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When I write the first e-mail in a what I hope to be a dialogue, I tend to write e-mails that may look long (>300 words), but (according to me) explain whatever I need to put across. For example, when looking for future academic cooperation with a company (think thesis), I explain what my skills, experience and interests are. I consider these as essential, so if I omitted them, I would be asked about them nevertheless, only later. In addition I attach my CV.

I have been warned that these may look too daunting for someone to read and to get invested in, that people are busy, and may skip it for a moment and then forget about it. And I may agree about that, and it is true it happens frustratingly too often, that I need to remind people to reply. On the other hand:

  1. Sending the first mail in a complete form, hoping I did not forget to include anything important, seems the better choice as the other person can act on the information provided right away. E.g., if they already see a problem, they can refuse me right away, or if they're not the right person to respond, they can forward me to someone else. To me, this would save time.

  2. I think it makes me look more professional and/or my request more thought-out. I've already put in enough work to write a meaningful, structured text that, hopefully, reads better as a whole compared to series of interchanged questions, answers and clarifications.

Questions:

  1. Is there some general guideline to follow what the starting e-mail should and shouldn't contain?
  2. What if I talked to the adressed person already, only agreeing on communicating over e-mail?
  3. What if the other person already knows me (professionally), but has no knowledge about my incoming e-mail query?

This reminds me of the IRC rule: "don't say hello, but ask the question".

Note: the setting is western Europe, university/high-tech-biz environment.

Edit: Clarification on location: I'm based in Denmark, but sometimes I also deal with people outside, of course.

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    I think even in western Europe, it varies by country. In the UK for example, a cover letter is way shorter than a "motivational letter" in France. What country are you based in? – user79491 Nov 12 '17 at 20:20
  • @asmith Denmark, but answers about other countries are also welcome. Added edit. – bremby Nov 12 '17 at 20:38
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    It depends on the situation. Just don't send an unsolicited email where they have to read (or think they have to read) the entirety of a long email to figure out what you want - that's a good way to get ignored. But that's writing / logic 101 more so than being specific to this situation. – Dukeling Nov 12 '17 at 20:52
  • the simple answer is you have to keep it short. Express it very briefly. – Fattie Nov 13 '17 at 14:09
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People are busy. They don't want to spend the time deciphering your message to figure out what you want. If they don't get there in the first few seconds of skimming your message, there is a good chance they will ignore it altogether.

You need to be more efficient with how you structure your messages, but that doesn't mean you have to leave out important information. Here are a few guidelines I have found useful in my writing (these are useful for email, but can really be applied to any written communication):

  • State your goal or main point up front, right in the first sentence. This is your executive summary. You don't want to write a story with a climatic build-up, you want to make a point. If you assume that the first sentence is the only thing they read (because it might be), what do you want to say?

  • If you do need multiple paragraphs, assume they will only read the first sentence, and maybe the last sentence of each one. That's how people read when they are skimming (I know, because that's how I read your question; it's quite long). You can contain any other supporting information in the middle of the paragraph; it will be there when someone wants to stop and read more in depth. Make sure the first sentence contains the most important information, and the last sentence is either the second most important information or a summary of the point that paragraph is trying to make.

  • Restate your main point or request at the end. The first thing most people will do is skim your message to figure out what it is about and the first and last sentences are where they will look. Only then if it piques their interest will they read the rest of the stuff in the middle, so that's where you can put all your supporting information. Again, assume they may only read the first and last sentence of your email.

These are just a few simple things you can do to make your writing more effective, and are applicable no matter who you are writing to or what you are trying to achieve.

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