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My Short Email Experiment

Email is a necessary part of my law practice, but it takes up a lot of time. I decided that one way to cut that time is to cut the length of my emails.

My email signature now contains this line at the end:

Why is this email 5 sentences or less? http://five.sentenc.es/

My goal is to limit every email to no more than five sentences. The results have been mixed.

The limit is hard. It’s been difficult to limit every email to five sentences. Some emails just need more than that. Or maybe I should pick up the phone and call the person. There’s an idea…

I broke it. In some instances, I’ve found myself running way over five sentences with no hope of trimming my email. What’s a guy to do?

Remove the signature. Yep, I cheated. I have taken on the nasty habit of deleting the five.sentenc.es line from my email signature when I need more room. That defeats the whole point of the exercise.

Or forget. But the worst thing is when I clearly write more than five sentences to someone and forget to remove the signature line. Nobody has called me out for that yet, but I know I’ve done it several times. And I’m sure people have looked at it thinking that I’m a buffoon.

The funny thing I’ve realized through this experiment is that writing less in an email actually takes more time. That’s no surprise to most people, but it does seem counter-intuitive. My brain likes to ramble, and I type pretty fast. So I can write a lengthy email pretty quick and click “send.” But to pare everything down to five sentences takes some serious thought.

However, once we develop better writing habits to communicate in a concise manner, the writing flow will quicken again. That’s my theory with short emails. I have already noticed a quicker thinking and writing process when trying to cram my message into five sentences.

All in all, I am going to continue this experiment. I believe it will help me to be a better communicator, and it should help me to be more productive with email. Hopefully.

This post was 33 sentences (by my quick count). What if I had just written five instead?

I am conducting an experiment where I limit my emails to five sentences. The results have been mixed so far since some emails are difficult or impossible to make that short. I’ve also found that it initially takes more time to write less. But I think my writing will improve over time, and I should pick up more speed. I’m going to keep this up in the hope that my email becomes more productive.

What about you? Have you ever tried to limit your communication like this?

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8 Responses to “My Short Email Experiment”

  1. MargieW
    April 5th, 2009

    As a h.s. English teacher, I am always telling students never to use more words when less will communicate their meaning. Every composition text and every writer has pronouncements on how hard it is to be concise. I’m sure you’re right: that brevity will come more easily as you practice it more. Being a lawyer, you have to be aware of language, but I am glad to see you caring and writing about this aspect of it. Most of my e-mail is personal, not professional, but even some of my correspondents would rather I be briefer! I may just try your experiment. (6 [long] sentences!}

  2. [...] » My Short Email Experiment [legalandrew.com] [...]

  3. Eric S. Mueller
    April 6th, 2009

    I don’t want to sound condescending, but I aim to give each email what it needs to be complete. I have reached the point where I’ll send a one sentence email if needed, or I’ll write a long one if that’s what’s required. I’m not above sending an email that could have been handled by an instant message if they’d allow us to use that at work.

    I admit that I haven’t reached the point where the amount of email I have to send is overwhelming. My volume coming in is getting excessive, but I don’t have to respond to that much. Mostly I have to track what’s actionable or what needs to be saved for later reference.

    You could do what Kevin Rose does: add the line “sent from iPhone’ to your signature file and send short emails to everybody.

  4. Laurie/Halo Secretarial
    April 6th, 2009

    I think the five sentences idea is an interesting one. I tend to ramble so something similar might help keep me in check! Still, I think it’s important to respond appropriately to emails and wouldn’t want to shorten them excessively. Twitter has helped me learn to be more concise in my general thoughts, but also has shown me that sometimes you do need a bit more room to truly explain a position or offer solutions!

  5. Andrew Flusche
    April 6th, 2009

    @Margie – Thanks for the comment! I think we can all benefit from at least pausing to think about how many words are actually needed.

    @Eric – I don’t think your comment is condescending at all. You’re right that emails still have to communicate properly. Otherwise, there would be no point. I like your “sent from iPhone” trick!

    @Laurie – I definitely don’t want to chop emails so much that I can’t get the meaning across. That’s why I ended up removing the five sentences link from my signature on some emails. Sometimes you just need more than five sentences (or 140 characters).

  6. Mark Shead
    May 10th, 2009

    I believe it was Blaise Pascal who wrote the following at the end of a long letter:

    I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the
    time to make it shorter.”

    Making things shorter is usually much more difficult. I will often remove entire paragraphs from emails before I send them. I usually ask myself “does this sentence help or hamper the desired outcome?” If an email is too long it might not get read. If it isn’t persuasive enough, it might not spur someone to the desired action.

    One trick I’ve used when an email needs to be longer is to write a short (5 sentence or so) email and then add the supporting information after my signature at the bottom. This helps get people to read the message and keeps the initial interaction short while still providing them with the details.

  7. Andrew Flusche
    May 10th, 2009

    @Mark – I really like your idea of putting additional information below the email signature. That’s quite smart!

  8. movers
    May 26th, 2009

    I like Mark’s idea too, but in general I am conflicted about the five sentences idea. Sometimes you just need to write more because the response you are making contains a lot of important information. And sometimes if it is taking a long time to try to be concise, then maybe you’re not saving time in the end. I think you need to sort of “choose your battles” when trying to keep your emails short.

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