Engineers write tons of emails. So, engineering email writing is a skill you need to fine-tune. Otherwise, you’ll confuse the recipient and delay projects.
Now, you may think writing emails as an engineer isn’t important. Heck, you may have even become an engineer to avoid writing altogether. But, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. There aren’t many engineering positions where you’re completely isolated from the outside world.
And emails are the preferred form of communication. It’s superior for the following reasons:
- The simplicity of sending emails
- The flexibility of sending emails on any device
- Everyone has an email address
- Ability to keep records through saved emails
- Searchability of emails on email clients
So, it’s a no-brainer to master the art of sending out awesome emails.
I send out roughly 30 emails daily, and sometimes much more.
Over time, I’ve mastered the skill of email writing as an engineer. Notice how I called engineering email writing, a skill.
So, let’s go over 14 tips you need to follow, to improve your engineering email writing.
#1 Define the purpose of your email
Lean back in your chair and ask yourself why you’re even sending your email.
What purposes does your email serve?
If you can’t clearly answer this question, then you probably shouldn’t send your email.
Every engineering email needs to serve a purpose. No different than each screw you’re designing into a product.
Thus, in your email, you should address at least one of the following items:
- Missing information
- Clarity over scope items and/or requirements\
- Newfound problems
- Budget and schedule
- Contract and liability concerns and issues
- Project updates
Because unnecessary emails only add to a project’s clutter. No one wants added clutter.
#2 Create a Call To Action (CTA)
This is your Bat signal!
Your CTA needs to be explicit.
You don’t want the recipient to guess what you’re asking them to do. If they need to guess, they probably won’t do anything at all.
So like cavemen supposedly did, hit the recipient over the head with what you want them to do. In other words, clearly spell it out for them.
If this means making your CTA bold lettering, then do it!
For example, let’s say you need a given field distance for the placement of your equipment. In your email, you’d write,
Please provide me with the distance from the ‘A Marker’ to the ‘B Marker.’ ‘This missing distance I identified in the email attachment, marked with the red line.
Please let me know when you will be able to provide me with this distance? I need this information by the end of this week to finalize my design for next week’s submittal.
If you require added clarifications or have questions, please let me know.
In my email, I clearly identify what I want. But I also ask a question.
This question will drive the recipient to respond to me. At the same time, I’m kindly telling the recipient how this is a pressing item I need ASAP.
What’s more, I have a record of my question in an email in case I miss my deadline. Thus, the recipient can’t say I never requested said information, trying to place the blame on me.
#3 Properly introduce yourself
If you’re speaking with someone for the first time, introduce yourself.
The introduction doesn’t need to be anything too formal either. Write something like the following:
This is (insert name) and I work with (insert company).
Rob referenced me to you, and I was inquiring about (insert project).
We’ve been having issues with (insert issue).
Could you please explain how we can resolve (insert issue)?
This way, the recipient knows who you are and why you messaged them. The key takeaways I included are the following in my message:
- My name
- My company
- Who referenced me
- The project
- The issue
Also, I included a call to action. Again, you do NOT want to make the recipient guess on anything. Be crystal clear with your messages.
#4 Control your emotions
Are you angry or frustrated?
If yes, then don’t hit ‘Send.’
When you’re overly emotional, never send out emails. Even if you’re addressing a major concern from Tip #1. Because you’ll probably send an aggressive email you wish you hadn’t.
I always say, if you can’t add a happy face at the end of your email, don’t hit send.
So if you ever are over-emotional, just sit on your email until the next day. You’ll then have a completely new level of clarity to think over your email.
Because people will piss you off as an engineer. It has happened to me plenty of times.
Maybe an engineer from another firm talked down to you for no reason at all.
In this instance, you need to be the bigger person. Thus, be the consummate professional. Don’t stoop down to someone else’s level.
Plus, once you hit send, your email will forever float in the digital sphere. Who knows how many people may then read your sour message.
So, just don’t do it!
Because you will regret becoming the group asshole.
#5 Provide as much detail as possible
You’ll find this is to be a common theme in this article.
It’s always important to explain your points in fine detail. Especially when you’re discussing a technical subject.
You want there to be no guesswork from the recipient’s end. To accomplish this, you need to leave no stone unturned in your message.
As an example, below pasted is an email I sent to a vendor in the construction phase of a project. Let’s call this vendor, Vendor X.
This vendor had problems understanding our work scope for assembling a control panel. I didn’t blame them either.
The project was anything but conventional. Thus, if you hadn’t done this type of work before, you’d be downright confused. Even though I had done my best to explain everything in my design drawings.
For this reason, I crafted a specially outlined email, with accompanying schematic diagrams.
