Originally posted 25/02/2007. Out of date bits edited out.
I’ve mentioned before that I read every email I receive via my fanmail address (except spam). I stop reading if the email contains story suggestions and ideas, or if I’m in a hurry and it’s really, really long, but mostly I read every word of every email.
Sometimes while I have read the email, I get to the end and realised I have barely absorbed a word of it. Other times the email is just very uncomfortable to read. And then there are emails that just don’t make much sense.
What’s the problem with these emails? Well, you might be surprised to know that bad spelling isn’t the problem. Usually it’s pretty obvious what a misspelled word is supposed to be, so it doesn’t affect the readability of the email. Only rarely do I have to stop and puzzle over what a word was supposed to be.
Nor is it a problem with English being an emailer’s second language. I’d love a dollar for every time someone for whom English is a second language has apologised for their bad English in an email that is perfectly easy to understand. Occasionally there’ll be an odd phrase, or a word that is obviously the wrong one, but it’s pretty easy to work out what they meant to say. Often easier than emails sent by some English-speakers.
The problems with email legibility are usually one, or more, of these:
A complete lack of full stops
Full stops are good. They let you know where a sentence ends. Even if there’s no capital letter at the start of the next sentence, you still know it’s not part of the previous sentence. Leaving out commas, quotation marks and question marks can cause problems now and then, but nothing as bad as leaving out full stops. Emails that are one long stream of words with no full stops are very uncomfortable to read. Unless you are Virginia Wolf, USE FULL STOPS.
Did you notice how firm and forceful those last three words of the previous point were? That’s because they’re in ‘all caps’. That’s ‘all capitals’. As in ALL CAPITALS. Emails written entirely in capital letters give the impression that the emailer is shouting at you. Go up to a stranger and yell a compliment forcefully at them at the top of your voice and see if they react in a positive way. Did they stare at you like you’re an idiot, or some crazy person they’re not sure is dangerous or not? That’s the effect writing emails in all caps has on the recipient.
No paragraph breaks
I know sometimes this happens because of incompatible email programs or something, but other times it’s obvious the writer of an email just couldn’t be bothered pressing the enter key twice now and then. Their email can be, say, only half a page long and it may be full of fascinating insights and great revelations, but if they leave out the paragraph breaks it just sounds and looks as if they’re going on and on and on and on and on. These are the emails I usually find I haven’t absorbed the contents of. The droning has put my poor brain to sleep.
Emails that are really, really, really, really, really, really, really long
What is really, really long? Naturally this is going to be complicated. People have written amazing stories about how my books changed their life or helped them through troubled times. I would never wish them to shorten their emails. However, people have also sent me pages and pages about they were walking down the street one day, and the sky was a kind of blue somewhere between azure and duck egg blue, and they were so busy looking at it that they tripped over, and when they looked up there was a bookshop, and lo and behold there was a [insert long-winded description of a book shop] and in it they saw [insert long-winded description of book cover] and along came the sales assistant who [insert long-winded description of their conversation]… Though I am perversely interested in how people found my books and whether the sales assistant was helpful, and I don’t have time to read a whole novel about the experience. So when in doubt, keep it to a page.
Emails written in SMS
Repeat after me “SMS is for mobile phones. SMS is for mobile phones. SMS is for mobile phones.” If you want me to know how much you liked (or didn’t like) my books, let me know using whole, real, wonderful words. Using abbreviations and acronyms for words in a language you clearly already know just suggests you’re lazy, and don’t respect the person you’re emailing enough to make the effort to use full words. It’s as rude as refusing to talk to someone in their language, when you can speak their language. (Very common abbreviations and acronyms used in email, such as ‘lol’, ‘btw’ and ‘imho’ are fine as far as I’m concerned.)
Using a fancy font
Fancy fonts were designed to be used for titles, subtitles and such, not for the main body of text. They’re often unreadable when shrunk to body text size and used for full sentences. Try to stick to good readable fonts like Times New Roman or Courier in your emails.
That’s about it, really. There may be a few other ways emailers can make their emails unreadable, but if they don’t spring to my mind then they probably haven’t occurred often enough to be worth mentioning here.
I definitely don’t expect perfectly polished fanmails. Bad spelling, most bad grammar, short bits of rambling, not quite right English, getting my name wrong, getting my book titles wrong, and puzzling local slang are probably not going to detract from the general readability of your email, and so I don’t mind them. I wouldn’t presume to call what I’ve listed above a basic guide to writing legible emails, though. Other authors – and your family, friends, boss, teacher, whatever – might prefer you put more or less effort into your emails, but that’s up to you to judge.