Lesson 5


Format for Readability

 

Competencies

This lesson teaches the following competencies:

  1. Write using message blocks.

  2. Divide the text into paragraphs averaging around five to seven lines long.

  3. Always separate lists into bulleted or numbered lists unless they are very short

  4. Organize the message blocks.

  5. Use upper and lower case as you would in a letter.

 

Lesson Summary

The lesson summary contains the training information with few examples and activities. Read it if you want to go through the training more quickly. To skip to the full, detailed lesson, click here.

 

Write Using Message Blocks

Except for very short messages with only one point, write your e-mails in message blocks. A message block is a single unit of thought. If readers can clearly identify when a message block begins and ends, they can understand what you are trying to say and follow it more easily. Blocks are especially important if you have several clearly different messages or actions.

Break Your Thoughts Into Paragraphs Averaging
Five to Seven Lines

E-mails written in one big block are difficult to read. As a general rule, your blocks should average around five to seven lines apiece, with a blank line between paragraphs. Use small paragraphs of one or two lines freely:

Dividing your writing into blocks makes it look clear and forces you to focus more on the arrangement of your ideas.

Blocks are even more important in longer messages, particularly those that handle diverse subjects.

Always Separate Lists into Bulleted or Numbered Lists Unless They are Very Short

Lists of three or more items should be broken out into lists. Bulleted or numbered lists make the individual items stand out on the screen and in the reader's mind. Make your lists clear by following these simple guidelines:

  • Use numbers for the list if the items are in order or have some chronological significance. (For example, a set of steps in a procedure).
  • Use bullets if they are in no particular order.
  • Begin or end every list with an explanation.
  • Skip a blank line before the list.
  • If the items in the list are only two or three words long, you do not need to skip a line between the items. If they are longer, and especially if any item wraps to the next line, put a blank line between each item in the list.
  • End with a blank line after the list.

Organize the Blocks

After you have created the blocks, check to see whether they are presented in a logical order.

Use Upper and Lower Case as You Would in a Letter

Since e-mail is such an informal medium, some people believe that using proper capitalization is unnecessary. While writing in all lower case or all upper case may be acceptable for journal entry and informal e-mails, business e-mails written this way look crude and unprofessional.

Avoid Visual Clutter and Unusual Fonts

E-mail page layout differs from paper-document page layout. You can't do some things in e-mail that you might be accustomed to doing on paper. Follow these guidelines:

  1. Separate paragraphs with white space.

  2. Don't use unusual fonts, font sizes, boldface, and italics:

  3. Don't used colored backgrounds.

  4. Don't use of emoticons and acronyms, such as :o), WTG and CUL.

Follow English Grammar Rules

To communicate clearly and give readers the impression you are educated and literate, you must follow the same grammar rules you follow in written communication.

  1. Punctuate for accuracy. Make sure that periods, commas, and other punctuation are where they should be to make the message clear.

  2. Check spelling carefully. Don't rely on your spell checker to catch errors. Always proofread before clicking on "send."

  3. Double-check the recipient's name for spelling errors.

  4. Check the e-mail address for the reader to make sure your e-mail is going to the right person.

 

Full, Detailed Lesson

Write Using Message Blocks

Except for very short messages with only one point, write your e-mails in message blocks. A message block is a single unit of thought. If readers can clearly identify when a message block begins and ends, they can understand what you are trying to say and follow it more easily. Blocks are especially important if you have several clearly different messages or actions.

 
Break Your Thoughts Into Paragraphs Averaging Five to Seven Lines

E-mails written in one big block are difficult to read. As a general rule, your blocks should average around five to seven lines apiece, with a blank line between paragraphs. Use small paragraphs of one or two lines freely:

Hello Simon,

I'd like to make our new website more user-friendly.

I want to remove the pop-up windows because they're too distracting. I'd also like to get rid of the frames.

Dividing your writing into blocks makes it look clear and forces you to focus more on the arrangement of your ideas.

Blocks are even more important in longer messages, particularly those that handle diverse subjects. This is an e-mail message with too few paragraph blocks:

Dear Management Staff:

I would first like to congratulate you on the fine job all of you are doing. Our company has experienced phenomenal growth over the past six months largely because of your hard work. Keep up the good work, and we'll all benefit. One of the reasons for our success has been your creativity and willingness to share suggestions with me. I thought I would take this opportunity to ask your advice on a couple of issues before our next meeting so that you have time to consider these things before then.

