Email – usage and abusage

The classic work on the writing of good english ‘Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English’ has helped a generation to improve their written work. The use of email, and what should be accepted as good or bad practice, seems to lack such seminal guidance notes. Of the 200 plus emails that reach my inbox most days about 20% are deleted without opening based on the Title. To me that is good, I have been able to judge whether the message is relevant without spending time opening it. Another 10-20%, and these are mostly internal communications, have no useful title and may be a ‘FW: FW: FW:’ message as I have grown to call them. These messages are effectively internal spam and have been passed on from one internal mailing list to another on the off chance they hit an interested reader. These often get deleted without reading on busy days. That leaves me with only 120 messages to deal with. Assuming one message per 30 seconds that reduces my email reading time from 100 minutes to 60 minutes; a great gain. Every once-in-a-while I try to persuade colleagues that better email practice could save not just a few minutes per day but whole working years at an institutional level. The arrival, this morning, of a 10 line email with a 50 line footer, caused me to consider whther I should revive my periodic campaign for good email practice. I have a few basic rules that I try to apply:

1) Do I actually need to send the message at all, and really to that many people (tested by thinking about whether I would have circulated the same message as a memo or letter in the old days of paper communicaton);

2) Do use an informative and relevant title;

3) Don’t automatically copy the entire message thread in;

4) Don’t attach huge files;

5) Keep the message short and to the point.

I wonder whether we might compile a good practice guide as part of our digital literacy activities – perhaps a student research project?

At the risk of sounding as outraged as Mary Whitehouse, and perhaps showing the internet skills of Mrs Trellis of North Wales, my personal opinion is that it is time we addressed email usage and abusage and saved the institution a lot of time and a lot of bandwidth.

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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