Why Do We Lament That Email is Dangerous Then Assume We Can Get Away with Bad Writing Skills?

Don,t get me wrong, I am a big culprit myself, but I am working on it.

A most interesting thing happened here the other day.  I asked an employee for a review of a web site in preparation for estimating a small amount of work.  In her enthusiasm to do good work quickly, the recipient misread the email as a request to start.  She needed some help from a coworker and started the email with “Do you know about?”  The response from the coworker came back “First I’ve heard of it”, and then a series of statements about what had to be done.  Benign right, except she read the response to mean, “First, I’ve heard of it” with the comma.  Which would have meant that anything he said after that could be interpreted as things he knew needed to be done.  What he meant was “That’s the first time I’ve heard of this project”.  In that case, the statements following would naturally be taken as “if we go forward, here are suggestions of things I think might need to be done”  The difference is subtle enough that the two of them could have numerous conversations after that with each one thinking the other was leading the project with knowledge about what needed to be done.  

So it would be easy to look at this and say that the reader of the “First I’ve heard of it” sentence made the mistake by reading in the comma that was not there.  And you would be right, but, how much can or do YOU rely on good writing skills in an email?  My experience is the typical email is full of acronyms, emoticons, missing punctuation, and misspellings.  Perhaps the people you communicate with are better writers.  In my experience, emails are considered fast communication and treated with disrespect when it comes to quality written communication.  And once you read a majority of emails with poor writing, it is easy to begin to fall into sloppy reading habits as well.  If you can not rely on the communication medium, then why look at it carefully?

How much productivity does this cost the nation?  I can tell you in our instance it lead to 22 emails back and forth with each of the people thinking the other was lead.  Fortunately, it was a small issue and the direction paralleled the proper path enough that not much was lost.  There have been other cases where that has not been the result.

There are some who would say that definitions and punctuation and syntax are subjective.  I would say that to the extent that is true, we degrade the very foundation of their reason for existence.  The only reason a word has a definition is so when you say the word, it invokes the same thought in my mind as it does in yours.  Same goes for punctuation and syntax.

In the worst case, these small errors cause more back and forth than was necessary, and confuse simple tasks.  In the worst case, a statement that was said with one meaning could be taken as completely the opposite by the reader and elicit strong negative emotions.  If the reader reacts, it becomes hard to back down and bad feelings continue even if you point out the original intent of your statement.

You will do yourself and those you write a big service if you take a few moments to think about good writing technique in your emails; you will lose less time with missed communications.  You could even avoid an argument or two.

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