 

  • Be intentional

  • Build a playground

  • Find your voice

  • Create cadence

  • Hire talented writers

  • Critique often

  • Apply your voice to everything

Regardless of your politics, we can all agree government literature should be clear and easy to understand. The Plain Writing Act attempted to accomplish that. If your business has yet to think about this issue, now is the time. Whether you’re creating an all-hands communication guide or just getting everyone on the same page with email and chat, any investment toward your organization's writing culture is a smart investment.