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How to write frugal e-mails…

I know we often associate frugality with money. But it really means not being wasteful or not using more than we need. This is particularly important at work, since a lot of office communication is done by e-mail. I think there are two reasons to write e-mails frugally.

First, so you’re not wasting the other person’s time. Perhaps this will make them more receptive to your clear message. They’re not annoyed that you take paragraphs to come to the point.. Second, it’s a clearer message. Without the extraneous stuff, people can see exactly what you want them to do any why. Hopefully this increases your odds of getting what you want.

I write a lot of e-mails at work. And while I know I’m not perfect, I think that I do pretty well at writing frugally (at least for work). Here’s an example of one I wrote yesterday, with certain data removed. Underneath, I’ll explain the necessary parts of this e-mail.


Hi ——–,

I work at the —— properties. We’re about to send one of our tenants a letter about their upcoming rent-step in November. [Boss’s name] suggested that you might be able to send me a rent-step letter which I could then use as a template. If so, that would be great!


[Mrs. Micah]


We’ll ignore greetings and signatures in this analysis.

1. Opening line introduced myself. You won’t need this if you already know the person well. It shold be precise and friendly, identifying who you are and (perhaps) why they should listen to you/help you.

2. Second sentence set the context. What is this stranger e-mailing her about? Ah, the rent-step.

3. Third sentence explained why I picked her and what I want. I could have written “[boss] suggested I contact you.” as a separate sentence earlier, but that wouldn’t have answered the “why” question, which this sentence does.

4. Fourth sentence is a happy and appreciative closer. It’s not necessary, in that it’s not integral to the message, but I think it shouldn’t be left out. It’s friendly, keeps the letter from being brusque or demanding. It’s an ahead-of-time thank you, though it doesn’t replace a thank-you later.

What do you think? Good frugal e-mail layout? Bad? It’s not appropriate for all contexts, but it meets most of my work needs. Saves me time writing, other people time reading, and communicates all the important points. Shout-out to my business writing professor for teaching us to write clearly and concisely.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Fabulously Broke October 13, 2007 at 6:02 am

Yes, it’s clear and concise using your method. But what I normally do when I have a lot of tests that I need to write a lot of info for (to cover my butt basically.. :P) I do a short summary at the top “Everything A-OK” or “2 issues”, then I go into detail with pictures/images in the rest of the email….

But I see what you mean about frugality. I’m trying to do it myself… but it’s hard.

Jon October 13, 2007 at 9:42 am

This reminds me of a story about the Spartans, which I found extremely funny:

When the banished Samians reached Sparta, they had audience of the magistrates, before whom they made a long speech, as was natural with persons greatly in want of aid. Accordingly at this first sitting the Spartans answered them that they had forgotten the first half of their speech, and could make nothing of the remainder.

Afterwards the Samians had another audience, whereat they simply said, showing a bag which they had brought with them, “The bag wants flour.” The Spartans answered that they did not need to have said “the bag”; however, they resolved to give them aid.

mrsmicah October 13, 2007 at 9:49 am

@FB You’re right, sometimes e-mails can’t be that short. I’d say 90% of mine can be. If not, then the short summary + detail below method is a good one. I do that as well. 🙂

@Jon Lol, are you sure you’re not my mother or weren’t raised by her? Just because she’d often read us Greek stories as kids, so we know about Demosthenes and whatnot. I run into very few people who actually know these stories (I don’t think I learned that one myself).

Andrew Stevens October 13, 2007 at 6:30 pm

Great post. I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I’m sending a work-related email. I’ve always known that my biggest problem is a tendency to be long-winded. Sadly, clarity and concision are often competing goals. It’s always nice when they’re not.

frugal zeitgeist October 13, 2007 at 6:51 pm

I’ve been trying to get this through the head of one of my staff members for >1 year now. He has finally learned that I don’t want to read long emails, but now he’s substituting quantity for length.


GreenPanda October 14, 2007 at 8:32 am

My company needs you to come in and teach this. I keep getting pointless and long emails.

Spells October 14, 2007 at 8:38 pm

Mrs. Micah, you make a great point here — I love the link you made between financial and verbal economy. Short emails are best.

I also like your email outline and I find that I get better responses at work when I use roughly that format.

In addition, I would add:

1. Try to use the recipient’s name as the first word of the email, because people respond positively (but probably not consciously) to the sight or sound of their own name.

2. Ask clearly for what you need — in the form of a question — and put that question either in a short paragraph or set apart in its own paragraph. That helps busy business people (like my clients) home in on the key issue more easily.

I know that some older clients of mine resent the phrasing “if you would do X, that would be great”. . .it’s something about the “that would be great” phrase itself. They respond much more happily when I say “Would you please do X?”

3. Close with an offer to help, like “Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can help you in any way. Thank you so much for helping me with this.”

4. Always be more polite than you think is necessary. I have never lost by being gracious and a bit formal (and I follow these email “rules” even with people I know very well); but I definitely have hurt myself by being casual or joke-y in emails.

Anyway, great post — thanks for starting the discussion.

Mrs. Micah October 17, 2007 at 10:04 am

Some good points, Spells, thanks. 🙂 And you’re right, gracious and formal is the best way to go. Much safer, whether with business or friendship.

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