Have you ever wondered why no one responds to your emails? Do you want to ensure art world VIPs read your message or request?
Over the years I’ve fine-tuned the craft of writing business emails in the arts. While working as an executive assistant for a busy museum director and as a studio manager for a successful mid-career artist and former publisher, I was introduced to the more nuanced techniques that one might use to get a response from overbooked professionals.
In this post, I want to share my email “mantras” with you and show you how to attain them.
While I can’t guarantee that you’ll get a reply, these tips will introduce you to the thought process that goes behind each and every communication I send out.
Get to the point
Many email writers make the same mistake: they don’t state what the sender wants from the receiver in a clear and succinct manner. These people treat email like an artistic medium, inviting the reader to wade into their stream of consciousness, providing too much information before they ever reach a point. Don’t be this person.
The fact is, your receiver isn’t really a reader. If they’re busy—aren’t we all—then they’re likely skimming your email as they wait in line at the bodega, walk on the treadmill, or on their way to pick up their kid from school. They don’t have time to read a book, much the less an article in the New Yorker about your backstory before they finally figure out what you want from them.
Emails should, therefore, be as succinct as possible—especially if you’re writing to a VIP who receives thousands of emails per day. Expect that these people only have 30 seconds to read and respond to your query. That’s not a lot.
If you’re writing for general business purposes, you should avoid lengthy pleasantries in the intro paragraph and launch right into the meat of the missive. (If you want to get personal, then I suggest you make a phone call, schedule a coffee, or send a card instead. In my view, anything that can be done over the phone should be.)
Your body paragraphs then should address the following:
Why are you emailing this person?
What background/context do they need to know in order to handle your request?
Is there any action they need to take?
And don’t forget to attend to the subject line, which should identify the topic of the email or even directly address the ask.
Make the ask up front
You shouldn’t expect that your reader is even going to get to the end of your email—a sad fact of life. Ask for what you want right away.
In the case of writing to VIPs, your ask should be a simple yes/no or short-answer question. The easier you can make it for them to respond, the better chances you’ll have to receive one.
For everyday business correspondence, you should tell the recipient what you want from them by the second paragraph of the email. That way they can make an initial decision on how to handle it: Do they need to add it to their to-do list? Or, can they forward the message to their assistant to handle?
So, if you’d like to schedule a meeting with the receiver next week or get their eyes on a manuscript, then don’t beat around the bush.
Write simply and in short paragraphs
As George Orwell famously advised, don’t use two words when one will do. This goes for emails as much as for other forms of writing (artist’s statements!). Email readers appreciate clear language and a simple, yet conversational tone.
That simplicity should also translate to the email’s structure: paragraphs should be comprised of no more than one to three sentences, max. Much like a blog post, each paragraph should be short, snappy, and engaging.
Think of email paragraphs like bullet points, each with its own nugget of information that the reader will gather in one sweep of the eye. This has the added benefit of making the writing much easier to skim so that readers can actually glean more information.
Writing to someone who doesn’t speak English at a native level? Follow this tip even more closely. Rather than “dumbing down” your writing to a learner level, you should avoid complex sentence structures (look for too much punctuation), words with multiple meanings, and pronouns without clear antecedents (what does “it” refer to again?). These problems can make emails impenetrable for ESL readers.
Edit before you send it
As an editor, I probably scrutinize my emails more than the average person—and for good reason. People are literally judging me based on my writing ability. While you may not need perfection in your own communiqués, there are some things you can do yourself to ensure that your emails are error free before you hit send.
The fatal mistake of most emailers is that they forget to self-edit. I recommend at least one read-through after you’ve composed a draft, and more if you’re writing to someone really important or with a delicate request.
After you’ve got a solid draft, read through it and consider your word choice and sentence construction. Does every word and sentence clearly convey the meaning you intended?
If you have more time, or if you’re writing something really important, read the email out loud. I often give this advice, but in the case of emailing, I actually do this myself. Yes, really. If you’ve followed my advice above about keeping it short and sweet, this shouldn’t take you too long. Reading your email out loud will you get a sense of awkward phrasing, complex structures, and you will (probably) catch more typos!
As you’re doing your final cleanup, make sure you’ve included any attachments or links that you reference.
Finally ready to hit the button? Go for it!
About the author
Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.