10 Reasons Your Emails Are Too Long

I recently received an email asking me a simple request.

However, the email was 3 pages long.

The whole message could have been 3 lines, but instead the author decided to write a short novella.

Needless to say, I didn’t read the whole thing. Nor did I respond.

Are your emails going unread because they are too long?

Long Emails Don’t Get Read

You may take email for granted.

However, effective email communication is as much a skill as anything else.

When used effectively, email can be a powerful tool.

However, one of the top email inefficiencies is message length.

“One of the top reasons your email isn’t getting read is because it is too long.

Writing long emails doesn’t mean you are getting more work done.”

As people are fighting to get their inbox to empty, the last thing they want to do is read a multi-page rambling email.

Keep Those Emails Short

Resist the urge to write long and drawn out messages.

If you find yourself writing long responses, you probably should be having a conversation, not an email writing contest.

The shorter and tighter your email messages, the better chance that they will be read, understood and acted upon.

Here are 10 Reasons That Your Emails Are Too Long:

  1. You don’t know what you are trying to say. It’s like when someone calls you and says, “What’s up?” Um, I don’t know… you called me. Hold that email until you have something specific to say or ask.
  2. You don’t know what you are talking about. This is similar to when people endlessly talk in meetings to cover up their lack of information. Writing more isn’t going to cover up the fact that you are lacking knowledge. This practice occurs in many companies when individuals send emails to “appear” busy.
  3. Your signature is unnecessary. Your half-page signature doesn’t need to be on all of your emails. Do you send emails with a 1 word response and then half of a page of signature? As well, please lose the attached graphic and cute quote.
  4. You are writing a book. – Emails are not books. If there is additional information, attach supporting documents. If you are putting a large table in your email, you should stop and consider whether it should be in an attachment.
  5. You are spamming. This happens often in larger corporations. Employees feel the need to send each other lengthy updates of what they have been doing. And it’s not just the remote employees. I used to get multi-page updates from a guy down the hall on his daily activities. Not needed.
  6. You are rambling – Don’t write a 2-page email to ask a 1-line question. Be direct. Thanks.
  7. You are forwarding a mess. Instead of taking the time to explain, you just forward your email stream. Ever get one of those, “See below..!” messages. Um, I don’t want to read the 45 page back-and-forth that you participated in.
  8. It shouldn’t be an email. Don’t send an email when it should be a meeting. Or a phone call. Sometimes email isn’t the right medium for your message. If it is taking more than a few lines to explain, then go talk to the person you need to communicate with.
  9. It should be multiple emails. Here is a good one. One boss combines all of the team items into one email. You may think this is an attempt at efficiency, however combining multiple emails into one doesn’t work for everyone involved. And it creates great aftermath when people “Reply All.”
  10. You don’t edit your emails. After you write an email, you should edit it before sending. Besides the obvious spelling and grammatical errors, you should be editing for content, meaning, and conciseness. Another good thumb-rule: the number of times you should re-read an email before sending is equal to the number of people you are sending it to. (And yes, this rule scales.)

Make Sure Your Email Gets to the Point

In today’s high-speed communication, no one wants to read overly long email messages.

If your emails are brief and to the point, your recipients will be more likely to get the point.

Remember that short and sweet, will beat the 3-page email every time.

Question: Are you guilty of sending long email messages?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    I’ve found a helpful thing is not only to be short but also to highlight actionable items for the other party. If the whole point of your Email is to ask a question, make sure it stands out. It looks a little silly at first to do this, but it does make things efficient and actually easier on everyone.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Agree with making your question apparent.

      Please don’t do it with fonts and colors. :)

  • DLinBham

    I admit it, I am bad about trying to cover too much ground in a single email, as well as emailing when I really should call — especially if there’s a disagreement about something!

  • http://twitter.com/BrandonWx Brandon

    I won’t read more than about 5 lines, and I won’t write more than 5. Get to the point (GTTP) and save the pleasantries for a dinner party; we’ve all got sh*t to do.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      I agree with the 5 line limit. Wish email was more like Twitter in that regard. ;)

  • Grammar Freak

    I love that there’s a punctuation error in the paragraph about editing . . .

