Writing clear, concise emails is a skill that's even more critical now with so many of our communications taking place online. The rise in remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increased volume of email, a Harvard Business School study found. Making those emails direct and easy to read can help lessen the burden on your colleagues.
Also, as Seth Serhienko, CPA, audit manager at Widmer Roel in Fargo, N.D., pointed out, when you work remotely, new clients or colleagues might base their entire impression of you on your emails. Making sure your emails to them are clear and descriptive can help build trust and save time, he said. If clients know exactly what documents or information you need the first time, it leads to less back and forth. At the same time, poorly written emails may lead clients to believe you'll fall short on other areas of the job too, he noted.
Try these tips to improve your emails:
Make sure the takeaways are obvious. Always include a call to action in your emails, and when possible, a deadline too, said Bay Area writing coach Joanna Cutrara. When it's easier for your colleagues and clients to understand what you need, you're much more likely to get a timely reply, she said.
"Being upfront about when you need something is just respectful of both your time and your colleagues' time," she said.
You shouldn't feel pushy about providing a deadline, Cutrara said. In fact, it might help you come off as less demanding in the long run. If you leave it up to your colleagues or clients, they might not get back to you as quickly as you need them to. By providing a deadline, you can help avoid sending urgent follow-ups, she said.
When asking for documents, especially from new clients, aim to be crystal clear, Serhienko said. For example, if you're discussing multiple attached documents, clearly name the files so they're easy to identify. That way you're more likely to get the items you asked for and less likely to get questions back in response.
Lacy McMoarn, a CPA with Dufour Tax Group LLC, in Portland, Maine, said she usually gets between 20 and 25 actionable emails a day — and they add up. In addition to keeping messages concise, she suggests cutting through the noise by making good use of your subject line.
Subject lines should be short, direct, and accurately reflect the urgency of your messages, she said. Never leave a subject line blank, she added.
Avoid the "wall of text." The best emails don't use artsy prose. Instead, they make their purpose clear to readers, and they do it as quickly as possible, Cutrara said. Aim to keep emails under five sentences when you can, she said, and keep paragraphs to three sentences or fewer.
"If you're writing an email that you would dread reading, why are you sending it?" she said.
When emails must be longer, use formatting to your advantage. Serhienko recommends using bold lettering, bullet points, or numbered lists when they're called for. These can be valuable cues for readers who are just scanning your message.
"If you just send a big block of text, things are going to get missed," he said.
Add a personal touch. Writing concise emails can show clients and colleagues that you respect their time, but that doesn't mean your messages should feel terse either. Email is a valuable client relations tool, McMoarn said.
At the end of an email, adding "Thanks so much for your help with this" or "I really appreciate the work you're doing on this" can go a long way, Cutrara said.
"Whether you're writing to colleagues or clients, it can make a difference to have those touchpoints of warmth," she said.
Consider your audience. Think about your audience when you craft messages. For example, McMoarn said, sometimes CPAs can rely too heavily on jargon their clients might not understand.
"Oftentimes that will really disengage a reader," she said.
Proofread. Emails are not very helpful if they're unclear or riddled with errors. McMoarn recommends always proofreading before sending, especially in cases where emails might later serve as documentation, such as when a client is being audited. If it's a particularly important message, consider asking a colleague to look it over.
Practice with every email you send. Writing quality emails can show you're on the ball, Serhienko said, especially now that we're seeing each other in person less often.
Writing good emails is a skill like any other aspect of your job. And, with time and effort, anyone can become a stronger writer, Cutrara said. It's like a muscle you can work to build, and it's worth the investment, she said.
Though becoming a better writer might not be your ultimate goal, she said, it can contribute to other goals of yours, such as having better relationships with clients and colleagues. "You really have to think about the end results," she said.
— Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.