Writing in the Digital Age

Susan Leigh Babcock ’76 takes aim at poorly constructed e-mails with a new writing website

by Christina Barber-Just

After years spent watching the caliber of writing decline “precipitously,” Susan Leigh Babcock ’76 finally decided to do something about it. Babcock, a professional writer and editor with Wall Street experience to boot, is the CEO and co-founding partner of a new company called Ballpoint that aims to help people write better in work and life.
Babcock has ambitious plans to use the Internet to grow Ballpoint (whose marketing director is Susanne Dunlap ’76) into an international writing-education powerhouse. The company’s first app, WordWit, which offers a fun way to learn the correct usage of often misused words (“canon” versus “cannon,” for example), is now available in the iTunes Store. More apps are in the pipeline, and Ballpoint is taking registrations for its “Scribinars” or writing seminars.
For the time being, though, Babcock is focused on e-mail. “That’s where writing is happening now—it’s the thing people are doing all day, every day—so that’s where we want to start off,” she says. Poorly written e-mails aren’t just annoying, she argues; they hurt relationships and businesses and cause people to lose friends and clients. Here, then, are Babcock’s ten tips for constructing e-mails “as smart as you are.”

E-mail effectiveness checklist:


Write a really good subject line. Review it after you’ve written your e-mail and make sure it’s a succinct, specific summary of the message’s content.


Limit e-mails to one subject each. If you introduce too many topics in a single message, you risk overwhelming your recipient and receiving no response at all.


In the initial e-mail of a correspondence, use a greeting and a salutation. As the thread goes on, you can drop those.


Write your e-mail and then shorten it. Make it as short as possible. Imagine that someone’s reading it on their smartphone—because they probably are.


Don’t be short at the expense of being friendly. Be friendly, but briefly. Use punctuation—exclamation points, ellipses, emoticons—to “up” your tone.

Make sure there’s a point to your e-mail, and that it’s as high up in the text as possible. If necessary, take your conclusion and move it to the top of the message.

If it’s an important e-mail, write it, let it sit for up to a day, and come back to it. Review for accuracy, brevity, clarity, and tone.
Get another pair of eyes to review important e-mails. You may think you’re being brief and direct, for example, but someone else may find your tone abrupt—even angry.
Don’t be afraid to send follow-up e-mails. If you haven’t heard back in a day, follow up. If you don’t receive a reply to your second message, pick up the phone.
No typos, no excuses—even on smartphones. If you make one once in a while people are relieved to see you’re human, but make them all the time and you look sloppy. It’s disrespectful.

Photo credit: Matthew Sky