It’s been a while since I offered up a post on writing a specific genre. (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by “genre,” read Pros have contextualized knowledge.) I thought I’d tackle email. Radicati Group, a technology market research company, estimated that nearly 90 BILLION business emails were sent a day in 2012. That must mean anybody reading this blog is dealing with a lot of email! No doubt that’s why there are gads of people talking about email etiquette: from Emily Post to MoneyWatch at CBS News to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.
Here’s a nice set of interviews from Iowa State where professionals talk about the use of email in the workplace.
One of the professionals in the video notes that amateurs often misunderstand the level of formality appropriate in workplace email. She says using slang or texting shorthand makes others perceive you as immature (“amateur” in my lexicon) instead of professional. See the 2007 book, Send, for an entertaining look at email blunders. I wrote about the problem of college student email a couple of days ago.
But email isn’t really a genre. It’s a medium or technology for communicating a message. Email can be used to communicate many different genres. One study by Goldstein and Sabin identified 12 of them: from cover letters to offers to requests. So I’m going to tackle email requests.
So what do we know about successful email requests? I’m combining what I’ve seen in several studies of rhetorical move structure into the table below. It shows that seven rhetorical moves occur in the corpus of email requests studied. Only one move — making the request (3) — is obligatory in a downward message (where the writer has more power relative to the reader). In contrast, four are obligatory in an upward message.
|Order||Move||Downward Recipient||Upward Recipient||Quality Indicators|
|Addressing recipient||Optional||Obligatory||Not casual unless close personal relationship|
|Providing background information||Optional||Obligatory||Conciseness & relevance|
|Making the request||Obligatory||Obligatory||Clarity|
|Convincing recipient to comply or justifying request||Optional||Optional||Obligatory for high-imposition requests|
|Elaborating the request||Optional||Optional||Obligatory for complex requests|
|Attending to recipient’s status||Optional|
|Closing and signing off||Optional||Obligatory|
Let’s consider how this research applies to an example document. Here’s an email request slightly adapted from one created as exemplary by the writing consultants at Email Excellence. What moves do you find?
- I see Move 1 (addressing the recipient). This move signals an attempt to personalize the message, and the use of first names suggests the writer knows the readers well.
- I don’t see Move 2. This move isn’t obligatory for a downward message so it’s not a problem as long as the writer has more power than her readers.
- I do see Move 3 (making the request). Actually, there are two requests. Research suggests high quality email communicates a request clearly. The writer included a preview statement at the very beginning of the email, saying she needed help on “two fronts.” The use of the two numbered headings makes the topic of the two requests clear. The requests themselves appear as the first sentence after each heading: (1) ” . . . I need you to send . . .” and (2) “Please schedule a meeting . . .” Oh, I forgot to mention that the writer’s subject line states “ACTION REQUIRED.” And the deadline for complying with the requests appears both in the subject line and at the end of the message. So I’d say the requests ought to be clear. (We can’t know without some input from the target readers.)
- I see Move 4 (justifying the request). The sentence following the writer’s second request explains why compliance is important. Use of this move signals the writer’s willingness to explain why she needs to impose on the readers.
- I also see Move 5 (elaborating on the request). See the bullet list explaining what is required to comply with the writer’s first request. Use of this move seems important as the request is at least somewhat complex.
- I see no Move 6 or Move 7. Again, these moves aren’t required for a downward message.
I’d say this email request deserves to be called exemplary. And its writer a pro. It contains all of the required rhetorical moves (content/purpose in the appropriate order). It uses several organizational elements (bottom line placement, paragraph unity, and format) to make the request clear. It signals the writer wanted to personalize the message for her readers. Its style (word choice and tone) and mechanics (punctuation) are business-like.
Just one caveat. It’s critical that the writer actually has more power than her readers. If not, the tone of the email request will be inappropriately authoritative. Minimally, the writer would need to add a little more background and some closing remarks to succeed in an upward message.
Now if I could just get students to see that their email requests are upward messages . . .