We’ve all hit ‘send’ too soon on a half-written email, forgotten an attachment, spelled someone’s name wrong or sent it to the wrong person altogether. But sometimes, these are the kinds of bloopers you can’t afford to make, especially when you’re starting out, contacting people you’ve never met before and hoping to make a good first impression. The fact of the matter is, you’ll send countless emails throughout your career. But drafting, writing and sending a decent email can be laced with traps and potential trip hazards, which is why learning some essential dos and don’ts early on will set you on the path to email enlightenment.
First Thing’s First: What Do You Want?
What do you want? Before you go anywhere near your keyboard, you need to know why you are emailing in the first place. Are you applying for a job or internship, or asking to meet for a coffee? Are you emailing for press, or looking to show your portfolio? In other words: what do you want?
No one understands this concept better than Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling (stay with me here). Romcom aficionados will already know that there comes a tipping point in pretty much every film where one of the protagonists declares their love for the other.
Now, some characters are better at doing this than others. Take Ryan in cult classic The Notebook, as he expresses his love for Rachel McAdams: “It’s going to be really hard; we’re gonna have to work at this everyday, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, everyday.” Message received, loud and clear.
What do you want?!
But contrast this to Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the difference is clear. Hugh’s loveable, sure. But he takes his sweet time bumbling through an apologetic, self-deprecating speech to tell the woman he loves that he loves her. He knew exactly what Ryan knew – he just took the convoluted way around saying it. If you read your email back, and it sounds like Hugh, you might want to re-think. In an ideal world, the perfect email should combine Ryan’s clarity with some of Hugh’s charm.
Ryan follows up his message of love by asking for clarity in return from Rachel, asking: “What do you want?!” Before you open up your Mail app, think of Ryan and ask yourself the same. Because knowing what you want will help you decide who to send your email to, how you write it, and what you include.
If your email reads like Hugh, you might want to have a re-think
Ryan VS Hugh
Do Your Research
Email people, not places This starts with finding the right person to email in the first place. A compelling, well-crafted email sent to the wrong person is as ineffective as a badly-put-together email sent to the right person.
While most studios or agencies have a general ‘[email protected]’ email address, you stand a higher chance of getting a reply if you pinpoint a specific person. ‘Contact’ or ‘About’ pages sometimes include specific emails for team members, or you can enquire about the best person to contact. Some studios also have a separate email address specifically for asking about career opportunities.
“A compelling, well-crafted email sent to the wrong person is as ineffective as a badly-put-together email sent to the right person.”
This not allows you to personally tailor your email, it proves that you’ve done your research and paid enough attention to care. Plus, it also means avoiding any generic and hideously impersonal email openers well away from your inbox. So say goodbye to your ‘To whom it may concerns’, and ‘Dear Sir or Madams’.
And if you must resort to the general studio email, consider a safe but friendly alternative like ‘Hi there’ or ‘Hi to all at [Studio Name]!’ – emailing an all-female magazine with ‘Dear Sirs’, for example, is not going to get you a response.
Don’t scattergun, be selective Do not – and, I repeat – do not copy and paste the exact same generic email to various studios. There is no one template that fits all, so copy-pasting is rarely a good idea for a few reasons. Firstly, you’re way more likely to make a mistake (think accidentally using the wrong name); secondly the pasted formatting will play ugly tricks on you; lastly, recipients can smell it a mile off, and it’s hugely unappealing. Sending a few personal, well-considered, well-researched emails is far more likely to get results than a generic email to fifty people.
Looking for an internship, or to grab a coffee?
The Hard Bit: Writing a Confident Email
Think up a good subject line A good subject line will get your recipient to click on it. It should spell out exactly what it says inside of your email-shaped tin. This is particularly important if you’re submitting a project to an online publication or magazine for press: How do you get someone’s attention?
If you’re applying for a job, keep in mind that some applications will request that you use a certain phrase in the subject line to make it easier for them to filter through later.
Check your tone What’s appropriate for the person you’re writing to? Is it best to play it more formal, or will a dose of humour get your further?
Something that rarely goes amiss as an opener, is a good old-fashioned bit of flattery. Right before you tell them what you’re asking from them, give context to how you interact with their studio, company or platform; why them? Have you followed their work for a while, did you enjoy a recent project? Even better, did you read an interview with them or hear them talk at an event?
