It's Time We Learned How to Write Properly

If you're a 40 something or older you've lived through a period of the most rapid and extraordinary change in the history of mankind. The journey awaiting our younger generations is even more dramatic. I am however reminded that with all the incredible advantages of progress we often lose other important things along the way. We should try to go for walks with our loved ones, spend more time with our children, read more and take the trouble to write handwritten thank you notes to special people who otherwise would remain "taken for granted." Sadly however, more and more people are losing the ability to write properly. And if you're busy cringing right now because the ink in your pen has dried up due to lack of use, never fear - there's always email! Problem solved? Hardly. Here's why:
I've become more and more alarmed at how ineffectively this wonderful new communication tool is used. Programs such as Outlook are virtually gift wrapped for us. You have to be seriously electronically challenged not to be able to work out the basics of how to use it. You're even able to keep track of the progress of e-dialogue by simply replying to an email and being able to refer to the sender's message that has been conveniently copied below! It's alarming how many folk ignore this obvious feature! If you share my sense of awe about this and other sloppy habits that folk get themselves in to, here's a summary of basic email etiquette that just makes good sense.
* Send an email to one recipient. When you use the Cc (carbon copy) or Bcc (blind carbon copy) fields to copy others think it through carefully. Think about how your email will appear to each and every recipient that you've copied. If you're anything like me, then you don't want to feel like one of a crowd - even if it is a newsletter! If you're replying to someone who has Cc'd the world be very careful of "Reply to All". Ask yourself if it's necessary.
* Use the subject line. It's the first thing the recipient sees. If they've been away for just 24 hours and return to the usual 149+ emails in their Inbox, they will not read yours if the subject line does not clearly state what it's about.
* Use a greeting. Dear John, Hello Ann, Hi George, or just the person's name are all acceptable greeting forms depending on the context of the message.
* Reply by hitting the "Reply" button, don't create a brand new email each time! This way you can create and continue an email conversation.
* Get into the habit of using the spell-check (You'll find it under "Tools"). I've tried it on auto for a while, but it ends up wanting to check whether or not I've written to my Mom today, so I gave that a miss. Just get into the habit of doing it manually. The vast majority of us males and a good number of females are looking at the keyboard while typing so there's bound to be half a dozen "finger-trouble" errors per email. Spell-check will pick up most of them for you.
* Please do not type an entire email with the Caps Lock on. It appears to the recipient as though you're shouting at them!
* Use paragraphs. Your email is easier to read when it's broken up into bits. Folk tend not to read long epitaphs
* If you're angry with the person you're emailing, save it as a draft and delay sending it until tomorrow. When you read through it the next day, pretend you're the recipient. Then tone it down by appropriately. In writing everything seems exaggerated. Once you've sent it, it's too late, you can't take back what you wrote.
* Don't send attachments unnecessarily - especially if the files are large. If you are going to send people large files, either zip them first using Winzip (go to or check with the intended recipient first. Bandwidth is less of a problem, but many served automatically lock attachments.
* Close with your signature - and make sure it includes your phone number. To create your own signature while in your Inbox, Sent Items or Outbox, go to Tools - Options, Mail Format and then "Signature Picker". When creating your signature, keep it relatively simple. You don't want to look like you're fresh off the set of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" - even if you are!
* How will people know that you've got their important email? Hit the reply button and write something like this: "Thanks - got your email - will get back to you in X days/hours. Regards, Y." Simple, to the point and good manners. (Not necessary for the newsletters you've opted in to).
* When reading your e-mails, re-size the window so that your eye can easily follow the lines. Shorter sentences are much easier to read.
* Don't create a reputation as a jokes junkie. Fair enough, the odd corker to a select few - but to email your entire database the latest corny cluster every hour ensures that your stuff will automatically get deleted - and the value of all your communications will be downgraded.
* It was many years after I left school that I finally understood that English was by far the most important subject that I ever studied (followed by Mathematics). The ability to be able to communicate effectively in the world's #1 international language is a passport to freedom. One of the best ways to learn how to write properly is by reading. Be sure your children understand this. And encourage them to read (books) for at least an half hour every day.

One last word. I didn't write this article for you. You know all this stuff. This is for all those folk who drive you crazy that need to read it. But you know that, of course...

Paul du Toit, Certified Speaking Professional, Author of "You Can Present with Confidence (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2011).

For more info on effective business writing - please visit

About Paul du Toit: Paul was awarded the Certified Speaking Professional designation by the Global Speakers Federation in New York on August 2008. He is an experienced presentation skills coach and blogs under the title "Presentation Skills Expert" He lectures regularly at Pretoria University's Gordon Institute of Business Science on Presentation Skills. He is the author of "You Can Present With Confidence", due for a reprint by the Greenleaf Book Group Press in 2011. Paul is a founder member and past president of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa. He is the MD of soft skills training consultancy Congruence Training specializing in presentation skills which he founded in April 1995. He also runs marathons, but that's another story.

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