Evolving email is a series about putting yourself in the inbox of the recipient and getting more value out of the time you spend on the task of writing email.

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It’s 4:00 PM, and a you're at work. A 600-word email lands in your inbox. Your heart fills with happiness, your eyes with tears of joy. You can't wait to read it. Maybe you even print it out, make a cup of coffee, and curl up on a sofa to enjoy reading it like your favorite book.


Honestly, I find it very hard to actually read a long email in its entirety (unless of course it's from PE readers, some of the most thoughtful, well-spoken folks in the world). I have particular disdain for bloated emails at work, where messages accumulate like the October oak leaves in my yard right now.

Instead of eagerly reading a long, unsolicited email, I usually scan it. I’m not alone.

Your eyes say it all

Geek alert: I would be very interested to see a study of how people read email – especially in a work setting – but I’ve been unable to find any such studies. (If you find one, let me know.)

I did, however, find a study by Jakob Nielsen that tracked eye movement over email newsletters.

The following “heat map” indicates where people’s eyes spent the most time. Red is the longest, followed by yellow, then blue:

It’s clear that these things attract attention:

  • First paragraph
  • Headers
  • Images

What’s important to me is not really what people see, but what they don’t. The body of a long email is icy blue. It’s pretty chilly out there.

Hold that thought.

The value of another 100 words

In a different analysis, Nielsen also examined how people read web pages. While this second study wasn’t aimed email, I think the concept is easily extended.

He notes that while people certainly spend more time on pages with more words, they only spend 4.4 more seconds for each additional 100 words.

Nielsen also found that the more words a web page has, the fewer words people read as a percentage of the total. It falls very rapidly between 0 and 200 words, too.

In fact, if you want people to read even half of your page, it should have 111 words or less.

Nielsen concludes that users will only read 20% of the text on the average web page.

What does all this mean?

The precision of the numbers in Nielsen’s studies aren’t that important to me. The concepts, however, are.

Here’s the most important one: The more you write in a single email, the more you’re wasting your time.

Let’s define a long email as 600 words. And let’s assume that Wikipedia is correct that the average person types at a rate of 19 words per minute. At that rate, it takes a little over a half hour for the average person to generate a 600-word email. Damn.

So… if you’re spending a lot of time writing things that people aren’t reading anyway, why write them? Why not spend that time on more productive pursuits?

Three practically efficient steps for improvement

Step 1: Recognize the problem

I don’t think anyone ever clicks the “new message” button with the intention of pounding out a novella. Somewhere between realizing that the email needs to be sent and reaching the last line, it just kinda happens.

When it does happen, stop. Don’t click send.

Step 2: Get out your knife

Instead of going for your throat, quickly scan the email, reading the first line of each paragraph. Think about what you would do if someone sent you this monster. Does your message come across?

Cut out the junk that isn’t needed. Or, find the really important parts, and copy them into a new message. Think of that long email as a first draft. Throw it away.

In the end, create a final product that has a high ratio of information to words. Make your message count.

Step 3: Avoid the problem in the future (most important)

The next time you need to write an email – especially in a work situation where important information is being conveyed – try writing your email as a super bare bones outline first.

You can likely save huge amounts of time by simply outlining your thoughts for 30 seconds before releasing the diarrhea of your consciousness into your recipient’s inbox.

Maybe something like this:

* Sales results are in
    * 20% growth

* My interpretations
    * Lower than expected
    * Growth still improving quarter over quarter
    * Better than 2 out of 3 competitors

* Questions/caveats
    * Not sure about data from division 5
    * What are your thoughts?

Once you have an outline, you’ll probably find that you only need a few more words to make it readable (maybe none at all).

In fact, I increasingly leave my emails in an outline form because I think it’s so much easier to digest than stacks of paragraphs – especially when numbers are involved. The * symbol is everyone’s best friend.

Summary, in outline

  • If you accidentally write a morbidly obese email, cut the fat before sending.
  • Rapidly outline emails that involve combinations of numbers, important information, thoughts, and questions.
  • By writing email more efficiently, you can repurpose your time to more productive or enjoyable endeavors.
  • By sending emails that are more likely to be read, you become a more effective communicator.
  • Your coworkers may learn by example and return the favor.
  • Remember: People read email for information, not pleasure. Outlines are good at communicating information.

Ironically and by poor example, I have more to say on long emails, but this post is already plenty long enough, so I’ll do that down the road in this series.

How do you keep your emails lean?