About Those 10 Reasons My Emails Are Too Long

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your essay on why my emails are not getting read on account of the fact that they are too long and apparently not because you have the attention span of a high school jock on speed.  While I appreciate the (ironically) lengths you went to in order to describe the problem, I do have some issues with your specific ten reasons, which I will go into below.

You don't know what you are trying to say.

Yeah fair enough, that happens, but usually I don't know what to say because you've given me a five word trigger like it broke, what up with that? And I don't know about you, but most of the time the answer is a bit more complicated than because you are a moron who doesn't know what to do with it, an answer which itself is almost three times the length of the trigger; being politically correct (and more accurate) takes more words than that.

You don't know what you are talking about.

Well I'm probably an anomaly here, but if you could see my sent-items it contains a bunch of emails complaining to people that the things they've stuck me with the responsibility for I don't know anything about. Besides, as we saw in point one, you probably don't know what we are talking about either. At least I'm up front about it.

Your signature is unnecessary.

Now if my signature is fifty words with an animated .gif plus a corporate-mandated useless "legal" "disclaimer" appended to it, then yes it could use some trimming. But mine isn't. Two words for my name, two words for my company name, and a .jpg that has the company logo on it.

Email is mail. It isn't a tweet. It isn't an instant message. It is possibly (or probably) saved for long term information. It could possibly be dragged out in court. So given all that it should be a little more formal, and presented nicely. It doesn't take any extra time, since that's the template my mail reader pops up when I ask for a new message.

I understand if that all you are doing is spitting out missives like it broke, what up with that? you might not want incriminating information on future copies like your name, but frankly if you are doing that, you should be using an instant messenger. (Or Twitter, however the hell that is supposed to work.) Not email.

At least when I'm sent to prison for failing to stop whatever scheme is in play, I won't look like an illiterate felon.

You are writing a book. Emails are not books. If there is additional information, attach supporting documents.

So you're OK with large volumes of information as long as they are easily-ignorable, probably-inconvenient-to-search, written-by-me-in-a-separate-editor large volumes of information? I thought the whole point of this exercise was to get the information read, not to make it easier for you to tune it out.

Look, if I have to write it out, it is probably going in an email. If it has to be "doc-u-fied" in the future then there's copy&paste into Word and we can then get on with the important business about arguing about the formatting details. But when it is you and me, it is going in the email. If you want supporting documents, then google can help you with all the supporting documents you want.

You are spamming.

Look, the definition of "spam" is not "stuff I don't care about." This is the corporate culture in this company where email is used to keep everyone in the loop with stuff which might or might not be immediately and directly relevant them. When you do it (because your boss told you to) then you are "spamming," too. And if you don't do it, then you become a hindrance to the way that the company runs.

You are rambling.

Context is everything. The answer to "how do I..." is almost always "why do you want to..." and there's usually details that matter that give context to even a "yes" answer.

I don't know where you work, but most of the time when I ask a question I want to show some context -- like the customer or situation, like that I've done at least paper-bag levels of research on my own, like I'm concerned that making this change will have an effect on something else important -- before bothering you. Your time is valuable. So I'm not going to treat you like my personal living google unless I have to.

You are forwarding a mess.

I try not to say "See?" at the tops of the email threads I forward back. There are two reasons for that.

First, I'm rarely involved in long email threads. When I reply, I usually try to trim everything after the email I'm immediately replying to (and usually savage that down to the key points I'm addressing). My sent-mail folder keeps a record of the thread, most of the time, if I care; and involved stuff all goes through the RT system, which keeps a record of every email sent in the issue for ever and ever.

Second, if I do find myself with a problem, I'll put a two-sentence summary at the top of the email I forward you -- but you'll get the last exchange or last couple of exchanges because sometimes there's no substitute for seeing how the hole was dug.

It shouldn't be an email.

If we need to have a record that it happened, or what was said, or what was decided -- then yes, it should be an email. Phone calls, meetings, whatever should always be followed up with an email that highlights at a minimum what happened. Why is always better. Because I'm going to keep that email I sent you and hang you with it in three weeks when you deny it ever happened.

It should be multiple emails.

Sometimes. You are right with this one. Yes. Important information can get lost if it is buried in an omnibus. But again, sometimes we need to bundle things up so we can try to keep all the relevant issues together so nothing gets missed. For some, that's easier in a single message.

You don't edit your emails.

I do. I know I'm writing potentially for history here -- in the future, someone (most likely me, but you never know) is going to be looking for this email, for evidence about this point in time or this specific issue. So I try to write clearly. And that means words, usually more than simple words.

My conclusion

I think the problem here is that we disagree how email should be used. I think it should be used like writing a letter: formal, detailed, a self-contained snapshot of whatever we're talking about including the relevant context. It should have your name at the bottom of it, like you are professionally accepting responsibility for whatever the content is. It should be written like it will get read out in court at a trial or printed on the front page of the newspaper.

If what you are doing isn't that, then you are using email wrong. Mostly, you are using email when you should be using an instant message.

So we go back to my first point -- I think the problem here isn't that I write long emails, it is that your attention span is too short. Maybe you are over-worked with your own responsibilities and feel overwhelmed. But frankly we have to work together, and that means sometimes you bother me and sometimes I bother you.

We work in a complex world with complex projects and complex tools. If everything was simplified down so that high-school dropouts could do our jobs, then that's who would be doing them -- and getting paid a heck of a lot less than we are.

Suck it up.