If You Read an Email Message, Read It All: Responding to a Worrisome Trend

Much is said about how the Internet has changed our communication habits, such as shifting communication to email and text messaging versus pen and paper letters through the post. And I enjoy debates over how email might be effecting our writing styles. But I am noticing a worrisome trend, which is admittedly only anecdotal – simply a relatively personal observation – but one that I fear is a plausible development. That is, people are not reading beyond the first few lines and seldom reading your entire message.

Courtesy Arthur A. Berger

It is evidenced by such things as people responding to mail, but only to the first question or first point in a message. For example, you might ask someone two questions, and they only respond to the first. Similarly, if I make a sarcastic point, or make an attempt at joking, it is misunderstood – possibly not read carefully or in the context of the entire email.

I am convinced that people are so inundated with email that they are trying to find all sorts of shortcuts, such as quickly deleting near-spam email that makes its way through filters, and also only rapidly reading what they need in order to delete or respond to an email as quickly as possible. It is like: “Okay. Bill wants to know x” and quickly responding, but not realizing I also wanted to know y.

So it is not only that people don’t write letters anymore. Many people don’t genuinely read their email anymore. One reason social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are so valued is that there is no pressure to actually read or respond to anyone’s post. And so most people don’t do either, and can be quite selective. In contrast, comparatively speaking, email still creates a greater sense of obligation to respond, if only to confirm receipt. However, in today’s busy-busy world, we respond as efficiently as possible. In the process, we sometimes fail to genuinely read the full text.

So what can we do? Here is what I am doing more and more.

First, keep trying to write better, clearer, more succinct emails. I try to keep my emails as short as possible. Short and simple but not too short or simple to be ambiguous or misunderstood. Flame wars have been started by short misunderstood emails.

Secondly, telescope your point(s) in the introduction if not the subject of the email. Readers might then look for the announced points, even if they are trying to short-circuit reading the entire missive.

Third, I increasingly avoid making more than one point per email. So I’ll send two emails, each on a separate point, rather than combine multiple asks in one message. Also you might separate them by a day or two. Is this adding to our email glut? Maybe, but you also increase the likelihood of your message being read and meaningful. It also forces you to think harder about whether you need to ask every question that comes to mind.

Finally, when using humor, sarcasm, or telling a joke, you might well be wise to stoop to the point of adding an emoji to guard against the reader taking you too seriously or literally. 🙂

Ironically, if I am right, most of you will not get this far in my blog to read these strategies, particularly those who are overwhelmed. I can only suggest that you need to do your best to keep your readers by keeping the text interesting throughout, and try to avoid getting overwhelmed. Just say “no” and stay within your limits.

The Reader’s Brain by Yellowlees Douglas – Strunk & White Explained

In her new book, The Reader’s Brain, Professor Yellowlees Douglas explains Strunk & White. That is, she explains why some of their guidelines work, and why others might need revision.

I am one of many fans of guides to good writing. Lord knows I need them. And Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (1918) is one of my favorites. It has become somewhat of the bible of guides to writing in the English language. Professor Douglas’ book is a guide to writing, but one that is so different from any that have come before.

Yellowlees Douglas has been a student and teacher of writing, such as in teaching people how to write anything from technical reports and proposals to novels. But this book is not a simple compilation of her views on best practices. Instead, it is an incredibly valuable distillation of decades of research in the social, psychological and neurosciences about how people read, such as how people process different types of prose. How does a style or approach to writing relate to how hard a reader must work, or how much they will recall?

She then takes these lessons learned from the study of readers to explain why some rules work, and others do not. In addition, Professor Douglas takes what she has learned to offer a number of very useful guides to writers, anchored in what she calls her five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision, and cadence. If you think these categories are commonsense, you will be pleasantly surprised when you dig into each in more detail, such as her critical perspective on ‘textual analytics’ as useful guides to readability (pages 11-17). And there are some cross-cutting themes, like the importance of prediction – the degree that readers are constantly trying to predict what comes next, and how you can help them.

In such ways, Yellowlees Douglas not only tells writers what they should do, but also explains why, based on studies of the reader or user. As Professor Douglas (2015: 7) notes:

“The connections seem obvious between what neuroscientists and psycholinguists have learned about the reading brain and what writers need to know when they sit down with a blank page. Yet the science of reading and the teaching of writing end up as two conversations conducted in parallel – different audiences, tuned to entirely different channels.”

Professor Douglas does a wonderful job in connecting these two conversations, while also being a gifted writer, who entertains as she teaches us how to write and why.

J. Yellowlees Douglas
Yellowlees Douglas

I crossed paths with the author in 1993, when I was directing the UK’s national Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) in the UK. I was based office at Brunel University, where Professor Douglas was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology (CRICT). At that time, she was looking at how people read hypertext novels. Surprisingly, I thought, she found that readers did not read them as intended by their writers, but in more linear ways. Her work impressed me as an example of how you cannot assume that readers will follow along with the designs of the writer. Overtime, readers might well have become more comfortable with nonlinear hypertext paths through text online, but these are the kinds of issues that scholars like Professor Douglas can help us understand.


Yellowlees Douglas. (2015), The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.



Books and the Internet in Prisons: Beyond the Right to Read

A British High Court justice has ‘struck down a ban on sending books to prisoners’, as reported by the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/06/world/europe/british-judge-lifts-restriction-on-books-in-prison.html A number of writers, poets and human rights advocates have been pressing for the right of prisoners to buy books from the ‘outside world’. Apparently the prison service had supported access to books, but only through the prison libraries or purchases through the prison service, as a security measure: to prevent the smuggling of other things into the prison, as we have all seen in popular films and television series. It seems to me that it is arguably worth the time and effort of searching packages sent to prisoners in order to enhance access to books. Surely the value of books in educating and supporting the rehabilitation of those in prison is a long-term payoff that offsets the cost of screening.

About a decade ago, I was introduced to an imaginative plan to enable limited access to the Internet from prison. There are a number of programs that enable limited access to electronic text messaging, for example, but by and large, this is a huge hurdle. Nevertheless, I hope advocates of this development are continuing to pursue schemes that might enable safe access to the Internet, such as for access to education and entertainment that could be as important as the right to read. I would like to hear of initiatives in this area, and wish them well.


Courtesy: http://marktanner.com/blog/the-internet-in-china-going-the-full-circle/