Career advice: how to write an academic email

Typography expert’s rules for making messages easier to read elicit both praise and claims of pedantry

January 12, 2017
woman cleaning window with overlaid text
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I can see clearly now: academics receive thousands of emails in a year and following rules on spacing text may help everyone digest messages more easily

About two decades have passed since academics began regularly sending emails to each other, but it seems that the style, shape and etiquette of messages have still not been agreed.

Should you ever start an email to a colleague with a “Hi” or a “Hey”? Is it rude to end an email without writing your name or initial, even if it is obvious who you are from the text? And how do you choose the right sign-off, one that is not too terse (“best”, “regards”), too needy (“many thanks”) or too formal (“yours”)?

One other issue still to be decided is how to space your text to make it easy to read – with some scholars favouring frequent line breaks and others using paragraphs that run for several lines.

With readability in mind, one UK professor has proposed a guide to spacing emails that he believes will help academics deal with the thousands of messages they receive each year.

According to the guide proposed by James Hartley, emeritus professor of psychology at Keele University, whose research has focused on how instructional texts can be made easier to read, each new sentence in an email should be followed by a one-line space unless it is very short.

“I suppose I am not alone as an academic in receiving well over 2,000 emails a year and that, as a researcher rather than a teacher, I get fewer than many of my colleagues,” Professor Hartley explains in an as-yet-unpublished article titled “How can we make emails more readable? The role of space”.

“I began to worry for some reason about how all of these emails that I received (or a good proportion of them) could be made easier to read,” he continues.

Many of the emails, particularly those from university administrators, contained huge blocks of text and sentences with multiple subclauses spanning several lines, Professor Hartley claims.

“Many people rattle out emails without much thought about their presentation,” writes Professor Hartley, who reformatted several dense emails that he had received and sent them back to their authors. In revising them, he drew on rules drawn up by a former colleague, Peter Burnhill, the late typographer and graphic designer who researched with Professor Hartley in the 1970s how the layout of a page and the spacing of text could help readers to absorb information more effectively.

Of the 23 comments that he received about the reformatted emails, the majority were “favourable”, Professor Hartley says, with academics stating that the revised format made the messages easier to read, although one colleague accused him of pedantry.

“The main criticisms were that the revised text could look disjointed and…two respondents said that the rules were obvious and that they did this anyway,” he remarks.

“One preferred a new line-space for paragraphs only – without separating sentences with paragraphs,” he adds.

Others wondered about what impact the prescribed line spacing would have on their ability to respond efficiently to the enormous number of emails they receive. One programme director told Professor Hartley that he received almost 50,000 emails from staff and students in a typical calendar year.

However, most feedback was positive, although several respondents pointed out that the matter was now further complicated by the fact that messages sent from tablets or smartphones did not allow for such elegant line spacing. In addition, students often read emails on their mobile phones, where layout was quite different, they added.

“All I can suggest here is that authors space their emails along the lines I have suggested and then just pray that the layouts remain unchanged when the texts are posted,” concludes Professor Hartley.

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