IT for Donuts: write emails people can understand

By: John McGarvey

Date: 16 May 2014

Email road sign{{}}IT for Donuts is our regular Friday feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.

This week, we reveal a quick way to check and improve your emails before you send them.

The plague of email

Long, badly-written emails are a plague on productivity. They can leave the recipients confused and unsure of what — if anything — they need to do in response.

If you find yourself writing an involved message, it’s a good idea to run it through Hemingway before pressing send.

Hemingway is a free online tool that gives your writing a readability grade. It also flags up complex sentences and highlights words that might be unclear.

I recently blogged about how I use it when I’m writing for websites like IT Donut. But you can use it to write emails, too.

How to use Hemingway

Using Hemingway is easy. Just write your email as normal, using Outlook, Gmail or whatever you normally use.

Once you’ve finished, click and drag with the mouse to highlight the text in your email. Then copy the text using CTRL+C (or CMD+V, if you have a Mac).

Then go to the Hemingway website. Click in the middle column, which will contain some introductory text about Hemingway. Delete this text, then use CTRL+V (or CMD+V) to paste in your email content.

Hemingway will give your text a readability score, shown in the top right of the window. Aim to get this below 10.

Editing your email

Hemingway will highlight your text where it identifies areas for improvement. Work through these one-by-one.

Often you can see suggested edits by running your mouse over the highlighted text. Good ways to make your text more readable include:

  • Splitting long sentences into two or more separate sentences.
  • Putting short, simple words in place of complicated ones.
  • Using accurate, descriptive words that leave little room for doubt.

You can edit your text within Hemingway, then paste it into your email software once you’re happy.

Just remember: although Hemingway is a good way to sense-check a message, it’s not foolproof. Language is complicated, and often you’ll want to overrule its suggestions.

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