The other day I was asked directly for my opinion. “It’s hard when you feel compelled to make every email a prose masterpiece,” tweeted David Hoinski. “Just think of it as a couple of tweets,” replied Evan Knäppenberger, paying David a nice compliment on his tweeting. “What do you think[, Thomas]?” he added, and I was happy to oblige. “One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose,” I quoted Ezra Pound (ABC of Reading, p. 64). I can respect the compulsion to use good prose even in your emails, but the effort must be proportionate to one’s purpose. On this measure, “Let’s meet for coffee at 10:30,” may well be a “masterpiece” all on its own. In some contexts, it’s impossible to imagine a better way of putting it.
On Twitter, I tried out an analogy that I’m still quite pleased with. “Some people make a truly great cup of coffee every morning,” I said. “They don’t labor at it much longer than those who make an ordinary one.” It isn’t actually hard to make a good cup of coffee; you just have know what you’re doing (and, indeed, how you like your coffee.) So their secret isn’t very hard to understand, though their example may not be easy to emulate.
Every morning, year in and year out, they simply cared how their coffee turned out. They tried various things (choice of beans, fineness of grind, water temperature) until the result satisfied their standard of beauty. But on the mornings when it didn’t come out right, they didn’t (except in extreme cases) throw out the pot and start over or make do with no coffee at all. And even the most compulsive perfectionist can’t spend much more than 15 minutes brewing coffee — most of which is spent waiting for the water to boil and the coffee to brew or for the machine to do whatever your machine does. The few things you have to do just have to be done right, with care. After years of careful attention to the process, every morning produces a little masterpiece. Or that’s how I imagine it anyway.
A similar kind of care can be taken with your emails. You can resolve to pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re writing them. Sit up straight; read the mail you’re answering slowly; compose your response in a relaxed and deliberate fashion; read it through once or twice at the end; check the address and subject line before sending. That sort of thing. You won’t write an error-free mail every time, but over time you will develop a natural feel for the medium. You will learn to pay a proportionate amount of attention to the task. You will learn to reliably produce mails that are apt to their purpose. And it will be good for your prose.
It’s important to maintain that sense of proportion. The perfectionist doesn’t put off their morning coffee until evening because they’re working on a masterpiece. When the time for coffee arrives the requisite effort is simply made, a few careful minutes of deliberate attention are devoted to the task. Likewise, it may take a few minutes longer for you to compose your mails like little masterpieces, but it shouldn’t make the task impossible or your life harder. At the end of the day, you’re giving yourself the time to enjoy the craft. If you keep this in mind, it’s altogether reasonable to pursue mastery of a limited function like email.