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The Friday Five

Five Things to Stop Doing With Business Emails in 2020

By Laura Ernde

What’s worse than receiving a bad email? Sending one. Do clients a favor and check out these five things to stop doing with business emails.

We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a hectic day when you get an email that rubs you the wrong way. It’s not the message that sets you off, but the way it’s delivered. It might leave you confused or simply annoyed. Maybe it triggers a string of follow-up emails.

What’s even worse than receiving a bad business email like that? Sending one. The last thing you want is for your clients or colleagues to feel testy when they hear from you.

We all make mistakes from time to time, especially in the often fast-paced and high-pressure legal industry. So consider this a quick reminder that it’s good to slow down sometimes. Taking an extra 30 seconds to review and tweak an email before you hit send will pay off by generating continued goodwill.

Do your clients and colleagues a favor and check out these five things to stop doing with business emails.

1.  Too-Long Business Emails

This might be my biggest pet peeve. No one should open an email and have to scroll through a wall of text that fills an entire computer screen. The longer it takes to slog through a wordy message, the longer it takes for the recipient to respond. Worst-case scenario, your email will be misinterpreted or ignored altogether.

If your email is longer than three paragraphs, first ask yourself if this matter is better handled by a phone call or a meeting. If a long email is necessary, break up the text with bullet points so someone reading on their mobile phone can easily scan for the highlights. I’ve also seen people highlight key passages. That can be really helpful.

Even in short emails, we’ve all been guilty of using a few more words than necessary. Before you hit send, read your message one last time and cut any extra words. Here are some common words to delete:

  • Just
  • Actually
  • For what it’s worth
  • In my opinion (whose opinion would it be?)
  • At this point in time

Turning passive voice into active voice is another good way to trim excess verbiage, and zing up your writing, too. For example, “It has come to my attention” becomes “I see that.” If you need a refresher on using voice, consult this post from digital writing assistant Grammarly.

2.  Too-Short Business Emails

It’s one thing to leave out a greeting. It’s another to leave out important context. Cryptic notes that invite misinterpretation have no place in a business email. Resist the temptation to use email as a messaging service and fire off short messages like, “Hey, did you see that memo?” What memo? I’m not a mind-reader.

As Ramona Wright of Redbooth reminds us, short, snappy emails can encourage more back-and-forth, which takes up more time and takes our focus off the work we need to do. So when someone writes to ask if you’d like to schedule a meeting, don’t reply with a simple yes. Anticipate the next steps in the conversation and reply with something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m available at X time. If that works for you I’ll send a calendar invite with the details.

3.  Vague Subject Lines

I once had an editor who frequently sent emails leaving the subject line blank. So when one of those popped up on my screen my heart jumped. Was it going to be about a breaking news story? Another round of layoffs in the newsroom? I wouldn’t know unless I opened it immediately.

That method works for an editor, whose main job is to strike fear in reporters’ hearts. But it doesn’t work so well elsewhere

I’m sure you already take advantage of the subject line to make sure your email doesn’t get lost in the fray. But are you making the most of that important real estate?

Does your subject line describe at a glance what your email is about? Does it convey the deadline for a response? Does it give enough information so the recipient can scroll through and quickly digest what they need to know or do as a result?

Most of us are buried in our email inboxes all day, struggling to strike a balance between being responsive and making sure we meet our deadlines. By using a good subject line, you’re showing your colleagues that you understand their time is valuable.

4.  The Passive-Aggressive Check-in

Now that we’ve covered some of the basic business email mistakes and how to fix them, let’s talk about the dreaded check-in email. No one loves sending them and no one loves receiving them. But since they are a necessary part of business, let’s do better, shall we?

It’s natural to want to preface your check-in email with all kinds of caveats in an effort to sound polite. But emails that start with “Just checking in …” or “I’m following up on …” or the dreaded “As a reminder …” can come across as passive-aggressive.

Don’t beat around the bush. It’s possible to be both direct and polite. Try a more straightforward approach and you’re more likely to get the result you want.

Grammarly’s Karen Hertzberg has some good strategies for how to do this. For example, you can ask for an update with a specific deadline, give more context to your request or offer something of value to the recipient to get their attention.

5.  Cringe-worthy Out-of-Office Messages

You’re on your way out the door for a two-week vacation and suddenly realize that you haven’t set up an out-of-office message yet. Your mind is halfway out the door on vacation, but don’t let that be an excuse to dash off something that’s going to make a bad impression.

You look careless if you haven’t updated your auto-responder message since the last time you were on vacation. Also, none of your contacts wants or needs to hear about which fabulous vacation destination you’re heading off to.

Again, a straightforward approach is best, as Robert Half notes here. All you need are three elements: the dates, the reason and the people who can help while you’re out.

These Mistakes Are Costly, Too

Bad email etiquette isn’t just irritating. It can also be expensive — especially if you’re a lawyer who bills by the hour. As noted here, bad business writing costs American businesses as much as $400 million.

Thanks for taking note of my business email pet peeves. I’d love to hear some of yours.

Illustration ©

Here’s a tech tip for avoiding “oops” emails:

“5 Tips from ABA TECHSHOW 2020’s ’60 in 60′ Session” by Joan Feldman

You Might Also Like:

“The 1-2 Punch to Fix What’s Wrong With Email” by Teddy Snyder

“Redirect Email Replies in Outlook” by Deborah Savadra

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Categories: Communicating, Communications Skills, Email Management, Etiquette, Friday Five, Grammar
Originally published March 13, 2020
Last updated April 13, 2021
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Laura Ernde Laura Ernde

Laura Ernde is a San Francisco-based communications consultant. Informed by her background as a legal journalist and State Bar communications director, she helps lawyers and law firms create compelling content to engage with clients and potential clients. She serves on the programming committee of the Legal Marketing Association’s Bay Area Chapter. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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