On Writing: Emails, Emails, Emails by Dylan Fisher

posted Oct 16, 2017, 3:33 PM by Writing Center

I spend a lot – I'll repeat: A LOT – of time writing, reading, and responding to emails. In part, this is because I'm an exceptionally slow writer and reader. But, for the most part, it’s because I take emailing very seriously. Though I have peers who find my devotion to the Email strange or amusing or even wasteful, I believe, wholeheartedly, that emailing (much like creative writing or painting or cinematography, the list goes on and on) is a craft that can and should be developed over time.

Others, too, are beginning to take emails more seriously. Email exchanges from novelists, politicians, journalists, and business executives, much like the letters of yore, are now being published in journals and magazines. Major institutions are clamoring to buy the email archives from some of our greatest literary stars. In 2014, the Harry Ransom Center (in Austin, Texas) purchased Ian McEwan's literary archive, including 17 years of emails, for two million dollars. A quick search in Google gives many similar examples.

And while it might seem as if our entire email system may soon be replaced by the next, new, sparkling, flashing, will-bring-you-closer-to-your-friends-and-coworkers-than-ever-before social media platform, the fact remains that emailing is more pervasive in our day to day interactions than ever before. There are approximately 3.7 billion email users worldwide and 269 billion emails sent every day. Compare that with Twitter’s mere 303 million daily tweets. Or the scant 200.4 million pieces of First-Class mail processed and delivered each day. 

The bad news: Research shows that many of our emailing habits are not necessarily healthy ones. The good news: Recognizing that email isn't going anywhere, we can begin to understand and think about how, when, and why we use it.

There are a number of resources with tips and tricks on composing an effective email, with particular attention to addressing employers and professors. These are often useful and sometimes funny. Their recommendations to include an informative subject line and consider the appropriate salutation and valediction are, at least for the now, perennial. (Remember, of course, that these are simply guidelines, are not universal.) These resources deserve mention and reading, but rarely do they answer the less pressing, more gnawing, questions about what it means to sit down, type out an email, and click that unforgiving send button.

So, again, ultimately, why does emailing matter? Why should we care?

Because, like much of what we write, our emails are (semi)permanent records of who we are. Though we may delete them, casting them, casually, away, there is a good chance they are still floating around someone else's inbox. And while the email’s digital aspect might give us a comforting sense of impermanence, our emails are, in fact, very enduring. (This is why it is so difficult to believe Jonathan Safran Foer's claim of having "lost virtually all of [his] correspondence" with Natalie Portman, the orphaned excerpts of which were published in The New York Times’s T Magazine.)

Because we want to be heard (read: read) and understood, and it's incredibly easy for a given recipient to check a box, to click delete, to dismiss us.

And because, while emails should be taken seriously, they don’t need to be serious, should not cause us stress. Rather they should be taken as an opportunity to rejoice. For even in the most structured, formal email is an opportunity to discover the humanity and creativity possible in the written word.

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