Everyday writing tips: How to drop the hammer in an email
Imagine going your whole life without having to write a scathing email. Everyone would be doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. You’d be walking around satisfied with everything. And there’d be no reason to publish this particular set of everyday writing tips.
But as Marcus Aurelius said in Gladiator, it’s a pleasant fiction.
At some point, you’ll have to pull up your socks and lay down the law. A friend or family member who did you wrong: A colleague or client whose conduct is unacceptable. A neighbour who’s been blasting Jolene on repeat for eleven straight days after getting dumped by his lady friend. These are not easy pieces to write, and many people report feeling rather apprehensive about sending them. Some feel bad. Others fear their emotions getting the better of them, and the unintended sentiments they can never take back.
For the results you want from a hammer-dropping note, follow these quick writing tips to keep your emotions in check and land your message just the way you want it.
An enticing subject line
If your email doesn’t get read, your hammer might as well be made of down feathers.
Your reader has to want to open it because they believe they’ll be getting what they want: a resolution to the matter.
Resist the temptation to use an aggressive subject line like “READ NOW.” This will have the opposite effect because it will show the reader your anger. Once you do that, you lose credibility before you start. You’ll be dismissed as “that psycho” and never taken seriously. Go subtle and inviting: “A solution…” or “Some thoughts about our situation.”
This is one of the harder writing tips to follow because so much emotion gets put in to the subject line. This makes sense because the subject line is what you generally write first.
Open the email with just their name. No, “Hi…” or, “Hello….” And definitely no, “Hey….”
You don’t want your reader mistaking your note for anything other than a stern directive. Keeping it cold and formal sets the serious tone — especially if they’re used to a more familial salutation from you.
State your position right up front
What you want to see happen should be the first thing your reader reads. This should be followed by the why.
Your “why” has to be crystal clear, and you should be able to back it up with undeniable facts. If you can’t do that, your reader has the option of saying, “Well I disagree so thanks for coming out,” and there goes your credibility again.
And as you explain your position, you might be inclined to use the words “I think.” Don’t. If you’re dropping the hammer, you don’t think. You know.
Hint at the consequences subtly and personally
You’ll want to make it clear what will happen to your reader if they don’t comply with your demands. The problem is enforcement because you most likely won’t be able to enforce anything without third-party assistance, and you can never be 100 percent sure you’ll get the help you need until you have it. You know this and your reader probably knows this too.
Instead, put yourself in the shoes of your reader if the consequence you’re prepared to pursue is enforced to the max. As you explain the repercussions, be sure to hint at how they’ll be affected personally — even if the action to be taken has nothing to do with them. Your reader will be more likely to take you seriously if they know their life will be directly affected.
You’ll have the urge to end with something like, “I hope we can come to a speedy resolution.” Resist it. Don’t hope anything. Know what you want; know you’ve made the case for why you should have it and expect it.
Put it all together and you get…
I would like you to buy me the iPad you promised you’d buy me for Christmas but didn’t because you said I would neglect my responsibilities.
As you can see from my three most recent report cards, I have maintained a B+ average. Nine of the fifteen teacher comments directly mention my “hard work” and I’ve not been late once. At home, I’ve made my bed every day, I’ve not once missed taking out the garbage on Wednesday nights, I’ve visited Grandma every Saturday save for May 23rd when I had a tummy ache. And as you see every morning at the breakfast table, my swear jar is empty. I’ve earned the right to prove that I can handle my own iPad.
If I don’t get an iPad, I’ll be forced to use Chloe’s iPad when she’s not watching Paw Patrol. I might accidentally upload the photos I took of you putting gifts under the tree last year (yup, I have those). It’d be a shame for her to learn at such a young age that Santa doesn’t really exist. I don’t want that. You don’t want that. And Chloe definitely doesn’t want that.
Stay tuned for more everyday writing tips from Toronto’s copywriting, copyediting, proofreading and translation authority.