Writing a simple e-mail. It’s not so simple for everyone.
Some of my friends who have ADHD say they spend hours on an e-mail 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 leaving work on time or minimizing work done at home. What are they doing that’s taking so long?
For starters. they might be relying on poor working memory to gather their thoughts, when a better strategy might be to jot down their major points first. Or they might be aiming for perfection.
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 – 5 Tips for 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 a web-based 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 has 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.
Because many of his emails are received by realtors or mortgage brokers who are out in the field, they need an email that is concrete, detailed, and not too lengthy because they are likely reading it on their smart phone. Let’s call this the “just right” or “Goldilocks” email.
Why Is Email So Difficult For Many People with ADHD?
Why is this difficult for Jason and many other people with ADHD? And, 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. It was later used by the general public in the 1990s as a way for co-workers to send short notices to each other without walking down an aisle of cubicles.
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 e-mail. But how do you write an email in a way that makes it
- Easy to compose
- Certain to be read
- Convey your point
People with ADHD Can Go to Extremes—No News There
At one extreme, in the name of perfection, we pore over an email for hours—or save it to review days later and further revise. At the other extreme, we type furiously fast and don’t check it for precision of content, tone, grammar, and repetitiveness. Then we press “send” too soon.
Regarding the perfectionism scenario: A little grandiosity check might be order here. Remember that the recipient spends a fraction of the time reading your email as you did composing it. Most likely, the recipient 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 e-mail.
Obviously, neither pattern (perfectionistic or slap-dash) will assist us in composing emails. Our email will not be awarded a zinger prize for being well executed and grammatically perfect, especially if it’s days or even weeks late. Nor will it be hung out to dry in a news headline as an example of impulsivity gone amok.
Instead of becoming preoccupied 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
How then to ease your e-mail writing process?
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 story. 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 tell the recipient that you’ll get to the point quickly.
Remember: Some of your e-mail 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.
Nothing vague, such as, “Hello.”
Nothing overly solicitous, such as “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 of your communication. 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. 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 any 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.
Example: (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, so rely 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 (or, better yet, use italics or underlining for that purpose, if your e-mail client provides for that treatment).
7. Find a writing coach
If simply reading this post about email composition makes you nervous, 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.
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 was facilitating 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: www.readingwritingthinking.net and her blog: http://tamingtheoctopus-themanyarmsofwriting.blogspot.com/