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clear communication: write relevant and effective emails

(A similar topic is discussed in French in the article COMMUNICATION CLAIRE : COURRIELS PERTINENTS ET EFFICACES.)

In a world where speed is everything, writers need to be conscious of who will be reading their emails. Readers need to grasp the message quickly, so the email must be easy to read, easy to understand and, above all, easy to use.

When you write emails, keep the following points in mind.

Relevance

  • Before drafting and sending an email, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Is email the best way to convey the message that I am about to write?
    • Is the message relevant to everyone I plan on sending it to?
    • Have I included all of the people who need to receive this message?
    • Do I need to reply to this email?
  • Before you reply to an email that made you react negatively, take a deep breath: Give yourself 24 hours. Email is not the best way to resolve interpersonal issues.
  • Deal with difficult situations over the phone or in person, especially if:
    • you think that the recipient will react negatively; or
    • you need to give someone bad news.

Netiquette

  • Be professional:
    • Communicate clearly and effectively. Be courteous and respectful.
    • Provide your contact information in a signature block.
    • Do not use ALL CAPS. The reader may interpret your message as verbal abuse; ALL CAPS is the equivalent of shouting.
  • Ask the writer’s permission before forwarding a message that contains any personal information.
  • Flag your message as important only if the message is truly urgent.

Recipients

  • Adapt your message to the needs of the reader and to the purpose of your message. The reader may not necessarily know as much as you do about the subject.
  • Choose a greeting and closing line that fit the type of communication and your reader.
  • If your message is going to be sent to a distribution list, specify the target audience at the beginning of the email (e.g. This announcement concerns engineers and biologists.).
  • If you know the recipient will read your message on a smartphone, get right to the point.
  • Don’t assume that the intended recipient is the only one who will read your message.

Subject line

  • Keep your subject line brief, explicit and eye-catching. Make sure that there is a clear link between the subject line and the message. The recipient will then be able to decide where it fits on the priority list and file it accordingly. For example, write Agenda — Meeting about communications strategy instead of Meeting today.

Content

  • Make sure the content is clear and concise:
    • Deal with only one subject in each email: the reader will be able to reply more quickly and it will be easier to file the message appropriately.
    • Get to the point: give enough information for the content to be accurate, complete and relevant. You’ll increase the chance that your message will be read and that the reader will send you a reply.
    • Structure your message: after quickly putting your email into context, state the purpose of the message and any actions that must be taken. Be precise in your requests.
    • Be persuasive: present your arguments in a logical order.
  • Get rid of any previous strings of emails. Summarize where things stand with the issue, and attach previous emails. Your colleagues can then consult them if needed.

Presentation

  • Follow the presentation guidelines below:
    • Keep your message within one screen page (about 25 lines or 250 words).
    • Use your words economically: write short sentences and paragraphs, use lists and subheadings (avoid long messages made up of only one paragraph).
  • Choose user-friendly fonts, etc.:
    • Use a font that is easy to read on screen. Avoid novelty fonts.
    • Use black letters on a white background.
    • Avoid repeating special characters (e.g. exclamation points: they may be misinterpreted).
    • Limit your use of bold, italics, underlining and colours (especially in combination).
    • Stay away from emoticons (e.g. ☺) and other distracting decorative elements.

Revision

  • Reread your email with a critical eye, and check the quality of your message:
    • Put yourself in your reader’s shoes as you reread your message.
    • Get rid of repetition or awkward phrasing; fix spelling and grammar mistakes.
    • Avoid jargon and acronyms; use technical terms and abbreviations sparingly.
    • Ask a colleague to read an especially important or sensitive email before you send it.
  • Ask yourself if the tone, logic and vocabulary are appropriate.
  • If you’re a public servant, be careful of what you write: anything can be accessed through the access to information and privacy laws.

Attachments and hyperlinks

  • Instead of attaching a document, insert a hyperlink that leads to it (if the document is filed on a shared drive). This keeps the network from being overloaded.
  • Only attach documents to the email if they are essential. Explain why they are relevant to the reader.
  • Specify which parts of an attachment are important. The reader can find the information more quickly and can therefore reply more quickly to your email as well.