With Emails, Begin with the Purpose

The other day, I was writing a work email to a couple of colleagues. I was looking for a document camera, which I had seen in the building a year or so ago but had not seen since. I was emailing two colleagues who, I had been told, used the camera and might know where it was. Here is how I first began the email:

I seem to remember seeing in one of the smart classrooms a couple of years ago a document camera, a type of projector that displays on a screen not a transparency but an actual sheet of paper.

The message went on for two or three more sentences, as I described the camera in more detail and explained what I wanted to use it for. It was only then that I revealed why I was writing in the first place: I wanted my correspondents to help me find the camera.

I quickly realized that that last piece of information--why I was writing in the first place--should appear at the very beginning of the message. Why?

A good rule for writing work emails is to begin with the reason you are writing. Readers should learn in the first sentence why they have been sent the message.

I went back to the beginning and added this sentence:

I’m hoping you can help me locate a document camera that I remember seeing in the building about a year ago.

With that sentence, my two readers immediately knew the purpose of my message.