This is How You Write a Professional Email

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Last Monday, I received an unsolicited email from Katie, a freshman at a Minnesota college who is hoping to get into a travel-related career and was seeking advice. I tend to get dozens of these such emails a month, often in surges by the season it seems; if they are well-thought out and courteous, I merit them with a response as I’m always happy to engage in mentorship within my own time and work constraints. But often—and by often, I mean usually—they are not well-thought out and courteous in the slightest, in which case they go straight into my “Ignore” folder rather than my “To Respond” one. But Katie, at just 18 years old, has already nailed one important thing that will no doubt help with her career to come: how to write a professional email.

I’ve worked with some truly awesome college students over the past few years, who interned with me on Semester at Sea, KEEN or Nashville Lifestyles. Those were the cream of the crop; the ones I’m often receiving emails from, on the other hand, are usually of the “your job sounds fun, I’d love to do something similar, please send me a link where I can land such a plum gig” vein. In other words, the ones who want instant gratification with no investment on their end. It’s the plight of the Millennials; for so long, they have been told they could do anything, be anyone, yet they don’t realize—or perhaps, choose not to—that logging the requisite time and hard work to achieve those dreams is a vital part of the equation.

But I recognize that’s also a sweeping generalization and that every teen and twentysomething does not, in fact, fall into that category. Which is why receiving Katie’s email was a breath of fresh air. Because it was so masterfully crafted, I asked if Katie minded if I shared this here, and she told me to go for it.

Dear Kristin,

My name is Katie [redacted]. I am a college freshman who happened upon your blog via the wonders of Pinterest. (I love travel and travel blogs.) As an English major, I have always been passionate about writing, but it was not surprising to find myself passionate about travel as well. I count myself lucky to have already traveled to fantastic places like Germany, Austria, and Ireland, as well as various places within the U.S. While photographing and journaling about these places, it was not a stretch of the imagination to see myself as a travel writer. It is, however, a bit of a stretch to devise how in fact to make that dream a reality. I want to be proactive about working toward a career doing what I love, so I decided to consult with people already excelling in my chosen field (namely you).

If you would not mind, could you answer a few of my questions about the insights and logistics of being a travel writer? The following are my biggest questions:

  • When did you first decide to start travel writing?
  • How did you go about putting that decision into motion?
  • Did you have any specific schooling for travel writing, journalism, or photography?
  • Do you prefer traveling solo or with a companion?
  • What are some pros and cons of each?
  • Does it pay the bills? Can a person make a feasible living on travel writing, or is it a good idea to have a job on the side?
  • Do you focus mostly on your own blog, or do you freelance as well?
  • What are the best and worst parts of the job?

Please do not feel obliged to answer any of the above questions. For courtesy’s sake, should you choose to respond, I want to inform you that while your answers, or the basic details of your answers, may be referenced academically (with credit) at some point while I plan my four years at college, I would never publish them without permission.

If you have a question for me, please let me know. If you just don’t do this sort of thing as a general policy, I completely understand. I am very grateful for your time and wish you the very best on whatever you next big adventure may be.

Gratefully,

Katie

Pretty impressive for an 18 year old, right? I thought so.

Here’s what Katie did right:

  1. She told me a little about her without going into so much detail that she lost my attention.
  2. Upfront, she referenced how she found me and why she was reaching out so as to not waste my time.
  3. She illustrated that she already had travel experience, rather than just wants to get into so someone else will foot her bill—news flash: not the reality of this industry, at all—which is key.
  4. She included specific questions as a short list of bullet points, rather than to be too general—I get a lot of “how do you get into travel writing?” which is not specific enough to warrant a response when I’m on limited time as it is—or, on the flip side, muddle on for 2,500 words.
  5. She referenced the fact that she might be asking too much (she was not), thus implying that she recognizes my time is of value. I cannot tell you the amount of hours I’ve spent writing dozens of college students back and answering their specific questions, never to hear from them again, not even a “thank you for your time.” Or emails I’ve received from college students at the end of the day on Friday needing something from me by first thing Monday morning. A little respect and gratitude goes a long way.
  6. She was respectful enough to mention that she might use my response in an academic manner, with my permission, of course.
  7. Her spelling, grammar and punctuation were on point. Nothing makes me disregard an email quicker than multiple misspellings—in the age of spellcheck, there’s simply no excuse for it—or poor sentence structure. Not only are all those skills a necessity for a writer (duh), but if you’re hoping to be a journalist, you’re going to find yourself sending a whole lot of unsolicited pitches to people you don’t know; it’s better to start practicing now. I could tell from Katie’s brief email that she has promise and a solid grasp of language.
  8. She signed off with a friendly greeting, genuinely wishing me well even if I weren’t able to help her out. As Ellen DeGeneres always says, be kind to others (even if you don’t know them). This is a lot more impactful than you might realize.

Emails such as this make me realize that not all hope is lost for the Millennial generation—which might sound a bit dramatic, but if only you were on the receiving end of the majority of career inquiry emails I receive, you would totally agree. I look forward to emailing with Katie over the next few years as she navigates college and hopefully helping her out when I can. If anyone has any internship ideas for her, please comment below and I’ll make sure to put you in touch. Already from posting part of her email on my private Facebook account, several editors and other journalists said they’d hire her or asked to make contact with her. It just goes to show you how far a little bit of professionalism can go!