Next, it’s time to channel the power of Ryan and be clear about what you’re asking. Tell them why you’re writing to them; Do you like their work? Why? Do you admire the website? Why would it be a good fit for them?
As a general tip, be confident and sure of yourself! Avoid using too many timid or apologetic words and phrases that put doubt in their minds, like ‘hopefully’, ‘might’ or ‘sorry’.
Emailing for press? Make sure you think about subject line
Ask a friend Set up a different kind of email chain and ask a friend to read your email before you send it. An outside opinion is always useful, and they’ll be able to tell you if it sounds like you, and puts you across in the best light.
Getting attached: documents, links and more Whoever told you that size doesn’t matter was lying – particularly in this case. Destroying someone’s inbox is rarely a great way to kick-start a professional relationship. If it’s a PDF portfolio, for example, you want to aim to keep it to your very best projects (maybe three to five), at no more than 5MB.
If you’re emailing to show someone a project, think of it like a trailer for a movie: You want to capture their attention, and make them want to see more. Show them the bits they need to see, without you having to explain it in full. Include a few screenshots or low-res JPEGs of the project (either within the email or attached) – enough to capture a sense of what it’s about. You can always include a link underneath with the option to ‘read more’ about the project.
Signing off While an email signature is not always necessary, it can be an easy way for someone to find your details if they need to. You can add a short descriptor (for example, whether you’re an illustrator, photographer, designer and so on), your mobile number, relevant social media handles or your website. A word of warning: If you include your website, make sure it’s live.
Looking for an internship, or to grab a coffee?
Before you Click ‘Send’
Draft in TextEdit You know the feeling: mistakenly pressed a combination of buttons while writing an email in an app and sent it flying, half-finished into cyberspace. So save yourself the mini heart-attack and draft your emails in a word processor like TextEdit. Click: Format > Make Plain Text. This will clear all your writing of any rogue formatting like weird spaces or fonts, which means it’ll look crystal clear when you paste it into your email.
Spell my name, spell my name… You won’t lose anything from double-checking you’ve spelled someone’s name right, and it can make the world of difference. Same goes for links and attachments.
What time is it? You may have spent the entire evening or even weekend crafting an email – but that doesn’t mean 3am on a Sunday is the ideal time to send it. Generally speaking, Tuesday morning is a good time to send emails; by then most people will have fought off the Monday morning wave of messages, and have a little more time to respond.
Spell check, wash, repeat
Entering your email into a word processor like TextEdit will clear any rogue formatting like spaces or fonts, before you paste it into your email app
After you click ‘Send’: The Waiting Game
Undo send We’re human, so if you end up sending an email prematurely, know that there is a way back. As a pro-tip, the geniuses over at Gmail introduced an ‘Undo Send’ setting a few years back, which lets you get your email back within 30 seconds. So if your fingers are prone to slipping, make sure to switch the setting on and save yourself from future email horrors. (Note: this only works when using the Gmail on a browser; Apple Mail users – tread with caution!)
Don’t be afraid to follow up
While it can feel like you’re pestering someone, the reality is that people’s inboxes fill up quickly, and chances are they just haven’t had time to reply yet. So wait up to a week, and then follow up. Keep it short and to the point. They might even appreciate the gentle nudge as a reminder.
Keep follow up emails short and sweet
Say thank you! This is one of the simplest, easiest and yet most neglected rules of thumb out there. If someone has taken the time out of their day to email you some advice, meet you for coffee, look over your portfolio or even write you some answers to your dissertation questions, make sure you thank them for their time.
Don’t be disheartened If you’ve followed up and still don’t hear back, don’t be disheartened! It’s just one email in a wave of emails you’ll send through your career, and for every email that goes by unanswered, there’ll be dozens that are. And if you do make an embarrassing error, know that even seasoned professionals make slip-ups, too. More often than not, these just make for funny stories later down the line.
Remember, people are far more likely to respond when they’ve met you, or if you have a contact in common – so keep an eye out for opportunities to get in touch with those nearest first. Some of your most supportive professional contacts are likely to come from close to home; people know people, and being recommended is your best chance of making those all-important connections.
So go forth, channel Ryan Gosling’s succinct charms, and gift those lucky inboxes!
The advice and examples used in this article are based on a university workshop Lecture in Progress run on reaching out to industry.