Stefanie Wright, Georgia Perimeter College
People are communicating in writing more and more. We use email, text messaging, instant messaging, blogs, social media, and a host of other forms of written communication to convey our messages. I work primarily with students taking classes online and much of the advisement is provided via email. One lesson I learned early on as an online advisor is that communicating in writing can be tricky. Finding the right words to convey the intended tone, establishing a connection with the students, and covering necessary information in a digestible fashion are all factors when advising a student via email. With time, I developed a style that works well, incorporating a few business writing techniques to make my email communication with students more effective.
While business writing techniques are not necessarily aimed toward writing to students, I find that many of them are applicable in an educational setting just as they are in a business setting. I will outline the top five that I consider when emailing students regarding advisement concerns.
The Inverted Pyramid. “The inverted pyramid is a method for presenting information in descending order of importance” (Bradley, 2010). This technique notes that the most important information should be presented first, giving the reader that which is most critical up front. This is especially effective with students who are seeking specific information or need to perform a specific task. I give them the necessary information and follow-up with any other comments regarding other areas I need to address after assessing their records.
Be Positive. Tell students what they can do versus what they cannot do. Framed this way, students see “options rather than roadblocks” (Gaertner-Johnston, 2004). Positive statements are helpful in setting the right tone and establishing a rapport with students. Of course, there are times when the answer is not what the student would prefer. However, the communication can still be framed positively. I find that most students are appreciative when provided the correct information, options, and recommendations on moving forward.
Use fewer words. “Cutting out unnecessary words makes your copy quicker and easier to read, and gets your message across faster” (McDevitt, 2012). This is especially critical when working with a new student and there is so much to cover. Making the information as succinct as possible is important because odds are the email will be a bit lengthy simply based on the amount of information that needs to be covered.
Make sure there is some white space. “White space is the white between your letters, lines, and paragraphs. It is almost as important as what you write” (Bagley, 2010). Having the proper spacing is very important as it give students time to “breathe” while reading the information, as well as makes it easier for them to find their place should they have to stop reading and come back to the email. Again, this is essential with longer emails.
Spell it out. “Be careful not to use jargon or acronyms unless you are certain the recipient will understand them” (Hale, 2010). Acronyms and industry terminology are common within industries, and education is no different. Colleges and universities often have a language all their own and it is important to remember that not every student will be familiar with the acronyms or terminology. This is especially true with new students, but we should also be careful not to assume that our “seasoned” students know all of the terminology. This is a thought that I keep in the front of my mind when emailing students because this presents a “teachable moment”. When spelling out the acronyms or explaining the terms used, I am able to add to the students’ knowledge base and provide them with information that will be helpful as they navigate the collegiate world.
I would also like to share a couple of other practices that I employ when advising students via email that may be helpful. I find that at certain times of the year the questions received from students are pretty standard, as are my responses. In this case, crafting a template response to use for the question is both a time-saver and a way to ensure that I am giving each student the same information. Sometimes the templates may need to be altered slightly based on the record of the student who is asking the questions.
Another practice that I use is to try to personalize the email as much as possible when addressing an individual advising issue, even if the information I am giving is standard from my point of view. Personalizing an email goes against the advice of most business writing professionals, but I do feel that this is an important divergence given my primary goal of advising and connecting with students at a distance. Establishing a rapport with online students can be more challenging than doing so in a face to face setting. For example, if a student shares that he/she is coming back to school after 10 years away and is a little nervous, I will mention that our adult learners are often our most successful students and offer some encouraging words. I make sure the student is aware of all the services available to help him/her and give the student suggestions on how to navigate this new experience, as I would any new student, but putting a spin on it that is appropriate for this particular student. This helps the student understand that he/she is not alone, even in an online setting, and hopefully feel supported and more comfortable.
The outlined tips and practices help me communicate more effectively in writing, save time, and establish and/or strengthen the connections I have with my advisees. As advisors find themselves communicating with students more frequently via email or another form of written communication, hopefully these tips will be helpful!
Coordinator, Online Student Success
Advising, Counseling, and Retention Services – Online
Georgia Perimeter College
Bradley, S. (2010, December 27). The Inverted Pyramid of Visual Design. Vanseo Design. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://www.vanseodesign.com/web-design/inverted-pyramid-design/
Bagley, C. (2010, July 19). Writing: The Importance of White Space. Writinghood RSS. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://writinghood.com/tag/why-white-space-is-important/
Gaertner-Johnston, L. (n.d.). Business Writing Tips. Syntaxtraining.com. Retrieved January 29, 2013, from http://syntaxtraining.com/business_writing_tips.html
Hale, A. (2010, May 10). Business Writing 101. Daily Writing Tips. Retrieved March 22, 2013, from http://www.dailywritingtips.com/business-writing-101/
McDevitt, C. (2012, August 1). Write less, say more. Flying Solo. Retrieved March 22, 2013, from http://www.flyingsolo.com.au/marketing/business-writing/effective-business-writing-write-less-say-more
Cite this article using APA style as: Wright, S. (2013, September). Put it in writing: Using business writing tips in email communications with students. Academic Advising Today, 36(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]