What’s your best bit of etiquette advice on how to write a professional email for those seeking a dose of career wisdom?

COMMENTS
  • October 20, 2014
    Kristin McNeil

    I regretfully have no advice but just want to comment. Her email was beautifully and eloquently written. I like that you posted it and commented about all the things she did right. Thank you for that! Curiously, I would love to know the answers to Katie’s questions. 🙂

  • October 20, 2014
    Susan H.

    Make sure you have a professional-sounding email address. Any correspondence from an address like “partygirl@yahoo.com” would immediately warrant the delete key.

  • October 20, 2014

    Have a good balance of personal and professional details, i.e.: tell me something(s) about yourself so that I will be more compelled to write you back. If it’s all business, I’m turned off. (Katie did a great job here!)

    Keep it short. I tend to not read emails past the first few lines because I feel like, “If you have this much information to send me, you should have called me to discuss.” Intro emails for this sort of thing are obviously different (likely no one would have my phone number), but also more difficult because you need to hook someone in the beginning (see above, re: personal details.) But once you’ve hooked me, keep it as short as possible. Edit, edit, edit.

    • October 25, 2014

      Yep, yep and yep. In this case, I was OK with hers being a little longer (but still not *too* lengthy) because she did reel me in with the first few sentences. But I agree: Often, the emails are SO long and asking a lot from a stranger.

  • October 21, 2014

    Katie is the exception to the rule! Happy to see there’s at least one Millennial who can craft an email. I’d hire her!

    • October 21, 2014

      I know, right??? maybe she should intern for Angie Away! =)

  • October 21, 2014

    I’m so happy you posted this. It feels like we’re so often caught up in talking about the people who approach us via email who are “doing it wrong” (because there are SO DARN MANY) but kudos to you for drawing attention to Katie for doing it right. And for sharing it so that we can all share it so that maybe, just maybe, it can be the example for “doing it right”. Sorry for the run on sentence 😉 Yay Katie! And YAY Kristin!

    • October 25, 2014

      SO MANY. And yes, Katie is a diamond in the rough! I have a good feeling about her.

  • October 22, 2014

    I am so happy that you shared this email! I consider it a learning for me as well. Katie’s email reflects her genuine attitude towards what she wishes to do and that’s what impresses the reader. Thank you!

    • October 25, 2014

      Thanks, Renuka! I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear all these positive comments.

  • October 26, 2014

    That is a nice email! Well thought out and put together. I get emails from people with heaps of questions. I used to respond, but when I never got so much as a word back from them after taking my time to help, I decided I was going to stop.

    • November 6, 2014

      That’s the worst—the no acknowledgement of the time and thought you put into doing that random stranger a favor. I will say, all of Katie’s follow-ups were extremely kind and gracious.

  • October 27, 2014

    That’s a really nice letter from one professional to another. Katie sounds like a young lady who will go far. Impressive especially from young people today who just don’t have a clue.

    My best Email etiquette. Be polite and don’t make assumptions. People are happy to help when they feel that the person is engaging and has done their research.

    • November 6, 2014

      Agreed! I’ve been surprised by how many big names (like Dooce, for example) have responded to my fan mail—and were so kind when doing so. I also feel like if it’s a genuine letter, I will *always* write back, it just might take some time. What really annoys me is when someone emails ME asking for help and when I don’t respond in two days (two days!), they send a follow-up. (That legitimately happened over the weekend. Over a weekend!) A week to 10 days is fine for a standard business follow-up, but not necessarily when you’re soliciting help from someone, you know?

      • November 7, 2014

        Totally agree! I tend to cut down on social media at the weekend in order to concentrate on my husband and child, so I generally don’t respond until Monday morning. Yep! I’ve gotten a few rude comments, and are they understanding and polite?
        Nope!

  • November 6, 2014

    Hi,

    I have been following for awhile, and I really feel the need to weigh in on this topic. I travel as hobby, but I work in a fraud investigative field, so when I get inquiries it is regarding that investigative work..

    First her email was fantastic, it was well thought out and showed that she cared about the field and understood it requires work

    I can’t tell you how often I receive emails from young students believing they can jump the years experience required and immediately become some form of an investigator without any field experience.

    yes Ms. Katie is a breath of fresh air, and she will go far, because she understands the work needed to become successful in her field. Well done, Katie. Well Done.

    • November 6, 2014

      YES. That exactly! Even for my past Semester at Sea position (which asked for 7-10 years of experience in the job posting), I had several undergrad students who would email me and ask how to land that job. I’d tell them, “well, go get 7-10 years of experience and then apply, just like I did.” =)

      So, like you, I doubly appreciate when a college student (let alone a freshman!) gets that there’s a long road of hard work ahead of her.

      • November 6, 2014
        Jennifer

        Ha, I believe I am slightly older than you 32, but I call the generation below us the microwave generation. They want everything instantly. Yeah I most certainly appreciate and I hope she is successful.

        • November 6, 2014

          I turn 32 in February 😉

        • November 6, 2014

          And I’m going to start borrowing that term! I’ve always called them the “Generation of Entitlement.” Yours sounds nicer =)

  • December 1, 2014

    This is great! I deal with inbox overload all the time (as you know, since I’ve emailed you for suggestions…. therefore overflowing YOUR inbox in the process) and nothing is more frustrating than trying to politely respond to impolite inquiries!

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