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Topics an E-Mail Style Guide Should Cover

by | Mar 6, 2009 | Writing Matters Blog | 3 comments

One of our clients, a large nonprofit with over one million members, has asked for our input as they develop their first-ever E-Mail Style Guide.  The purpose of the Guide is to encourage e-mail best practices, such as writing a complete, useful subject line, and discourage e-mail productivity-killers, such as oblivious “reply-alls.” 

Here, in no particular order, is my first brainstorm on the topics the E-Mail Style Guide should cover:

  1. The importance of correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  2. Why to avoid writing in all caps or all lowercase.
  3. Whether chain e-mails or joke e-mails are allowed.
  4. The importance of a clear subject line and examples of these.
  5. Whether emoticons are allowed.
  6. How to use the cc and bcc fields.
  7. Advice about when, whether, and how to forward messages. For example, should you combine different messages before forwarding a whole thread?
  8. Which topics should be avoided entirely in e-mail (sensitive or private information, bad news, layoffs).
  9. How, and whether, to use read receipts.
  10. Whether a greeting and closing are required.
  11. How to use attachments and whether their size should be limited.
  12. A company standard for e-mail response time, as in “Here at ABC Inc., we answer every e-mail—internal or external—within 24 hours.”
  13. How to use formatting such as bold, italics, color, or patterned backgrounds.
  14. What information must be included in the e-mail signature and what information is forbidden (inspirational quotations, etc.).
  15. How to handle acronyms.
  16. When, if ever, to “reply all.”
  17. How and why to set up e-mail distribution lists.
  18. How to write e-mail so you make the requested action very clear.
  19. When to send e-mail vs. when to call or visit in person.
  20. Strategies for managing e-mail: how often to read, how much to archive, when to respond, etc.
  21. Your company’s e-mail use policies (privacy, ownership, etc.)

Clearly, the next step will be for the organization to take a stand on each of these topics.  So, for example, item #5 about whether emoticons should be allowed will become a guideline: “Do not use emoticons in business e-mail.”

What do you think of my list?  Are any topics missing?  If so, leave a comment or send me an e-mail and I’ll add your topic to the list.

— Leslie O’Flahavan

Tags: E-mail


  1. An extension of point 7: when and whether to combine different messages before forwarding a whole thread

  2. Good point, Antonio. I’ve updated #7 to include your input. Thanks for weighing in.

  3. Add a comment on “cc:” explaining what it means. Some people say it stands for ‘carbon copy,’ while others say ‘courtesy copy.’

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