Emails sent from your office email account represent your program,
department, school, and the University. They need to be as professionally
written and professionally presented as the communications sent out on
your business letterhead or in paper memos. A group of University of
Minnesota communicators put together these guidelines to help you
ensure that University emails meet the highest professional standards.
Things to Think About
- Is email the right way to communicate this message? Would
it be inappropriate if the wrong person received it? Wait and
think twice about sending the message. Email messages can be
misinterpreted, especially when discussing sensitive or emotional
subjects. Re-read it before sending and consider getting a second
- Is the email going to the right people? "Reply to all" is
often not the right choice. Do not use "Reply to all" unless
you are sure you want everyone on that list to get your message.
- What is your relationship to the receiver? Never assume a position
of informality in your business emails with people you do not
know well. Communicate as if email is on your office letterhead.
- Respect the privacy of others. Remember email is not private.
Emails are easily forwarded (accidentally or on purpose) and
the email administrator may have the ability to read all messages.
Email may not be the best option for conveying sensitive information.
- Use a descriptive, specific subject line (e.g., All Staff Meeting
- Always capitalize the first word or use initial caps on all
of the words (e.g., 2005 Communications Budget).
- If conversation goes back and forth and changes direction,
change the "Subject:" field to reflect the new topic.
- Make the first paragraph a single, well-written sentence that
builds from/repeats the subject line. When people jump from one
email to the next, they may skip the subject line altogether.
- Keep messages brief and to the point; use formal conversational
style. Write it like you say it. We tend to talk in short sentences,
using short words. Emails should read the same.
- People are much more action-oriented when they're online.
State up front what action you want them to take as a result
of your email (e.g., FYI, follow up on work items, please review
and reply by Friday noon, click to special pages on your website). If you have multiple action items, number them.
- Use subheads to break up your copy. Remember that people read
books, scan websites, and glance at email messages. Help them
to absorb key points in a hurry.
- Include only one idea per paragraph, and try to keep paragraphs
to three sentences or less.
- Use hard returns to create line breaks, making white space
so your message has visual breaks.
- Do not use all capital letters for body text or subject lines.
All capital letters can be used as short headers within email.
- Do not use emoticons in professional emails. Use them only
if you have a well-established relationship with someone.
- Do not use abbreviations unless they are already common to
the English language, such as FYI and BTW. ROTFL (rolling on
the floor laughing) is not a phrase you would use in letterhead.
- Check spelling and grammar. Proofread your messages.
- Address your contact with the highest level of courtesy (e.g.,
Dear Ms. McKinley) until your contact indicates that less formal
- Have a salutation (e.g., Hello) and sign off (e.g., Sincerely,)
in every email, just as you would in business letterhead.
- Do not use academic jargon and "institution-speak." Use
words and terms your target audience is familiar with.
- Use standard email signatures no more than four to seven lines,
including your program tagline. Consider whether you need a standard
format for your program or department.
- When initiating an email, in the "To:" and "From:" fields,
have your contacts' names and your name typed with proper capitalization
and punctuation (e.g., John B. Doe, not john b doe or JOHN B
- When replying to emails, your reply should be the first item
in the body of the email. Do not place your reply below the
original email, causing people to have to search for it.
- Do not just hit reply or forward and start typing! Edit your
replies. Do not make the recipient scan your forwarded email
for the part that you wanted them to see. Remove parts of the
previous email that do not apply to your response, including
headers and signature files, and ">" symbols and
- Do not grab an old email to send a new message. Start a fresh
email with a new subject line and no old content.
- Use "Bcc:" when emailing a group of people who do
not personally know each other. Putting addresses in the "To:" or "Cc:" fields
makes email addresses available to others. This is a privacy
issue. Bcc is also a way to hide long recipient lists and make
the message easier to read.
- Use "Cc:" when a couple of people need to be kept
informed on information. "Cc:" means FYI and no action
is needed. Only Cc people if they really need to be kept informed
or want the information.
- Send only messages of relevance. Use "Reply to all:" and "Cc:" only
if all of the parties need to know. An untargeted message will
be considered spam by many.
- Before sending, double-check the recipient list and subject
line. Make sure that any attachments are actually included.
- Do not mark as urgent (flag). If it's urgent, call.
- Do not use the return receipt feature unless you absolutely
need it. This feature notifies senders when their messages have
been opened. Recipients might feel that this is an invasion of
- Use common file formats for email attachments (DOC, JPG/GIF,
PDF, TXT, XLS). If you are sending a file from a Mac to a PC
user be sure to add the proper file extension so the recipient
can open your file.
- Set a 65-character line length, especially if you send formal
business emails and electronic newsletters. This inserts hard
carriage returns so that lines are no longer than 65 characters.
It keeps line wrap problems caused by different email programs
to a minimum. Individual words are not broken, but be aware that
long URLs will be broken between lines. Many people do not realize
that they can easily re-connect the pieces to restore the hyperlinked
URL. If you forward an email set at a longer line length, you
will get bad line breaks.
- In Outlook Express go to Tools, Options then the Send tab and
select "Plain text" as the mail sending format and
then click on "Plain text settings." Set the number
to 65 in the "Automatically wrap text…" section.
- In Outlook go to Tools, Options, then the Mail format tab
and select "Plain text" as the format and then go to
settings, select 65. You now have your email program configured
to hit enter every 65 characters whenever you send email.
- For long URLs, consider using http:/z.umn.edu to
create short URLs. This allows you to enter a long URL
and the application generates a shortcut link that is easier
to use in email communications. You
lose the identity of the original site after these sites automatically generate the URL. You may not
want to use this for your own website pages.
Unit Specific Policies
- Set the number of days to respond to all outside emails, e.g.,
within two business days.
- Determine if staff should use automatic email replies to alert
people that you might not read your email for a while.
Web Links / References
The Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard is designed to ease navigation
of plain text email newsletters by all readers, including people with
visual impairments using special access technologies. www.headstar.com/ten
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