Writing a simple email. It’s not so simple for everyone.
Some of my friends with ADHD say they spend hours on an email that should take five minutes tops.
Their partners tell me they can’t understand why it takes them so long. It creates real problems with coming home from work on time—or minimizing work done at home. What are they doing that’s taking so long? It’s a mystery!
For starters. their ADHD partners might be relying on poor working memory to gather their thought. A better strategy might be to jot down their major points first. Or—here’s a big one—they might be aiming for perfection. Even when not aiming for perfection, they have trouble knowing when it’s “good enough.”
For tips on how to streamline this process, I asked my friend Kendra Wagner, a Seattle-based tutor (see her bio below).
The Goldilocks Email:
Writing a Just-Right-Sized Email
By Kendra Wagner, MA
Jason works in a real estate office, answering phones and greeting customers. When the office is slow, he hops online to finish an online course. That is the final hoop to jump through to become licensed as a realtor. He enjoys being able to log-in and do a little bit of reading and quizzing himself, and then do something else. A lot of his job, though, involves email.
Jason has ADHD.
Jason hasn’t told anyone that he dreads emails and would much prefer just to call people! Emailing creates an anxiety that once sent him home sweating over whether an email was too long, too strong, or too robotic. No one gave him a list of Do’s and Don’t’s when he started.
His work requires e-mailing to realtors about home sale updates, walk-in customers, or mortgage paperwork that finally arrived via FedEx. Sometimes agents will call him from their car and dictate an email for him to write. This takes laser focus. But he has an app that records the call so that he can replay it while typing.
Many of his emails go to realtors or mortgage brokers who are out in the field, reading on their smart phones. That means Jason must craft an email that is concrete, detailed, and not too lengthy. Let’s call this the “just right” or “Goldilocks” email.
Why Can ADHD Make Writing Emails So Difficult?
Why is this difficult for Jason and many other people with ADHD? How can the process be made easier?
A Brief History Lesson First
Electronic mail as we know it today began in 1982. It was limited to users with certain types of computers, who communicated with a narrow tribe of other professionals. The general public took it up in the 1990s as a way for co-workers to send short notices to each other without walking down an aisle of cubicles.
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The evolution of e-mail’s use has expanded enormously. Now it is the preferred mode of communication for family, friends, potential employers, customer service reps. and even dog walkers. (By the way, it has lost its hyphen and is now written as email—shortened even further in “text speak” to e-m.)
What started off as a time-saver has become a time warp. That is, many of us awaken to a full inbox and either avoid it altogether or lose track of time after telling ourselves, “I’ll just take a minute to respond to a couple of e-mails.” Minutes turn into hours, which vanish in a flash.
A whole host of strategies fly around the cybersphere regarding how to read, save, categorize, and time-manage email. But how do you write an email in a way that makes it
- Easy to compose
- Certain to be read
- Convey your point
ADHD Can Means Going to Extremes
When it comes to ADHD and writing e-mails, we find two extremes. No news there! Let’s call the two extremes perfectionistic and slap-dash.
At the perfectionistic extreme, we pore over a “simple” email for hours. Then we save it to review days later and further revise. At the other extreme, slap-dash, we type furiously fast —but don’t check it for precision of content, tone, grammar, and repetitiveness. We press “send” too soon.
If you’re an email perfectionist, a little grandiosity-check might be order. Remember: The recipient most likely skims your email rather than reading it like a novel.
Think: stacks of resumes. No one reads every word of those. And, it is the same with “stacks” of email.
Obviously, neither extreme will assist us in composing emails. Our email will not be awarded a zinger prize for being well executed and grammatically pristine. (Especially if it’s days or even weeks late.) Nor will it be held up in a news story s an example of impulsivity gone amok.
Rather than being reoccupied with how you will be “judged” on the e-mail, try to think only about the message you want to communicate.
Seven Tips To Ease Your E-mail Writing
Can the email monster be tamed? Yes.
Let’s go back to the resume analogy. The prevailing wisdom when penning a resume is to emphasize what you did at “1-2-3” Company, using strong verbs and specific nouns. That way, the human resources team can quickly pick out the essence of your strengths, without any bothersome narratives. This guideline applies to most emails in a workplace, or between contractors and clients, etc.
With that in mind, consider these seven tips:
1. Before you write, talk it out – to yourself or someone else
This works for we ADHD folks, because it narrows our tendency to think wide and big. Emails need a narrow focus. You can even do a voice recording on an app first.
2. Use a concrete subject line
A clear subject line helps further to focus your thoughts. It also tells the recipient that you’ll get to the point quickly.
- Some of your email recipients are busy people, full of responsibilities.
- They might receive hundreds of e-mails every day.
- They actually don’t open each one; instead, they scan the subject lines to see which ones might be important—or they simply open the ones from people they know.
- So an exact subject line is vital.
By an exact subject line, I don’t mean, “Hello.” I also don’t recommend going in an overly solicitous direction. For example: “May I ask you a question about ______?”
Instead, make it specific and inviting: “3 new design ideas for Summer Brochure”
3. Use strong verbs and clear “When and Where” statements
Using strong verbs makes it easier for the reader to quickly grab the gist. It also makes you sound more definitive and accountable—something we all aspire to!
With practice, this can improve your emails enormously. Careful not to go overboard. You risk sounding like a drill sergeant.
NO: “We are done with the project today and are ready to get to the next one.”
YES: “We finished project XYZ at 3 p.m. and are preparing to work on the next one.
4. Get to the point quickly
Start out with “Hello” or simply reply with your written response. With some notable exclusion, there’s no need to write, “Dear Mrs. __________”. That is for formal letters.
Write in short paragraphs or bullet points.
No lengthy background information.
Appeal to our human nature of “What’s in this for me?” when possible.
5. When making requests, ask politely—but not for too much
Make necessary requests without apologizing. But be short and sweet. Offer something in return when possible.
Give a specific action and your specific ideal deadline. No stories and excessive background information.
Examples: (when asking for information, dates, or advice)
- I would like to leave early Friday, April 3rd, and stay later on Monday, April 5th.
- Will you edit the attached letter and send it back by Tuesday at 5?
Above all, be informal but courteous. Your tone and body language are missing in an email. Rely instead on crisp sentences and a fairly non-emotional style.
Remember: Jokes can be easily misread. When you really know a co-worker or business contact, a bit of humor can be woven into emails, but only if you’ve spent time face-to-face. Otherwise, avoid.
6. DON’T SHOUT!
Text written in ALL CAPS is extremely difficult to read. Moreover, some people regard it as unseemly and rude, like SHOUTING at someone close at hand.
Restrain your use of ALL CAPS in email to solitary words that need further emphasis. Better yet, use italics or underlining (if possible with your email system).
7. Find a writing coach
Has simply reading this post about email composition made you nervous? If yes, then look for a writing coach. Sometimes, educational therapists or even professional organizers with an emphasis in business skills also can help streamline the process of writing e-mails, reports, and so forth.
For more e-mail writing strategies, check out this article at Fast Company, The Unwritten Rules of Writing Emails.
About Kendra. Wagner, MA
Kendra Wagner, MA, is a Seattle-based teacher, tutor, academic, advocate for children with ADHD and/or learning disabilities, and a cheerleader for her clients. Her expertise in ADHD comes from personal experience as well as her work in schools and in private practice. Her original interest in literacy and dyslexia came when she facilitating a non-verbal therapy session in juvenile detention centers. Discovering that 75 percent of the population had ADHD or a learning disability motivated her to enter graduate school and move into her current field. Visit Kendra’s website:Reading Writing Thinking
As always, I welcome your comments.