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Classic. Thanks. ;)

  • blaccko

    I too write too long emails. However, I want to detail as much as I can a task that need to be done by my collegue for it to be well done. Also, when contaacting clients, the email exchanged stand as a written proof of what was discussed, so I find it better to write detailed emails than shorter ones that could end in redoing a task or arguing with a client. What do you think of my method?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Noella-Paterson/100000552135664 Noella Paterson

      Exactly. Lack of detail just leads to confusion, misunderstandings, unnecessary back-and-forth, etc. Which approach is more time-consuming in the big picture?

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    I’ll raise my hand as guilty. Sometimes I feel a short email is just too short, that I need to explain. Guess I need to try to keep them shorter.

  • http://www.lifewhack.com/ Peter Ewin Hall

    I use email a lot and agree that there are plenty of long and windy examples out there. I believe emails should be written with care and precision – not quickly dashed off. Good editing should cut the excess and leave just the pithy essentials. It’s OK to write a draft that’s flabby and long – just don’t send it until you’ve pruned and honed it to a well crafted message.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Absolutely agree!

  • Meg

    I’m guilty of this at times too, but I at least try to make them interesting at throw in a touch of humor. It’s hard as there is much to communicate and many complain they don’t want multiple emails and would rather have a weekly summary of updates. …. And yes brevity is not my best quality either :)

  • Sanjay

    I agree.. I try to follow the rule of 5. Emails shouldn’t exceed 5 lines and after 5 email exchanges on the same topic, please pickup the phone :-)

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Absolutely!

  • Emmanuel M’Mwirichia

    It may not always be possible to write one-liners on email (it is not IM or Twitter) but following this post, I resolved that if I have to pen a letter, I would bullet the action points and put the main word of the sentence in bold.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Laing/100000029389036 Jeff Laing

    In an environment where email may well be the only written specification that everyone “agrees” to, it is ridiculous to ban long emails solely because of their length, and suggesting that conversation is a substitute is beyond ludicrous.

    Long emails do not always equate to rambling. They may instead represent due diligence which many if not most people seem incapable of.

    • http://www.facebook.com/toddi.norum Toddi Norum

      Here Here! In my work world, it is sometimes the only form of communication available.

  • Jefferson

    good points. thanks for the reminders

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  • Douglas Nelson

    The five line rule does not always apply and certainly not for technical, multi-resourced team communications. I would prefer to present the required information for the recipient to respond/react to one time, rather than having to provide a long string of follow-up clarification. Interestingly most of your points could have been coveyed with much less words and smarky remarks.

  • Alex

    Problematic email length has much to do with the writer’s misjudgment of the recipient’s ability to read without moving his lips. The worse your reading and comprehension skills, the longer EVERY email seems.

  • http://twitter.com/uajafd Yaroslav Fedevych

    I’d like to point out that writing articles about such obvious things this long is even worse.

  • wcliff

    I count this as LESSONS LEARNED. If you don’t keep the emails short, others will ignore or not open and avoid reading your future emails, because of a mind set, “I don’t have time to read this now, I will get to it later”. The problem is “Later” gets buried with all of the other UNREAD and off of the first screen of the readers attention radar.

  • William

    I hate it when people forward to me a lengthy exchange between she herself and someone else. It happened to me when a colleague did just that. I got all confused and failed to read the attachment which was ALL THE WAY BELOW. Needless to say, I missed the important information in the attachments and I got into needless trouble. Like duh.

  • Rita Hickey

    I worked for 10 years in large retail food organization and I was known for writing long e-mails – a few of my colleagues and even my boss sometimes laughed about it. However, they never asked me to stop, and there was a good reason for this. I would frequently get requests that required either compiling a history of how a certain problem had come to arise, or providing a detailed financial analysis of a problem coupled with an professional opinion on how to fix it. I learned that treating an e-mail response like a formal report preparation – not just giving a brief response or picking up the phone to do the job – saved time in the long run for both myself and others, for the following reasons:

    1) They act as a good reference tool that keeps you from re-inventing the wheel. Most of issues I encountered were not unique. If you stuck around the company long enough the same issue would arise again, perhaps just not in the same location. A detailed history in an e-mail provides a quick overview that can be retrieved easily and passed on to whomever is requesting it.

