Answer W5 before you write your next email

An excerpt on email writing from Harness the Business Writing Process and from Harness the Email Writing Process:

I know those who primarily write short messages sometimes feel that following the writing process will add significantly to the time they spend writing email messages. With that in mind, I want to show you the W5 email-writing shortcut.

When you take the short-cut, you will still follow the writing process — that’s crucial to becoming an effective writer. However, by answering the W5—who, what, where, when and why (and sometimes how or hoW, making it a W6)—you will shortcut the full and formal process.

W5 preparation, research and organization

When writing short documents, such as email messages, you can reduce the first three steps of the writing process — preparation, research and organization — to a few minutes using the W5 shortcut. You then write your message, edit it and click send.

W5 is the foundation of journalism. Answers to the W5 are used to outline the lead or opening paragraphs of any news article. Journalists, in fact, will tell you they do not start writing any article until they have answers to the W5 in place. There are times journalists find multiple W5 elements or need more than the basic W5 points before they write. There are times when they do not use all the W5 points they find. Either way, W5 is the place where they start. I am suggesting that W5 should be the foundation of all business writing as well — especially short email messages.

At minimum, answering the W5 questions allows you to think about these points:

– Who: your audience and your relationship to the audience (reader)
– What: your topic or subject
– Why: your purpose
– What: details reader requires to understand your topic and purpose
– How: you got to the current state; you can solve or take advantage of the issue or opportunity
– What, when, where and how: any action, feedback or reply that should take place

Once you’ve answered the W5 questions, you can take these steps:
– review your answers and decide what you will include and what you will exclude when writing your message
– arrange points in the order in which you will address them—outline
– write from point to point
– revise as may be required
– hit send

In short, answering the W5 questions lets you prepare, conduct internal research and organize your thoughts before you write.

What are readers looking for?

As you answer the W5, I suggest that you do it in a reader-centric manner. Think about what your readers are looking for and expecting. This would probably be the same thing you are looking for when you receive an email:
– subject line that captures attention
– purpose, clearly stated in the opening paragraph: what the message is about and why it is being written
– well-organized, clear, concise, focused writing that maintains interest (is related to your purpose)
– message length that is appropriate for the topic and purpose of the message; in email, most messages are one to five paragraphs in length
– closing paragraph that lets readers know if any action is required; if so, who takes it, by when, where and possibly how
– proper tone in relation to the message and your audience

With that in mind, let’s go through the W5 process for several email messages and do some writing. There are some sample email messages in Appendix One [of the books]; however, try the exercises below before you read the sample messages.

Thank-you note

I’d like you to think of someone to whom you owe a thank-you note or whom you would like to thank for a personal or business kindness. Before you do the exercise, make sure you have the name of the person in mind and that you know what that person did to earn your thanks.

Once you are ready, write point-form answers to the questions below on a sheet of paper or in a word processing file. I’ve included multiple W5 questions, most likely more than you’d ask if you were to do this on your own. However, I want to take you through the full writing process, including what to leave in and what to leave out (when organizing the points you want to make), before you write. To begin, answer the following questions:
– Whom do you want to thank? (Name the person and note that person’s relationship to you.)
– Why do you want to thank him or her?
– What did that person do; what action did that person take?
– Where did it take place? When did it take place? How did it take place?
– What benefit did you derive from the action?
– What was your primary feeling or emotion?
– What overt action, if any, do you want the recipient to take? When and where should it take place? How should it take place?
– How should the recipient let you know she is taking action?
– What, if any, is your covert agenda (also known as your hidden agenda)?

Once you have answered the W5 questions, continue to read.

You probably think that you can write a simple thank-you note without answering the W5 questions first. You most likely can. This is just an exercise to take you through the W5 process. At the same time, I want you to know that your brain is going to try to answer the questions, with or without your active participation. It is ineffective, however, to have your brain thinking about answers to those questions as you are writing and editing. That is why we answer the questions before we write.

What you did when answering the W5

When you answered the above W5 questions, you went through the writing process. Specifically, here is what you did:

– established your primary purpose: why you were writing
– assessed audience: who they are, what they did, where/when they did it
– determined details you might include: how you felt, what benefit you derived, what action you want the reader to take
– conducted internal research: used memory as the source of information

After jotting down point-form notes in answer to the questions, you are almost organized. In fact, you probably have more information than you want to use in your final email message. Part of getting organized, however, is deciding what to include and what to exclude. Many writers will tell you that having more information than needed is a good place to be because it lets you think about what you need to say and don’t need to say. This helps you focus your message.

If you are working on paper, highlight the points you want to address in your thank-you note. Once you have completed your highlighting, transfer your points to a word processing document. If you are working on your computer, copy and paste your research into a new file. Delete any points you don’t have to express. (Save your original research in case you delete material that you later decide you need. This way, you will have it handy rather than having to recreate it.) 

Decide where you are going to start, but keep in mind that readers want to know why (your purpose) you are writing. In other words, get to your purpose—“thank you”—in that first paragraph. Don’t wait until the end of your message to achieve your purpose.
Once you jot down a purpose point, jot down all the other points you want to make in the order you feel you should make them. Remember, you get to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. With that, you have prepared an outline so that your writing will unfold in a focused, logical manner.

Write and then revise
Since this is a short thank-you note, you don’t have to consider layout or design. You can simply write from outline point to outline point, expanding each point into sentences and paragraphs, as required. Write with spell check and grammar check turned off so that you can focus on writing your email message instead of editing it (the last part of the writing process) as you write.
When you have your outline ready, write your thank-you note.

Once you have completed the first draft of your thank-you note, review your work. Ensure that each paragraph contains no more than one significant point or ensure that the points contained in each paragraph are directly related. (See Creating Paragraphs in either book.)

Revise your draft keeping your reader, topic and purpose in mind. Ensure that the tone is appropriate to the subject and that your document is clear, concise and focused, and supports your purpose. Then check spelling and grammar. Finally, add a subject line. Think of your subject line as an attention-grabbing headline. The subject line does not have to be in-your-face to grab attention. It should be tone-appropriate and allude to your purpose.

It is possible, even probable, that the entire process took longer than it would have taken you to just sit down and write the thank-you note off the top of your head. I hope, though, that the note you have written is as effective as, if not more effective than, the note you would have written had you just started with a blank screen. This process will help you write much more effective business email. In addition, the more you practice this process, the less time it will take to prepare, research and outline short messages before writing them.

You will spend less time writing if you are prepared, have completed your research and have a detailed outline in front of you. That makes you more efficient. The more prepared you are, the more complete your research is, the more detailed the outline is, the more effective your writing will be. The more effective (concise and focused) your writing is, the less time you will spend revising. But none of this will happen magically. It will only happen if you practice the five-step writing process—in the case of email, if you practice the W5 process.

 [Note: the books take you through several more writing exercises and include sample email messages that have followed the W5 process.]

This excerpt on email writing is from Harness the Business Writing Process and Harness the Email Writing Process