First, I would like your opinions on our website. What are your thoughts on usability, appearance, and functionality? Should we consider incorporating a limited e-commerce model into it? Second, most of you have said that we need to place more emphasis on recruiting. As you know, there are many methods available to us for doing so. I'd like to know what most of you feel are the best routes to go about doing this. Think about these things over the next few days. I look forward to meeting with all of you next week.

Jessica Pacubas
President and CEO
Turtle Dynamics, Inc.

 

This is the same e-mail with paragraph blocks:

Dear Management Staff:

I would first like to congratulate you on the fine job all of you are doing. Our company has experienced phenomenal growth over the past six months largely because of your hard work. Keep up the good work, and we'll all benefit.

One of the reasons for our success has been your creativity and willingness to share suggestions with me. I thought I would take this opportunity to ask your advice on a couple of issues before our next meeting so that you have time to consider these things before then.

First, I would like your opinions on our website. What are your thoughts on usability, appearance, and functionality? Should we consider incorporating a limited e-commerce model into it?

Second, most of you have said that we need to place more emphasis on recruiting. As you know, there are many methods available to us for doing so. I'd like to know what most of you feel are the best routes to go about doing this.

Think about these things over the next few days. I look forward to meeting with all of you next week.

Jessica Pacubas
President and CEO
Turtle Dynamics, Inc.

 

This e-mail is very easy to follow since it is broken into blocks. Vary the lengths of paragraphs to make the e-mail clear and inviting. Varied paragraphs help the reader follow shifts in thought and emphasize some ideas over others.

 
Always Separate Lists into Bulleted or Numbered Lists Unless They are Very Short

Lists of three or more items should be broken out into lists. Bulleted or numbered lists make the individual items stand out on the screen and in the reader's mind. Make your lists clear by following these simple guidelines:

  • Use numbers for the list if the items are in order or have some chronological significance. (For example, a set of steps in a procedure).
  • Use bullets if they are in no particular order.
  • Begin or end every list with an explanation.
  • Skip a blank line before the list.
  • If the items in the list are only two or three words long, you do not need to skip a line between the items. If they are longer, and especially if any item wraps to the next line, put a blank line between each item in the list.
  • End with a blank line after the list.
This is the list of guidelines in a paragraph:

Use numbers for the list if the items are in order or have some chronological significance. (For example, a set of steps in a procedure). Use bullets if they are in no particular order. Begin or end every list with an explanation. Skip a blank line before the list. If the items in the list are only two or three words long, you do not need to skip a line between the items. If they are longer, and especially if any item wraps to the next line, put a blank line between each item in the list. End with a blank line after the list.

We wouldn't have gotten our point across, since all of these items would likely have run together in your mind. You'd probably also have trouble remembering them the next time you wrote an e-mail. Using bullets and lists is effective because the human mind likes to categorize items whenever possible. Using lists keeps items distinct and aids in remembering.

Break out all lists unless you have a good reason not to do so.

 

Exercise: Creating Small Blocks and Lists

This exercise will show you how much more readable splitting your ideas into blocks can make your e-mails. In the box below, you will describe your job. First, use separate blocks to explain the background needed for your current position and how an outsider can prepare for a position like yours. Next, use a list to indicate your job's responsibilities.

 
Organize the Blocks

After you have created the blocks, check to see whether they are presented in a logical order.

Exercise: Organizing Blocks

This e-mail from a manager is difficult to follow because it is not in blocks. In the blank box below it, organize it into blocks. Separate the blocks with blank lines.

To All Regional Managers:

These evaluation guidelines should make the process easier and more efficient for all involved. After you have finished discussing the evaluation with the employee, e-mail Human Resources to indicate the process has been completed. First, have the employee sign in via the sign-up sheet you were given earlier this month. That should happen after you have completed the written evaluation and have it available for the employee in the personnel office. Discuss your evaluation with the employee after he or she has read it, going over all relevant areas. Give encouragement and talk about goals for improvement. These new guidelines for our monthly employee evaluations will help us standardize the evaluations. As you know, in the past some managers have given extensive evaluations and others have had very little evaluation, if any. Thanks, and please let me know if you have any questions, difficulties, or suggestions.