    2) Employee turnover. The problem might outlast the people who are dealing with it, and you don’t want to have to keep explaining yourself over and over again because of new hires, transfers, or because the issue has expanded to include other departments who now need to be brought up to speed.

    3) It serves as a pushback to the slackers. You know these people – it is their responsibility to initiate the fix but you are the one with the knowledge, and they think by asking for your help and professing their own ignorance of the subject matter they can pass the job onto you. If the answers are written down in detail and clearly in an e-mail, they can’t dodge their job duties. If they continue to try to pass the buck, you counter with “I outlined the solution in detail in my e-mail – tell me on which part of the solution you need more clarification”.

    I did keep limits to my e-mail correspondence – even complicated issues could be summarized in 1 – 1 1/2 pages of documentation, and any data or calculations were always sent as attachments.

    So thanks to all of you with great attention spans who managed to make it to the end of this long e-mail.

    • http://www.timemanagementninja.com/ Craig Jarrow

      Thanks, Rita!

      Loved the comment… and yes… I read it all. :)

    • Suhayl

      Correct and correct… often emails which some often less discerning (often due to sheer ignorance of the bigger picture) colleagues may find “irritating to read” and “protracted” are less likely to appreciate the value in longer emails, for example:

      – Details are important.
      – Underlying organisational or quality problems are directly or subtly highlighted.
      – Discrepancies between what is expected and the reality of individual or organisational commitments can be discussed.
      – The emails may be a comprehensive pathway for investigations into apparent and real problems so that these may be resolved before the problems become more compounded – and consequently lead to more work created and emailing being required.

      Ignoring details may lead to quality being adversely affected. Ask any quality professional whose responsibility quality falls under, and they are most likely to respond: “everybody’s in the organisation”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jane.margaret.rose Jane Rose

    Hi all,

    I don’t think the problem is length, so much as clarity.

    When I send an email to anyone, I make sure that:
    – the subject line is succinct,
    – the email is precise (which sometimes means lengthy, if there is a lot of pertinent information),
    – that main points are divided by white space for easy reading,
    – and that one sentence indicating the main idea or action I am requesting is in bold.

    This way, if all they read is the subject line and that one sentence, the recipient knows what the email is about, and that I need something from them.

    If it’s just an FYI, I just put that right at the top.

    I also want to be careful to not be too brief in my emails, because ‘tone of voice’ is read into emails, whether you intend it or not. A short line of greeting goes a long way.

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  • http://twitter.com/CareerPivot Marc Miller

    My one disagreement with you is on the signature. I really appreciate when the phone #, Twitter handle or any other preferred way to get a hold of you is in the signature. Keeps me from looking you up and if it is hyperlinked then that is even better!

  • http://www.facebook.com/toddi.norum Toddi Norum

    Craig, any suggestions for the corporate culture that requires you put “it all” in email when you request to have a conversation instead? I’m a big believer that a few one-on-one words can accomplish more than an email, but my leadership doesn’t seem to want to put in the time. I’ve been complimented on my long emails because I format them like a technical document.

  • Gilberto Serodio

    well pending on the subject and author the email could or not be read. When I want be sure someone will read my message I sent by fax because the worst enemy is the large volumes of emails anyone could come receive after certainly time on line.

  • well said

    I think the tip about putting anything longer than 5 lines into a separate attachment is spot on. email should focus on the reason you are sending this info to the receipient(s), call out any action items, and close with the request date. Supporting information and detail are better in a document, which also protects you from modifications, etc.

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  • http://twitter.com/wg_maciel Pedro Maciel

    Craig and Rita both make excellent points. In my opinion, it depends on the nature of the email that will require a brief messege or 1-2 page report. Thanks for detailed tips guys.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Noella-Paterson/100000552135664 Noella Paterson

    I’d like to see a blog post called “4 reasons you don’t like to reading things that seem long”, that’d go something like…

    (1) You’re lazy.
    (2) You’re stupid and/or don’t value nuance and complexity.
    (3) You need to hire more staff and/or learn how to delegate, in which case you’re either cheap or a control freak.
    (4) Maybe the task at hand is just totally out of whack with the emphasis of the long e-mail—pretty much the only legitimate grounds for belly-aching about e-mail length…

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