Should Every E-Mail Be Sent By Phone?

A cure for writing too much.

December 13, 2017

“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

                                         --Mark Twain

My e-mails are too long. 

While I know that the effectiveness of one’s e-mail communication are in direct proportion to brevity, I can’t seem to help myself. If you get an e-mail from me, you will probably wish that you didn’t.

Why this gap between e-mail intentions and e-mail behaviors?

How could it be that I have full knowledge of the communications mistakes that I’m making, and yet have failed to change my ways?

I’ll get to why my e-mails, and maybe yours, are too long if you keep reading. First, I’d like to offer myself a solution:

Send all e-mails by phone.

The e-mails that I send from my iPhone are short.  My fingers are too fat to type on the screen. Voice-to-text works okay, but only okay.  (Spacing, punctuation, and even some words end up wonky).

Writing e-mail by phone constrains my ability to write. The tool ends up determining the content. This is frustrating to me as an e-mail writer, but a blessing to those on the receiving end.  Plus, these short phone originated e-mails actually get read.

So why can’t I bring myself to compose concise e-mails from a laptop?

The reason, I suspect, is that I seldom know what I’m thinking. It is in the writing of the e-mail that I figure out what I want to say.

In the crazy days that we are all juggling, the time and energy that it takes to compose a short e-mail on our laptop seems like a luxury. The more disciplined and efficient amongst us are able to keep it brief.  The rest of us fall back in verbosity due to limits of energy, knowledge, and time.

Perhaps another reason that my e-mails are too long has to do with the nature of my work. Many of the e-mails that I write are designed to persuade.  The matrix nature and flat hierarchies of higher education means that it is pretty much impossible to tell anyone to anything. We need to build coalitions, support, and allies.

A short e-mail may be better for persuasion, but a persuasive short e-mail is particularly difficult to pull off.

Finally, I wonder if academics are particularly bad at short e-mails. Many of us became academics because we were very good at writing 20 page papers in college.  (At least those of us in the social sciences and humanities). We like to write too much, and we were rewarded (if you can call an academic career a reward) for writing too much. Hence, our e-mails are too long.

Will I actually switch to writing e-mails by phone?  Probably not.

Will I try to write briefer e-mails? Yes.

Will I succeed? Jury is still out.

How have you figured out how to write short e-mails?


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