When you are going to be communicating primarily online, it’s important to follow some basic etiquette when it comes to your communications. I’m just going to warn you in advance, I have some pretty strict views on what is appropriate and inappropriate when it comes to doing anything in writing. Some people may argue my points, and I realize that when we’re talking about posting in classroom discussions, that might be something that’s based on the instructor’s opinion more than grammar rules. However, I am of the opinion that I’d rather be overdressed than underdressed, and I think that same belief applies to writing styles in online communication.

So, to clarify, here are my top five six tips for ALL written communication – and yes, I even follow these rules when it comes to text messages! Obviously, texting is to each their own, but these are my general written communication suggestions, and they are necessities – really, they’re rules – when it comes to email communications with people affiliated with your university and/or job.

  1. Capitalization. Always capitalize the beginning of a sentence. I don’t care if it’s a quick “Hi! I’m running late for class, but I’ll be there in 5 minutes” email, you still need to capitalize those sentences. Capitalize all pronouns (and please look up “pronoun” if you’re not sure what all this encompasses – Google doesn’t judge!) and please, I beg you to send emails with capital “I”s instead of “i” when you’re talking about yourself. Personal pet peeve – but thank goodness for autocorrect!

  2. Punctuation. Technically, in my book, this is tied for rule number one. Periods, exclamation marks (in extreme moderation and only when it is needed to clarify the tone of your message), commas, colons, semicolons, apostrophes, parentheses, question marks, and on and on – they need to be there. If you’re not sure of when to use them, do a little research or ask a friend to review your email before you send it. I am the Comma Queen and use them very frequently – and feel free to confirm via review of these posts – so I encourage you to learn more about when and when not to use commas. There’s quite a debate about the Oxford comma.

  3. Spelling. This one shouldn’t be on the list anymore because of that handy tool called spell check that almost always automatically corrects or highlights incorrectly spelled words, but there are still too many spelling errors out there. Read through and read again! Mistakes happen, but do what you can to avoid those.

  4. Correct word usage. This goes hand in hand with spelling, and is the harder of the two to catch. Make sure when you’re writing a post in a classroom or sending an email to your advisor, you’re using the correct words. See what I did with the italics there? Those were my hidden examples! Just read through and make sure what you’re saying makes sense… sometimes you’ll catch wrong tenses or pluralization. Also, I find that a thesaurus or quick definition search comes in handy when I’m using a word and I’m not sure if I’ve used it correctly. By switching in a synonym that I’m familiar with, my sentence can quickly make sense or lose all meaning, answering the usage question.

  5. Professional image. This is my broad category terminology for all things relating to the look of your communication. Let me break it down:

    • In general, though not always, please do not use emoticons in your emails. If you want to be taken seriously – and I think that most of us do when we’re dealing with our education, financial means, careers, etc. – communicate seriously. However, I will make an exception that if you have a back and forth email conversation occurring with someone you know from more than just a one-time communication, using a smiley face (AND ONLY ONE) can relay your tone to the person, especially if you’re thanking them for something.

    • The font you use is important. If you use Gmail, you’ll notice that they don’t even give you a lot of “fun” font options – just a handful of basic ones. I’d take that as a hint. However, they do still include Comic Sans, which, in my opinion, is a font that should not be used past the age of 15. Overall, my theory is that the default fonts are the best when it comes to being professional.

    • Speaking of default, stick with the default color too. On the rare occasion is another color appropriate, and that’s usually only to highlight a deadline or something similar. Just remember that fonts and colors add a different tone to your emails, and that’s not always the tone you want to provide.

    • Finally, use bold, italics, and underlines sparingly as well. And these fit into the same category as caps lock. Anytime you are highlighting a word or a sentence with a bold print, or an underline, or caps lock – or even with exclamation points sometimes – it can be read as if you’re yelling. Which is amusing to read, but hard to take seriously. So make sure the only times you’re using those tools is, again, to highlight something important. Examples would be dates/deadlines or an individual’s name when you’re asking them to do something in an email sent to multiple people. Italics are also easily construed as sarcastic or passive aggressive, so also make sure to only use them when it’s necessary to clarify your point in a professional manner.

  6. Blind Carbon Copy. I almost forgot, but my last point reminded me! BCC should be used when you are emailing multiple people, and a) you don’t want them to see the other recipients, b) they don’t need to see the other recipients, or c) there’s a risk it could become a “reply all” situation and it shouldn’t be. Some companies/universities even have rules about when to use BCC, so that may be something to ask an instructor about if you are emailing a full class, for example. There’s nothing worse than 14 separate emails in a row asking to be removed from the email chain (and one person replying all just to point out that everyone is complaining about replying all while still doing so), and you can save us all that pain by using BCC!

All in all, the rule of thumb for these tips is: If you wouldn’t hand in a final paper without reading through it and self-editing at least a few times (and I hope that’s what you’re doing!), then you shouldn’t be sending emails to anyone outside of your friend and family group without following the same practice. Start with your communications within school, and you will create great habits for the career path that you’re building for yourself.