Writing emails

It seems that one thing not covered in the “business technology” and related courses in high schools today, is how to write a proper email.  So I’m going to note a few dos and don’ts of emails.

Writing emails can be tricky.  They’re rarely as formal as a proper letter, but they are much more formal that tweets or text messages.  Getting an email wrong can get you fired, or ignored, or laughed at – none of which are good for one’s career and for one’s life generally.

Your instructors do not just teach you.  We do all kinds of things.  As a rule of thumb, our job descriptions are: 50% teaching, 50% research, and 50% administration.  I get about 200 email messages every day; some of my colleagues get even more.  We simply haven’t got time to worry about anything that isn’t clear and to the point.  Anything that slows us down will just get under our skin.

We also usually teach more than one course per semester, and the classes are usually large enough that we simply cannot “know” everyone’s names.


(All the examples below are real, accumulated over my 20+ years of teaching.)

Show some respect.  That means using a reasonable salutation, and spelling your instructor’s name correctly.

“Hey, salustri!” is no way to start an email.  Similarly, referring to me as “Perfessor” is a bad sign.  No respect.  Such people cannot be bothered to check their spelling.  I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough.  You are not paying me to teach you; you are paying the University for the privilege of attending University.  The relationship between professor and student is, IMHO, best modelled as a master-apprentice relationship.  I don’t care if you like me, but you must respect the position that I happen to hold, and the expertise I must have to have attained my position.

Here’s another hint: don’t tell me what to do.  For instance, “Reply immediately with [whatever information is being demanded].” Really?

Also, don’t expect a fast reply.  I do try to deal with email as quickly as possible, but Ryerson has rules about this sort of thing.  Basically, I do not need to answer work-related emails off-hours – that would be evenings and weekends.  The worst is when I get emails less than 24 hours before some assignment is due asking questions that clearly indicate the student was only then starting the assignment.  Not only is it unlikely that I will be able to reply, but it also suggests very poor time management by the student – which again suggests that the student isn’t particularly interested in getting an education.  There are many, many services, apps, books, websites, etc. about time management for students.  Some information is even available in the Student Guide.  Of course, anyone can have an off day – we all screw up eventually.  But missing even the most basic rules for time management speaks to a more fundamental lack, one that will likely hinder your prospects in the future.

Students are like horses – we can lead you to the water of knowledge, but we can’t make you drink.  You have to be responsible for your own learning.

One more major problem with emails I get: their writers assume not only I know who they are, but can read their minds too.

I once received a message on a Friday evening, that read something like this:

“Hey, I’m in your class and I couldn’t get the 2nd question.  Could you tell me what to do for part b?  I need a fast reply because it’s due Monday.”

Hopefully, you already see a few things wrong with this email message.  Besides things I’ve already mentioned:

  1. What class is the student talking about?
  2. What section of the class is the student in?
  3. Which assignment is the student talking about?
  4. Why does the student assume that I have access to the question, possibly the textbook, and my notes?
  5. Why should the student assume that I will drop everything over a weekend to help him?

A message like this will usually result in a reply that goes something like this:

“What are you talking about?”

And that reply will be sent on Monday morning.

So, please think carefully about your email messages before you hit Send.

2 Replies to “Writing emails”

  1. Hi Dr Salustri,

    As a result of reading your blog, I am including a lesson in my Grade 10 Careers class on how to write an email.
    Please let me know if its ok to include direct quotes from your blog.


    1. By all means, go ahead.
      Just please “attribute” it as you would any other cited work, and we’re good.

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