Email is fundamentally no different than the letters and notes written on real paper which preceded it by a few thousand years. Just because it is written on your computer screen does not give you any license to be sloppy or rude. The level of care taken with email varies according to the task: if a business associate in your office sends a note asking if you will attend a meeting, its perfectly appropriate to reply with one word, preferably “yes” or “no.” If a business associate sends you a note asking if you love her, the same sort of response may also be appropriate, but only because brevity is often the most elegant and honest sort of response. But in general, important questions should receive important, thoughtful responses.
Because people are so used to using email for short, sloppy communications, often of a terse businesslike nature, or to forward funny jokes, they often think it’s not appropriate for a more important communications, like love letters. I disagree. There is nothing in the nature of email as a communications medium that makes it inappropriate for even the most personal and important communications, as long as the appropriate care is taken in composing and sending the letter. You can spend just as much time and thought on a letter sent by email as one on fancy stationary, plus your typing is probably a whole lot easier to read than your handwriting. And it will get there much faster.
The length of the note, and the care taken to compose it, can vary widely. What should not change are the basics of grammar and spelling. With spell check programs, there is no excuse to send even the simplest note with spelling errors. If you’re an adult, or you would just like to appear to be so, there is no reason to send the sort of silly morse code of email so in favor with high schoolers. If you want to take total possession of a woman, tell her so: but don’t say “U R Mine.” As a gentleman, you have a commitment to treating all people with dignity; don’t, as so many do, show how important you are relative to your correspondent by sending sloppy notes, making it clear how little time you have for those lower in the food chain.
Like any letter, you should remember that it’s extraordinarily easy to forward or republish, perhaps to an audience that you never participated. The old rule about letter writing still holds for business notes; don’t send anything that you would be ashamed to read on the front page of your local newspapers. And lawsuits involve email correspondence all the time. There are some things that are better conveyed orally than in writing.
The more important the email, the more it should mimic the traditional format of a formal letter. This may make more sense by attaching a Word document, actually written in the form of a letter, rather than typing in the body of the email. If you have had a lot of email correspondence with a particular recipient, you may know how your email conveys in their email reader. However, if not, you should probably use an attachment, as different email readers typically change the format of your content; it may look neat and nicely formatted when you send it, only to end up as a garbled mess when the recipient reads it.
The same rules of anger apply with email as with letters, but email presents a bigger problem, as it is so easy to send them off with just a touch of the send button. But wise gentlemen know that, if written in anger, it makes sense to let that note or letter cool overnight. Read it the next day and see if you aren’t glad for the chance to soften it. Once the send button is pressed there is no going back. Even letters not written in anger will often improve if you take a break, do something else, then return and reread, and, if appropriate, revise the note.
With email or any other form of correspondence, the objective should always be the same; to say as clearly and briefly as possible what you mean, while remaining polite. All other things being equal, the shorter letter is the better letter, unless it is shortened by removing “please” or “thank you”. For any important note, think, then write. The key to clear writing is clear thinking, and you can’t have the former without the latter.
Humor does not generally translate well into email, especially irony or sarcasm. Tone of voice is so important in conveying humor that many sarcastic emails have been taken seriously, thus leading to endless miscommunication.