Email 102(a): What (Not) To Write

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”  –Steve Jobs

In one of my favorite guilty-pleasure TV shows, What Not to Wear, fashion gurus Stacy and Clinton collect clandestine (i.e. kept secret or done secretively) footage of a poorly-dressed and unsuspecting victim, who has been nominated by friends and family for a total fashion makeover. After ambushing the victim and exposing her many sartorial sins (i.e. fashion-related sins), the three travel to the Big Apple where they discard the entire contents of the victim’s closet, and then fill it with a brand new wardrobe. At the end of the episode, the victim shows off her stunning new look, complete with new clothes and updated hair and makeup.

As a TV aficionado, given to deep reflection on the inner workings of guilty-pleasure programming, I have identified three components which I believe contribute to the incredible success of this process (enormous budget notwithstanding). Among these components are (1) the victim’s willingness to put forth the time and energy necessary for sartorial self-improvement, (2) the use of non-examples (i.e. don’ts) to make clear what not to do, and (3) the use of guidelines and examples (i.e. dos) to propel the victim in a more appropriate direction.

Fortunately, the What Not to Wear franchise does not hold the exclusive rights to these  components, and they can be used by anyone anywhere for almost any skill imaginable. Of course, this includes the writing of professional and appropriate emails, which is the very purpose of this post. So if you’re willing to devote a little of your precious time and energy to improving your email communications, the following dos and don’ts will move you closer to email success. In this post, I organize my dos and don’ts around three key elements including the greeting, the body, and the closing; additional elements will be addressed in the next post, Email 102(b): What (Not) to Write.

The Greeting


  • Do not use an informal greeting such as “Hey!”, “What’s up?”, or “Good Morning!” While such greetings are generally appropriate for casual conversations or for texting friends and acquaintances, faculty, staff, and other professionals are likely to wretch at the mere sight of them.
  • Do not address your recipient using the wrong title, which could be perceived as careless, annoying, or insulting. For example, a man named John Smith would probably be terribly annoyed upon receiving an email addressed to Mrs. Smith. Faculty, staff, and other other professionals who have devoted upwards of a decade earning a doctorate are equally annoyed when they receive emails addressed to Mr. or Mrs. rather than Dr.


  • Err on the side of caution when selecting a greeting. For example, if the name of the recipient is known, which is typically the case, the safest greeting is “Dear” followed by the recipient’s title and last name (e.g., Dear Dr. Savant). However, if the name of the recipient is unknown, such as an email address checked by several people (e.g.,, a generic greeting such as “Dear Sir or Ma’am” is best.
  • Take the time to find out the recipient’s position and highest level of education. This can be done by looking at the recipient’s bio or contact info on the organization’s website. If you don’t know which Department your intended recipient is in, a quick search will usually produce the necessary information. Once you have identified the recipient’s position and highest level of education, please use the following guide to help you select the most appropriate title.

A Brief Guide to Professional Titles

The Body


  • Do not use informal language (i.e. slang), acronyms (e.g., OMG), abbreviations (e.g., ur, thx), or emojis (e.g., hearts, smiley faces) when emailing faculty, staff, and other individuals in academic and professional settings. Such behaviors could leave your recipient with the mistaken impression that you are unprofessional, unintelligent, unmotivated, or even downright rude. Because a bad first impression is very hard to shake, this rule is particularly important to follow when emailing someone with whom you have had little or no prior interaction.
  • Do not allow any of the four personae non gratae described in the previous post to weasel their way into your email communications. Portraying yourself as helpless, lazy, emotionally-unstable, or overly informal will hinder you from getting your message across, and may even prevent you from getting the help you need.


  • While it is not necessary to write as you would in a formal composition or research paper, it is advisable to use academic language (i.e. no slang), write in complete sentences, and write out all words in full (i.e. no abbreviations or acronyms).
  • Because faculty and staff assist countless students each semester, it’s not surprising that they often forget students’ names or mistake one student for another. To help your recipient better assist you, ensure that he or she actually knows who you are.  For example, if you are enrolled in a course the recipient is teaching, include your name, the name of the course, and days and times of class meetings. If you had a previous encounter with the recipient, briefly explain how he or she knows you (e.g., We met on Monday to discuss the internship at the community center.)
  • Because many faculty and staff prefer to help students who also help themselves, it’s a good idea to provide a brief description of the steps you have taken to address your problem, concern, or question. If you have not done so, your email is probably a bit premature; try to address the problem, concern, or question on your own, and then email the intended recipient for assistance.

The Closing


  • Do not use a closing that is overly friendly or that could imply an “inappropriate” relationship with your recipient. Examples of such closings include “Love,” “Kisses,” and “XOXO.” These very informal closings should be reserved for those with whom you have a friendly, personal, or intimate relationship.
  • Do not just skip the closing altogether, which could appear abrupt or even leave the recipient with a negative impression. Skipping the closure also robs you of one last opportunity to make a positive and lasting impression.


  • Use a closing that is polished and professional, as this is your final opportunity to leave a positive impression. Examples of such closings include, but are not limited to, “Kind Regards,” “Sincerely,” “Best,” “With appreciation,” and “Many thanks.”
  • Select a closing that “matches” the content of your email. For example, use a closing such as “Many thanks” or “With appreciation” for an email in which you thank the recipient for the assistance that he or she has provided. For an email in which you have asked the recipient for assistance, you might use a closing such as “Thanks for your consideration” or “Thanks in advance for your assistance.”

In this post, I have addressed the Dos and Don’ts of crafting effective and professional emails, with particular attention to the greeting, body, and closing. While these three elements are vitally important, other elements also merit consideration, as they can impact how you are perceived by the recipient and whether or not you get the help you need. To learn about these elements, please read Email 102(b): What (Not) to Write.



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