How To Give Good Email

In an era when daters exchange email addresses rather than phone numbers, typing a well-phrased “Can I see you sometime?” is key. Here’s how.

by Steve Friedman

e met on a plane. She was reading a book and I commented how much I liked the author’s work, which I had never read. We exchanged business cards.

“Can I call you?” I asked.

Why don’t you email instead, was her reply.

Had I come on too strong? Was she one of those damaged, disfigured souls more comfortable in cyberspace than with face-to-face interaction? She was blonde and had a fetching smile, so I considered these questions for about 1/8th of a second.

“Sure,” I said. “No problem. Email is fine.”

In truth, it was more than fine. I make a living writing, and get paid to pique people’s interest in my thoughts and feelings. So I emailed her: A casual, revealing, semi-sweet missive of about 200 words that I spent an hour and a half tweaking. I mentioned how much I
Enough about you; the fastest way to impress is to focus on the other person's interests.
admired the way in which her favorite author had made such strides in creating strong characters (that took me about 15 minutes of online research). I mentioned that I was fascinated by her work as a child psychologist, and had myself recently been reading about new theories concerning birth order as a determinant of personality types (by “recently,” I meant ten minutes Googling “child psychology/cool new theories”). I asked if she was finding the return from the mountains to city life as vexing as I was, whether she missed the alpine stillness and hushed sunsets. Oh, and might she like to grab a cup of coffee sometime?

She might, she emailed back. Would I meet her downtown next Tuesday night?

Here I was, less than a week from a rendezvous with a beautiful woman. How did I pull it off? The answer: I give good email. You can, too.

Wow ’em with something cool in your subject line
Since it’s the only thing the recipient will be able to see in your email before they’ve even opened it, your subject line had better be a lot more eye-catching than “Hello.” Try something more unique that relates to your last interaction with them. You both loved North by Northwest? Then your subject line could be “Eva Marie Saint...” That’ll get her attention. In the text of the message, begin with “She has nothing on you when it comes to charm and intrigue...”

Make your email all about them
Enough about you and your life; the fastest way to impress someone is to focus on her interests. To English majors and professors of comparative literature, go heavy on the literary allusions and profess your love of all things Russian. Your date’s a NASCAR fan? Then Jimmie Johnson rules! And don’t worry, brushing up on these subjects with some quick research online is allowed, as long as you don’t overdo it (see point 3).

Make yourself look good, but…
…don’t make yourself into something you won’t be able to live with. She’s a red-state Republican and you are an ardent Obama fan? Then “I respect the efficiency of the
It can be tempting to reveal something deep, but chances are it will only come across as odd.
administration’s election operation” is okay. “God hates the left wing and all liberals should move to France” is probably going a little too far.

Email is no time to bare your soul
It can be tempting to reveal something mysterious, deep, or unusual to hook someone in, but chances are it will only come across as odd. Honest and self-aware is one thing; psychotic and confessional is something else. A couple of examples: “Watching the news, sometimes I struggle to make sense of a world gone mad, and long for nothing more than the opportunity to love and be loved,” might be okay, even A-plus... if you’re emailing a grad student, that is. “I dream of a fat lady in a rubber suit paddling my bottom, yelling, ‘You’re a bad, bad boy’” can wait until you know each other a little better.

Keep it short
Sure, novel-length dispatches sent every hour, on the hour, show that you’re brimming with things you want to share, but they also say you have way too much time on your hands, or are just plain obsessive and creepy. Not a good message for someone you’re trying to woo. The wisdom of showbiz applies here: Leave ’em wanting more.

Exit gracefully
When you’re signing off, err on the side of restraint. Better to leave them wondering about your intentions than set off alarm bells with something too amorous. Even the letters “XO”—humble little symbols that signify mere friendly affection to some—give heart palpitations to others. Use with caution.

Back to the blonde. In the six days before our Tuesday meeting, we continued emailing. We shared our hopes, our dreams, flirted like crazy. I became convinced that our face-to-face meeting would be the first of many to come.

But alas, our Tuesday rendezvous, while nice, fell short of my expectations—and it must have been the same for her, too, since our email correspondence faded soon after. That’s when I learned my final and most important lesson about email: Yes, it is a wonderful way to woo and be wooed. But as with any potential romance, what is charming and seductive on first impression is just that—a first impression. The alluring vixen (or wise and worldly guy) you have conjured in your mind from those delicious and delightful emails might not be quite as alluring or wise and worldly in person.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best in The Great Gatsby (Can you imagine the action he could have gotten online?): “Daisy tumbled short of his dreams, not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion... No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

That’s a powerful idea, wonderfully expressed. I used it recently, in an email to an attractive screenwriter.

She loved it.

Steve Friedman is the author of seven books, including Lost on Treasure Island: A Memoir of Longing, Love, and Lousy Choices in New York City. More information at
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