February 2010 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Email Etiquette: Because We Live in Litigious Times

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By M. Laurel Walsh, Writing Center Faculty

The problem with human communication is that fully flawed humans are doing it. One person’s constructive feedback is another person’s flagellation. It is easy to see how individual interaction can become protracted miscommunication when emails sent to large numbers of people are available to be misinterpreted by any or all of the recipients. Mind the ever tempting blind carbon copy. It is the siren call of the email communication and must be used sparingly. You do not want information that an individual couldn’t possibly know (unless it had secretly been also sent to them) being discussed where you are not.

Anything that is sent from a work computer has implications for work. Professional communication requires rigid and inflexible guidelines regarding what is permitted. Any company can pay a forensic computer detective to look at what employees have been sending from the office and what has been sent to those individuals. Unprofessional communication is not just a bad idea; it has resulted in litigation that was not even physically possible twenty years ago.

It is important to really double check to be sure of who you scroll down and click in your To: section. A Human Resource manager at a St. Paul healthcare company recently discovered that she was sending hilarious furry animal photos to Steven Mitchell (colleague) and not to her intended Stephen Mitchell (cousin). Spelling is everything, so make sure to carefully survey all of the subheadings and body of an email before sending. Spell check is not just a good idea; it is a must. Even then, reading your email quickly out loud before you press the send button is a vital revision tool that can catch things that scanning with your eyes would not. If no one is around to hear you, read with verve; if you are in a crowded office, mutter inaudibly but make sure that important messages are carefully reviewed. The good news is that many of the most egregious email offences are easily avoided. We at the Walden Writing Center hold these e-truths to be self-evident:

1. Civility can quickly erode in the absence of face-to-face interaction. Save to drafts any email communication you compose in haste after experiencing a strong emotional response to a professional email.

2. Email is to letter as Instant Messaging (IMing) is to texting. Do not be impatient if you do not get an immediate response to an email. Text or IM a person if you need an instant reaction.

3. Use salutations. It takes two seconds to write a person’s name at the top of the email, and it will increase the warmth level exponentially. Use an exit tag line before your name. Consider the email as part of the letter family of correspondence and remember to sign off. (Never sign off on a text; always sign off on an email.)

4. Recognize your client or colleague more formally in email correspondence than they do you. If they begin to use your first name, use their full name one last time. If they twice send their first name as an exit line, then switch from “Mr. Smith” to “Stuart”. Email is the place to take the higher ground and resist the temptation to become more casual than the previous email response.

5. People in offices across the hall from each other have created havoc via email. When it is not going to be too physically difficult (your boss is not in Hong Kong), speak to actual humans regarding tricky or unpleasant situations. Such conversations do not leave a permanent trail across a computer’s hard drive.

6. Never respond to professional emails if you’ve been to Friday night happy hour. (It seems to go without saying, but I’m still blushing from emails I’ve been exposed to that turn out to be written by less-than-sober individuals.) Would you answer a call from the boss in a compromised situation? The same logic should apply, but for some unfathomable reason does not when it comes to email.

7. Don’t just avoid all contact with a problematic piece of communication. One client admitted to stacking a folder with increasingly frantic emails from a colleague, so that the problem had at least become “out of sight”, but it was clearly not mitigated. Dealing with a difficult email is like ripping off a band-aid; it’s best done quickly and kindly.

8. Forwards should never be sent to professional colleagues under penalty of death. If you feel you should send a message to your entire address book, resist the urge. (Having said that, some people have great taste in forwards and amuse us, we call these people our friends. Make sure to open those emails at home and never leave evidence of your casual communication on work devices if possible. One man’s funny joke is another man’s discrimination lawsuit.)

9. NEVER USE ALL CAPS. This is another seemingly obvious thing that repeatedly comes up in email gaffe escalations that spiral into full blown feuds. Caps used even as one word looks like it is yelling at the reader. Avoid the caps lock email at all cost. It does not look assertive; it looks like you need Anger Management for Dummies.

10. Subject lines rock. Use them with precision, and a lot of your fellow e-citizens will welcome you to their inboxes (and as an added bonus, these folks will be able to find you in their searches of the trash/sent folders of their web accounts if you get accidently placed in the trash or marked as spam).

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Fixing the Ugly

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Kari Wold
By Kari Wold, Writing Specialist

We have all written The Ugly Paper. Yes, I’ll admit it. I was a journalism major, I’ve been teaching writing for years, and I’m working on my PhD, but I still mess up. I have acute, painful memories of clutching poorly-written papers to my chest and sobbing in bewilderment over why these papers weren’t loved in offices of uncomfortable-looking professors.

The thing is, though, sometimes papers can be train wrecks. We may or may not know the reasons behind the Ugly, either. At times, we write Ugly because we’re just busy. I get it: I’m in a full-time doctorate program with an assistantship and work as a writing specialist. Or at times, life emergencies force us to just do the best we can to cope and have to dash off some Ugly in the process. Other times, we pour our hearts into a paper and get feedback deeming it Ugly while we’re left cocking our heads in bewilderment with a vague mandate to improve.

No matter the reason, summoning the will to fix these rejected papers can be tough. But because fixing the Ugly papers in our lives is an important step in showcasing our credibility as scholars, I’ve gathered some road-tested ways that show how I and many others have gotten through this process:

1. Psych yourself up. Look, you’ll need to go into some mental trickery here. Make yourself love your topic, fix your mind on an end goal, and check your attitude to make sure it’s at least vaguely positive. Your attitude will creep into what you’re putting on the page, so it’s important you’re engaged in what you’re writing. Additionally, this fixing the Ugly process will go much more quickly if you’re at least faking excitement.

2. Remind yourself text is not precious. Yes, it’s tough to change or to even delete the text you initially wrote. But you need to change the Ugly in order to improve it, and in general, pieces drastically improve with some good revision. I promise! What helps me emotionally in this process is creating a separate MS Word document where I can paste all my “deleted” text. It makes me feel a bit better to know that I’m not really deleting it…

Another trick to get yourself removed from your own work is to make your work look like someone else’s, as it’s so much easier to edit someone else’s piece. Put your piece in a different font, a different size, or a different color. Not only is it amusing (and a great procrastination method), it will help you be more effective when tearing into the Ugly.

3. Sit. Stay! Use your time wisely. My house is never cleaner than when I need to fix a paper, and when a deadline is looming, there is no greater draw than the Internet. But we all know our high-energy mental hours, and those high-energy mental hours need to be spent in front of academic work. You’ll thank yourself later.

4. Make checklists. To be an effective editor, you need to know what you’re reading for when you go through a piece before you can hope to change the Ugly. Think about what your professors or your friendly neighborhood writing folks keep mentioning. List those in an MS Word document and group them into APA, writing, and content categories. You can then go through your work once for APA, once for writing, and once for content, looking at each checklist in tweaking the Ugly. It’s actually fun for me, but because I’m a huge nerd, you might have to psych yourself up for this.

5. Let it cool. When you’re done fixing the Ugly, it’s tempting to send off the assignment and forget it ever existed. The temptation is strong, I know! But if you have time, let the assignment cool a bit. Go off and do something completely different. Move your body around; you’ve earned a bit of a breather. Then, come back and read your work again. Read your work out loud. You’ll surprise yourself by what you find.

You may well be rolling your eyes by now as what I described above isn’t exactly a picnic of a process. But hey: The reaction is understandable because summoning the will to fix the Ugly is tough for everyone. But once we actually stop fussing, sit down, and start working, we might very well come up with something much less Ugly than before. In fact, we might come up with something quite Beautiful.

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