To point out, I CC’ed all the players at Vendor X, supporting engineers, and the contractor.
My email to Vendor X
I’ve been told there’s some continued confusion over the new control panel. Below is a detailed description of your involved segment of the project, which hopefully will shed light on the new Vendor X control panel.
The new Vendor X control panel will collect all the new facility signals (these are inputs into the new Vendor X PLC). These same inputs will then output to the existing on-site control panel. The output signals from the Vendor X PLC are for SCADA integration only.
This is why all the inputs map over to the outputs on the contract drawing I/O schedule. For the same reason, there will be zero DOX relays for the new Vendor X control panel (no new facility loads are driven by DOs from the new Vendor X control panel). At the same time, please note a separate on-site control panel will drive the existing motor loads (the same Vendor Z control panel cut-sheet I had submitted to you a month earlier).
We are routing all the signals to the existing control panel because the existing control panel is currently connected to SCADA. Through this connection, the existing control panel will transmit the outputs from the new Vendor X PLC to the District’s headquarters.
In the future, as a separate project, the existing control panel will be demoed. The incoming signals into the existing control panel will then be re-routed to the new Vendor X control panel. The empty I/O cards in the new Vendor X control panel are provided for this future project.
Please let me know if you need any added clarifications.
Analysis over the email sent to Vendor X
Let’s go over the purpose of the email I had sent. My goal was to accomplish the following:
- Vendor X to have no uncertainties over the design direction.
- All players to be in the loop over the directions handed to Vendor X.
- To limit future back and forth emails given the tight project schedule. Hence, the high level of written detail in my email.
In the end, my email served its purpose. Vendor X understood their role, and they didn’t have any further questions.
This kept the project on schedule and pushed everything along smoothly.
#6 Include diagrams and pictures
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
So as much as you can, include pictures and diagrams in your emails. The recipient will thank you to the heavens for your effort to simplify an explanation.
The great thing is, there are many opportunities to use diagrams and pictures with technical emails.
What I do a lot of the time is take a screenshot from my CAD station. Then, I import the image into Photoshop and add some arrows with notes.
This always beats trying to write long paragraphs trying to explain a subject. Plus, no one wants to read blocks of text.
And at worst, a quick sketch on a piece of paper will take you 10 minutes at most. In return, this will save you days or even weeks of wasted time in back and forth emails.
So, it’s a no-brainer to add diagrams and images to your emails whenever you can.
#7 Know your audience
Depending on who you’re writing to, you’ll need to word your email differently.
If you’re writing to another engineer, you can write in a more technical fashion.
But if you’re speaking with non-engineers, you need to dumb yourself down. Otherwise, the recipient won’t know what you’re talking about.
If someone needs to read between the lines, your intent may be lost in interpretation. This is not what you want when you write an email.
#8 Target your recipient
Direct your question to the intended recipient.
At the same time, don’t email everyone and their mom in your email.
I’ve found when there’s a huge group of people CC’d, the CC’d people will rarely read the email. And those who do read the emails, probably won’t give two shits about them. Unfortunately!
So, direct your email in the “To:” field to the person you want a response from.
Next, only “CC:” people who are relevant to your email message.
For example, does your boss really need to know about your communication over how many bolts to order? Probably not.
In the end, emailing a bunch of random people doesn’t make your email sound more important.
Finally, if you’re looking for a response from anyone in a group of people, write the following,
Vendor X Team –
Please see the attached schematic for the below described issue at hand.
I need someone from Vendor X to address this missing design element in Schematic X.
Upon review, please provide me with a date for re-submission. The project deadline is a week from today.
#9 Active versus passive voice
“Hey, check out the attached design. The customer says the foundation is too large. It doesn’t fit in the allotted project area.”
All the while, you’ve included 10 people in your email. So, who is to respond to this email? No one is even addressed by name.
Sure, the problem is semi-clearly outlined. This is a plus. But when you speak in a passive voice, it’s difficult to know who needs to respond. The message feels empty and frankly confusing. Instead, write the following:
“Structural Team –
Please see the attached design with my red-line markups.
Are you able to fix the issue shown in Diagram A? The structural foundation extends beyond the project peremiter as shown.
I have already asked the customer if they can extend the allocated foundation area. They said ‘no.’ Thus, you need to re-design the foundation to fit in the existing allocated area.
What’s your recommendation to fixing this issue? Also, what’s your turnaround time for this re-design?”
This latest message is longer but much more clear. So do the following in your emails:
- Address your email to a specific person or group
- State the problem
- State what you have done to address the problem
- Include a call to action
In short, active voice focuses on the person who will perform an action. The “actor.” Whereas passive voice focuses on the recipient of the action, or even the action itself.
