From style, to subject, to structure.

Remember when getting emails was exciting?

That shiny little “1” next to your inbox. Pixelated photo attachments taken on an LG Rumor. Email addresses like “sk8t3r_du4e98@hotmail.com.”

Ah, simpler times.

Alicia Keys dreaming.

Nowadays, sending emails is an essential and mundane part of almost every career. And, as such, writing them has become its own distinct communication style – with rules, etiquette, do’s and don’ts.

So how come no one teaches you?

IGNITE knows the secret formula for perfect emails every time. And, now, we’re passing it on to you so you can up your communication game for good.

(Just don’t tell Plankton.)

Planton says, "Secret formula, you are mine!"

Here’s our fail-proof guide to writing professional emails:

Step one: your subject line

If you’re writing an email, there’s most likely a reason why (writing emails just to say “hi” is largely a relic of the “sk8t3r_du4e98@hotmail.com” days). Hence: the subject line.

If your email were a news article, the subject line would be the headline. So, don’t leave it blank – if you do, your email will likely get deleted, ignored or lost in your recipient’s inbox. The perfect subject lines:

  • are six to eight words long
  • are a label; not a sentence
  • clearly define what the email is about
  • use colons to transition from general to specific information
Breaking news.

You can write your subject line before or after you’ve written the body of your email – whichever method helps you pinpoint it best. But, for this guide, we’ll tackle it first.

Let’s say you’re emailing an instructor to ask for an extension on an assignment because you had a mild illness.

Your instructor probably gets dozens of emails per day from both students and other instructors. So, to identify you immediately, we’ll start with your course code: GH101.

Next, we want to pinpoint what within your course we’re writing about: the assignment extension. We’ll use a colon to transition from the general information (the course code) to the specific information (the extension). So, the full subject line reads like this:

GH101: Request for extension on assignment one

Step two: your opening paragraph

A megaphone.

The best emails are written in full block format, which is just a fancy way of saying they’re single spaced, use double spaces between paragraphs and keep paragraphs under five sentences long. (As an example, this article is written in full block format except for the GIFs.)

Generally, your opening and closing paragraphs should be around one to two sentences, your body paragraphs should be around three to five sentences and the whole email should fit in a single screen (so your recipient doesn’t have to scroll). That may sound tricky – but, don’t worry, we’ll walk you through it.

First, your opening paragraph. This is comprised of a greeting and a purpose statement.

The greeting

If you were talking to someone in person, you’d most likely say, “Hi, how are you?” before jumping into conversation. The same principle applies in emails.

When writing your greeting, consider the relationship you have with your recipient – you probably wouldn’t greet your grandma and your boss the same way. If it’s the beginning of the week, you might say something like, “I hope you had a great weekend!” Or, opt for the (admittedly overused) classic, “I hope this email finds you well.”

How your emails find me.

In this example, we’re emailing one of your instructors. So, let’s keep things friendly but formal.

Hi Professor S.,

I hope your week is going well.

If it’s early in the semester, and your instructor may not be familiar with your name yet, tack on a quick introduction to your greeting.

I’m a student in your GH101 course at the University of Guelph-Humber.

The purpose statement

One of our favourite tips for essay-writing is to develop a compelling hook. Don’t just tell the reader exactly what the piece is about (“In this essay I will…”) – show them with an analogy or real-life example.

That’s exactly what you shouldn’t do in an email.

Comfort Fedoke says, "Gotcha!"

Emails are meant to be short, direct and written with a purpose. So, after your greeting, tell your instructor exactly why you’re contacting them.

I’m writing to ask for a three-day extension on assignment one.

Step three: your explanation paragraph

After you’ve outlined your purpose, the next step is to provide some context. Why are you asking for an extension?

I was prepared to complete the assignment on time for its due date this Friday. However, I unexpectedly became ill this week.

Your instructor isn’t a robot – next, they’d probably want to be reassured you’re feeling OK.

Allison Janney says, "I'm sorry. I'm a human being and I have feelings."

I’m feeling better now, thanks to a few days of rest, but my illness hindered my ability to complete my coursework according to the schedule I’d initially planned.

And, depending on the guidelines surrounding late assignments defined in your course syllabus, you may need to include proof for your reasoning.

I’ve attached a note from my doctor to corroborate this setback.

(Just make sure you don’t forget to include the attachment. Trust us – we’ve made that mistake.)

Step four: your detail paragraph

Pikachu uses a magnifying glass.

This is the section where you provide instructions, lists, dates and any other specific information pertaining to your request.

In our example, you’re asking for an assignment extension – but you haven’t yet specifically identified when you’ll be able to hand in your work. So, now, we’ll propose a new due date and time. And, we’ll frame it as a question so your instructor has something evident to respond to.

(Pro tip: when writing dates, always include the weekday and the numbered date to avoid possible confusion.)

Would it be possible for me to submit assignment one by 5 p.m. next Monday, September 13, without being docked marks for lateness?

Step five: your call-to-action paragraph

A clapperboard.

Here’s where you directly solicit a response to your request. In other circumstances – like, if you were requesting an interview or a document from someone – you would also include an action date and/or contact offer in this section. For example, “Please send your resumé back to this address by Thursday, July 15,” or “If that sounds good to you, please phone me at (416)-123-4567 to arrange a date and time.”

But, for our purposes, we can keep things super short and sweet:

Please let me know and, if not, I will try to arrange an alternate deadline that works for both of us.

And, mom was right: always say please and thank you.

Thank you for your understanding; I look forward to seeing you in class next week!

Step six: your sign-off

Kris Jenner closes a laptop.

The best way to close off an email has been a point of contention among professionals for…ever. The not-so-satisfying truth? There really isn’t a single “best” way to sign off.

Like with your greeting, the phrase you use to sign off can – and probably should – vary depending on your relationship to the recipient. You could close off an email to your best friend and classmate with “See you soon,” or “Love,” but you might want something more formal in an email to your employer.

When in doubt, you can never go wrong with the tried-and-true sign-offs: “Sincerely” or “Regards.”

Sincerely,

Your name

The final product

Spongebob writes an essay.

Congratulations – you’ve just written a rock-solid professional email! Let’s take a look at the entire thing:

Subject line

GH101: Request for extension on assignment one

Body

Hi Professor S.,

I hope your week is going well. I’m a student in your GH101 course at the University of Guelph-Humber. I’m writing to ask for a three-day extension on assignment one.

I was prepared to complete the assignment on time for its due date this Friday. However, I unexpectedly became ill this week. I’m feeling better now, thanks to a few days of rest, but my illness hindered my ability to complete my coursework according to the schedule I’d initially planned. I’ve attached a note from my doctor to corroborate this setback.

Would it be possible for me to submit assignment one by 5 p.m. next Monday, September 13, without being docked marks for lateness?

Please let me know and, if not, I will try to arrange an alternate deadline that works for both of us. Thank you for your understanding; I look forward to seeing you in class next week!

Sincerely,

Your name

Attachments

Your doctor’s note.

Tracee Ellis Ross crosses the finish line

And, boom, there you have it! Who could say no to an email like that?


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