Rolfe Windgang

Here is the same e-mail in a box that allows you to make changes. Change this e-mail to make the blocks clear by inserting carriage returns and making lists where possible.

 

Use Upper and Lower Case as You Would in a Letter

Since e-mail is such an informal medium, some people believe that using proper capitalization is unnecessary. While writing in all lower case or all upper case may be acceptable for journal entry and informal e-mails, business e-mails written this way look crude and unprofessional. Example:

hello,

i located your resume on jobhunt.com and i wanted to introduce myself to you. my name is kathleen johnson with hmi worldwide, the parent company of jobhunt.com.

The look is no better when the writer continues using all caps:

HMI IS THE LEADING PROVIDER OF GLOBAL RECRUITMENT SOLUTIONS AND HAS MORE THAN 8,200 EMPLOYEES. HMI ALSO HAS OFFICES IN 29 COUNTRIES AND THE COMPANY'S CLIENTS INCLUDE MORE THAN 90 OF THE FORTUNE 100 COMPANIES.

 
Avoid Visual Clutter and Unusual Fonts

E-mail page layout differs from paper-document page layout. You can't do some things in e-mail that you might be accustomed to doing on paper. Follow these guidelines:

  1. Don't use complicated borders, margins, etc. These may get stripped or skewed by the reader's e-mail program, making the message hard to read.

  2. Open up the text with white space, and separate paragraphs with white space. This will make it easier for the reader to differentiate points, sub-points, and ideas.

  3. Keep lines of text under 70 characters.

  4. Avoid unusual fonts, font sizes, html e-mails, boldface, and italics:

    Please send me the newest report right away. Thanks.

    While it may be tempting to use fonts that have more of an "impact" and text modifiers, such items actually distract from your writing. Using them is a sign that your language isn't working for you. If you express yourself clearly with plain text, your reader will understand you.

  5. Don't used colored backgrounds.

  6. Avoid the use of emoticons and acronyms, such as :o), WTG and CUL. These are too informal for organizational e-mail, and your reader might not understand them.

 
Follow English Usage Rules

E-mails grew out of chat rooms and the informal e-mails used in bulletin boards. Unfortunately, a very loose standard for use of the language resulted. To communicate clearly and give readers the impression you are educated and literate, you must follow the same grammar rules you follow in written communication.

  1. Punctuate for accuracy. Make sure that periods, commas, and other punctuation are where they should be to make the message clear. The different punctuation in these sentences could make the message different:

    Please give me the service blueprints for the joint ball and socket for the engine.

    Please give me the service blueprints for the joint, ball and socket for the engine.

    Please give me the service blueprints for the joint, ball, and socket for the engine.

  2. Use a comma before "and" when you present a series of items in a sentence: "Send me the report, your comments, and any recommendations you have."

  3. Check spelling carefully. Don't rely on your spell checker to catch errors. Always proofread before clicking on "send." Many words that have different meanings have similar spelling and are mistyped:

    from/form
    to/too
    loose/lose
    life/live
    our/out
    an/and

  4. Double-check the recipient's name for spelling errors.

  5. Check the e-mail address for the reader to make sure your e-mail is going to the right person. If you're sending a message to an individual and have specified other recipients via the "cc:" list, double-check the list to make sure the people being sent the message are the intended recipients. Be careful with people who have similar names if your e-mail program automatically completes names after you type the first few letters. For example, if you have "Jessica" and "Jessica B. Smith" in your address book, your e-mail letter will first pick "Jessica" when you type the first few letters. You will have to type several more letters in order to get "Jessica B. Smith." When you have several people in your address book, make sure you confirm that the mail is going to the right person.

 
Lesson Test: Formatting for Readability

The following e-mail contains several of the problems explained in this lesson. Read it carefully and make corrections where necessary. Feel free to change the formatting.

HI Dave: I think we'll loose the contract with this client if we give them a price that is too high. We should keep our rates the same, but find ways of removing some of the unnecessary expenses. I also think we should be more conservative with the expense estimates themselves, since they seem a bit too high. I need you to recalculate the budget part of the proposal to make it more competitive Thanks, Matt

Here is the same e-mail in a box that allows you to make changes. Consider everything you've learned so far.

 


Quiz