It was like telling spooky ghost stories around a virtual campfire. In SciLance, we recently swapped tales of email terror, sans the s’mores.
One SciLancer frightened us with a story of sending a high-profile researcher an interview request – for the wrong topic. Egads! Another confessed to writing an email that cited a scientist’s review article, only to send it on to another researcher who didn’t actually write the review. Gasp! I shared my own howler of a botched cut-and-paste job that led to an email that greeted Dr. X but was addressed to Dr. Y. Horrors!
Then there was the time a SciLancer tried to reach a dead source. Eek!
The scary truth is that given the sheer number of emails we send and receive on a daily basis, it’s surprisingly easy to let a mistake slip through the cracks. As the most common means of reaching new sources, however, emails can be major sources of embarrassment for the unwary science writer. Here are a few tips for averting an epic email fail.
Emails can be so unforgiving. Beyond the clear potential for misinterpretation, mistakes have a way of living on in electronic perpetuity and coming back to haunt you. Remember that once you hit send, most emails cannot be recalled. Treat every email as if it was an important letter; when you’re done writing it, take a minute to reread the entire message, including your greeting and closing as well as the Subject, To and From fields. And if you have multiple email addresses, make sure you’re sending it from your work account, not the firstname.lastname@example.org one you’ve had since you were 12.
Some tips for averting disaster: “If I’m drafting a sensitive email, I put the recipient’s name in the ‘Send’ field at the very last minute,” advises Monya Baker (bio). “That avoids the sent-too-soon finger fumble foible.” Helen Fields (bio) has adopted a similar strategy: pasting the e-mail address of the person she’s writing to at the top of her message, and only putting it in the “To” field when she’s finally ready to send it.
The ransom note
We’ve all seen it: the sloppy cut-and-paste email that looks like it should end with a demand for unmarked bills in a shoebox. The problem is that some email services are much better than others at pointing out mismatched text. If you’re not careful, strange things can happen to an email assembled from multiple places, and the resulting Frankenstein may scare off the recipient.
“If I’m cutting and pasting different sources, I highlight the entire text and change font, size and color,” says Monya. “This cuts down the risk of that embarrassing format switching that is invisible until it reaches your recipient’s inbox.” If you’re at all unsure of the email’s final appearance, try sending it to yourself or a friend first to ensure that it passes muster.
Another trick is to cut and paste the entire message into a Word document (or the word processor of your choice) and unify the text there before pasting it back into an email. Adam Aston (bio), in fact, sometimes drafts his entire email in Word, “which is better at picking up spelling, repeats, and even grammatical entanglements,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll have my Mac read the email out loud to me too, to detect weird informalities and other problems.”
The twilight time zone
Sometimes, an email mistake is not about what you write, but what you omit. Want to avoid a ghastly 6 a.m. interview? Be sure to establish your location and provide some guidance on your availability. This is particularly critical for those of us on the West Coast or for writers who regularly communicate with sources elsewhere around the world.
Jessica Marshall (bio) has a go-to line that helps her immediately establish expectations around timing: “I’m based in the U.S. Central Time Zone, which is xx hours ahead/behind [source’s time zone] so perhaps xxx time would be best…” Sarah Webb (bio) always adds her location to her email signature, but warns that such additions don’t always make a sender’s time zone obvious. She too has a go-to sentence: “I’d be happy to call you at a convenient time, but please note for scheduling that I’m on Eastern time.”
The same holds true for getting a source to respond quickly. Sarah’s advice: “I try to make it really clear from the outset how soon I’d need to talk with the source. If it’s news, I’ll tell them what my deadline is, and when I’d need to talk with them to meet that deadline.” Remember, just like writers, scientists may stick your request on the back burner if there’s no pressing deadline.
The sound of silence
Sometimes you’ve done everything right, and you still don’t get a response. Then what? A polite follow-up email may do the trick. Jessica’s advice: “I blame the deadline when following up: ‘I wanted to check in about the message I sent last week. I am still very interested to hear your perspectives on xx. Unfortunately, my deadline is approaching quickly. Might you be free to speak with me sometime in the next [15 minutes/couple of days/week]? Apologies for the tight time pressure. Thanks very much for your help.”
If your contact is unwilling or unable to comment, another line might come in handy, according to Jessica: “If you aren’t available, could you suggest someone else who might be appropriate for me to contact?” Or, if you’re unsure whether you’ve reached out to the best source: “If you don’t think you’re the right person to speak about this, could you suggest…”
Writers’ little helpers
A little well-placed technology can salve some of your email woes. First, for locating email addresses of hard-to-find researchers (and especially doctors), Jessica suggests checking Google Scholar or PubMed for papers they have recently authored. Often, those papers will include the email addresses of corresponding authors.
If you need to contact multiple people for a story or project, consider setting up a template, or canned response, for these repetitive emails. Helen and Emma Marris (bio) have set up several go-to templates for their emails; for a helpful step-by-step guide on using canned responses in Gmail , check out this YouTube video. A word of warning, though: review your email after filling in all of the blanks to make doubly sure that you don’t send off a message that addresses the wrong person or advises a source that your story is about TOPIC.
Oh, and about inadvertently reaching out to the dearly departed? Emily Sohn (bio) suggests doing a quick Google search to make sure no obituaries pop up. That way, you’re less likely to get yourself tied up in an awkward phone conversation when you don’t receive an email response and try to track down the seemingly reticent researcher. Yikes!
Got any of your own spine-chilling email tales to tell? We’d love to hear them.
Art Credit: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo