The Art of Emails

Emails are underrated. Many people view them as purely functional — as just another part of the job. But they can be much more than that. Emails are a useful way not only to advance your career, but to actually become a better writer.

First, consider the power of a “cold” email. Learning to reach out to strangers with a specific ask is one of the best ways to meet people you admire and to further your career. Nearly every job I’ve ever held began with a cold email, or through a connection with someone who I had cold emailed. Cold emails will set you apart because so few people send them. They show initiative and a heartfelt desire to speak with someone. They are genuine precisely because they are “cold;” they exist outside of a job’s duties, and thus indicate a true desire to connect with another human.

But I think that writing cold emails is even more important for an entirely different reason. Namely, it will teach you to be a better writer, without you even realizing it.

Consider Paul Graham’s essays. Many of them have titles like: “Putting Ideas into Words,” “Write Simply,” “How to Write Usefully,” and so on. These essays are filled with useful writing advice: “The easier something is to read, the more deeply readers will engage with it.” Or, “It's not just having to commit your ideas to specific words that makes writing so exacting. The real test is reading what you've written. You have to pretend to be a neutral reader who knows nothing of what's in your head, only what you wrote. When he reads what you wrote, does it seem correct? Does it seem complete?” And: “Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I've written just for myself are no good.”

All of this advice applies to the cold email. A great email is tailored to a specific audience, a single person who is likely to read the thing you’ve written. If you want this person to reply, then your email must be thoughtful and clear. You should re-read and re-write the cold email until you’re convinced that the email will serve its goal: time, attention, money, a meeting, a chance, whatever. The email must be simple, logical, and engaging. A great email forces you to read your own words from their perspective, and then ask: “Would I be convinced of this?” Graham refers to this as getting ideas “past the stranger.”

The next time you are struggling to write an essay, then, just think of it as an email. This simple exercise will force you to hold a specific audience in your mind. You’ll naturally ask: What do I want to say, and how will I convince them it’s true? The words will also flow more easily. I often find it’s difficult to sit down and write an essay, compared to an email, because my audience for the essay is fuzzy and I fear people will not like what I’ve written. These concerns go away when I imagine I’m writing for an audience of one.

So open up a browser or a notepad, and start typing. Don’t worry about the structure. Just focus on saying what you want to say, as clearly as possible, for this one person. Then refine what you’ve written until the stranger is satisfied.

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