#10 Good spelling and grammar
This goes without saying. You need to be a good writer.
This means correct spelling and grammar. This way, you’ll come off as the professional you are.
Plus, bad grammar can change the meaning of your content in a bad way. Let’s go over an example.
Good grammar: Tomorrow we’ll start hammering, John.
Now, we delete the comma to completely change the meaning of this sentence.
Bad grammar: Tomorrow we’ll start hammering John.
Clearly, the comma is important. You don’t want to hit John with a hammer.
Here are some added writing tips I’ve put together for engineers you should check out:
#11 Review your message
Never send out your first draft of your message.
I always review my messages 3 to 4 times at least. Then if it’s a technical email, I’ll read it over twice as many times.
Because I don’t want to send out wrong information or make myself look like a buffoon. Especially if I have CC’d the entire world.
Plus, correcting a wrong email takes effort. I have to draft out a new email with an explanation of I what I explained wrong. So, might as well write your email right from the start.
And don’t worry about how long it takes you to review your emails. Over time, you’ll become efficient in cranking out and reviewing your emails.
It used to sometimes take me an hour plus to write a long fleshed-out technical email. These days, I can write and review a long technical email in under 20 minutes in most instances.
#12 Message length
No one wants to read a book. Yes, some technical emails by nature will be meaty. There’s no way around it. But in most instances, you can trim your emails down A LOT to the bare minim. All the while, not lose your meaning.
This is why it’s important to read your messages over and over again. Each time you’ll be able to trim out more fat.
Also, by adding pictures and diagrams, you can eliminate blocks of explanation text.
Trimming emails down is definitely a skill of its own. Also if you religiously use Twitter, you’re probably great at this already.
But if you don’t tweet, then practice conveying only the important parts of your messages. Then practice some more.
Because people are busy, and long emails are simply overwhelming. Plus, in most instances, the longer the email, the greater chance you’ll confuse someone.
#13 Format your message
A block of long paragraph text isn’t scannable. It’s simply hard to read!
You want to make your content as easily consumable as possible.
For this reason, do the following:
- Break your paragraphs into a couple of sentences each
- Use headers
- Bold important parts of your message
- Italicize quotes and maybe even use a different color like blue to set them apart
- Use bullets to create lists
- Indent parts of your content
- Insert pictures and diagrams in your message
The easier someone can consume your content, the better reply you’ll get.
Below is a piece of an email I had sent out to a customer. Take note of the various formatting tactics I used.
Please find attached the updated project scope with notes, minus the project cost.
Below listed are my comments and questions in response to your review of our original quotation. Once we clarify all open items and come to a resolution, we’ll provide you with an updated cost.
ITEM #1: Regarding your motor comment, if it is in the standard:
The “Utility X Standard Arc Flash Settings rev 3” document states:
“Do Not Exclude Any of the Motors
The IEEE Red Book allows motors <50 HP to be excluded from the calculation because of its minimal fault contribution, but Utility X standard will include all motors in the calculation. Leaving this box unchecked will have minimal difference if any at all to the results.”
What we have done for past Utility X facilities is assume 20% of the low voltage (120V, 208V, and 240V) panel loading is motor load. Please advise for your two (2) project facilities, given motors have not been designed into your existing studies.
To point out, don’t overly format your messages either. Because that defeats the entire purpose. Your eyes won’t know where to go then.
#14 Include an email Signature
Include an email signature in at least your first email correspondence with a recipient. This way, the recipient knows who they’re speaking with.
In your email signature include the following:
- Full name
- Company name
- Phone number (office and cell)
- Office address
I’ve had many instances where people messaged me asking questions without a signature.
Naturally, I assumed they’re engineers. I responded to them, and they responded back stating they’re not engineers. Rather, we’re so and so.
Thus, I had to draft a new email with corrections made. This is just unnecessary and you can avoid this confusion by adding your signature.
Plus, the recipient will have a permanent record of your address and phone number. In return, they don’t need to message you for it in the future, if for example, they need to call you.
Again, an unnecessary added step you can avoid.
Engineering email writing wrap up
Engineering email writing is a skill you need to fine-tune. Especially since writing in the engineering world differs from writing emails to your buddies.
It would have been great if engineering email writing skills were taught in school. Unfortunately, engineering education leaves a lot to be left desired. It’s why I believe engineering education needs reform.
But I digress. In the end, good engineering email writing skills will for sure make you a better engineer. You’ll gain the respect of your peers, and you’ll become more efficient in your work.
Because today, engineering is all about team effort. No one person alone can tackle and complete a project.
Which engineering email writing tip do you find to be the most impactful? What other engineering email writing tips do you recommend?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.