In defense of the long email

my work space - dining room

The first time I was introduced to the world of email, I was eighteen years old and in the first week of my freshman year of college. Sure, I’d messed around with email before in a class or two, but it had never been available to me at any time or in pretty much any place I might want to use it. Now, I suddenly had access to a 24-hour-a-day computer lab in my dorm, and every library or study area I ran across on campus had computers and internet access.

I spent the first days before classes started getting acquainted with the VAX machine in our dorm computer lab. It was a small, no-frills monitor with a black screen and bright-green blinking letters; logging in required a complicated series of keystrokes I could no longer repeat if I had to. There were no browsers on these machines, no games, no applications of any sort – only email.

Considering I only knew a handful of other people who had email addresses at that time – one of them being my roommate, who I spent most of my waking hours with anyway – you’d think I wouldn’t have had much use for an email-only computer. Oh, but you’d be wrong. I became obsessed with sending emails, mostly to my sister (who worked for the state government and was one of the first people I knew to have access to email for work,) a couple of friends who were attending colleges in other cities…and, yes, my roommate. (Hey, we had differing class schedules and had to stay in touch during the day!)

I sent long emails. Novel-length emails. Emails detailing the contents of my breakfast; describing the cute boy who sat a few rows down in my Econ class; lamenting the fact that I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pass my Econ class…and questioning my decision to major in business, which had required me to take Econ in the first place. And my friends, and my sister, and yes, my roommate sent long emails back to me.

Our emails were like the long, handwritten letters you see copied into historical books; narrative reports of daily life filled with everyday news, spiced up with an occasional exciting bit of town drama. Only instead of reporting on the health of the chickens or our neighbor’s barn fire, we’d complain about exams and describe the day the police stormed our dorm and took out the three nice boys down the hall in handcuffs, never to be seen again. (Nice boys they were, but not very careful about the booming marijuana business they were obviously carrying on from their room.)

A lot has changed since those days. Now, everyone I know has a home computer with an internet connection, and most people check their email on their phones everywhere and anywhere they happen to be. There are about a million ways to use the Internet, all competing for our attention and our time online.  Plus, there are a multitude of shorter, quicker ways to connect: a text, a Tweet, a status update. 

So, modern wisdom dictates, the long email is out. We’re advised to get to the point, make it quick. Use bullets, limit requests to a single question, make it clear what we want within the first line or two.

Recently, while listening to a business podcast, I even heard an expert assert that sending long email is rude. That lengthy messages indicate to the receiver that you don’t respect his or her time.

I get it. We all have a lot going on, don’t we? I sift through hundreds of emails on a typical day; many junk, some urgent, some simply necessary as a means of keeping in touch about this project or that proposal. And if somebody peppers me with eight questions in a single paragraph, I’ll probably get overwhelmed and click away.

But I’ll admit it: even with as much email as I deal with – even with how much of my time it consumes – I admit that I still get excited when I open an email and see more than a paragraph or two.

To me, a long email from a friend or colleague or reader or co-worker says, “This is thoughtful. This is meaty.”

“This, my friends, is CONTENT.”

No, not all long emails excite me. If somebody sends me a poorly-spelled, badly-written and sloppily-executed press release, I’m not going to be any more excited if it’s ten paragraphs long than I would if it was one paragraph long. (I won’t make it past the first paragraph anyway, so it makes no difference.)

Learning to write short and effective email is an important skill for anyone to learn these days, and I admire leaders like Seth Godin who can spark so much thought with so few words.

On the other hand, there are lengthier newsletters I love for their length because they’re so good. Copy strategist Judi Ketteler‘s email newsletter is an excellent example of one I read all the way through, every time, without interruptions.

Hey, I’m not a marketing guru, and I’m not saying the short email “rule” is wrong.

It just doesn’t tell the whole story.

There’s a reason marketing experts and analysts get paid to study human behavior and the way people relate to technology. By seeing how most people react to the length or content of a message, analysts can help businesses figure out how to reach more people, more effectively. And that is a very useful thing.

But most people are not all people. And the percentage of people who are not “most” people still count.

Not everyone is from the TL:DR camp. Some of us are more like NLE;WM! (not long enough; want more!)

Brevity has never been my strong suit: I write long, I talk long, I even think long.

For somebody like me – and I know I’m not the only person like me – a long email from a friend, a trusted colleague, or a mentor can be a gift.

An opportunity to peek inside somebody else’s day. To read their thoughts.

A chance to take a break from all the busy-ness of the day and consider a new approach. Get caught up in somebody else’s dream. Help brainstorm a solution. Simply forget my own troubles for a while as you commiserate with theirs.

I’d argue that there are people in your life who’d love nothing more than to get a long, chatty, brain-dumpy email from you. Maybe your grandma. Maybe a colleague. Maybe even a client.

So maybe our jobs as writers, as creatives, as entrepreneurs or just as humans isn’t to try to reach the most possible people with every message we send. Maybe our job is to understand that everyone communicates differently, and to figure out just who it is we want to communicate with.

Then we can worry about the “how.”

Anyone else feeling totally inspired to fire off a long, rambling email to their sister or college roommate right now?

  • Thanks for the shout out, Meagan! I agree: it’s about knowing how your people want to be communicated to. But everyone can’t be your people. I love this post! And I remember those early days of long, long emails in the computer lab!

  • I agree a longer, well thought-out message is a welcome surprise in my mailbox these days. I also believe that email, long or not, should not replace what needs to be said in person or by a phonecall. Enjoyed your post. -taraocity

  • Amanda

    Oh man, do I remember the long emails! I’ve been wanting to get in touch with an old friend I’ve drifted from, and I think you just inspired me to hit the keyboard.

  • Jennifer

    I was addicted to checking my email at those green- screened computers at university. I’d wait in line several times a day to get into the labs. I love paper too, so some of the more epic emails were printed and put in my journals.
    I also talk, write, and think long!
    Great post!

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