Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Say what you mean and mean what you say, Part 1

I don't know if it's the spring air or the ground warming up or what, but it seems like I've been noticing some really poorly written emails floating around my office and my projects lately. It blows my mind that architects undergo 4-6 years of training and still can't write clearly. Presumably, we can all draw clearly, so why is it having a hard time making it from our brains to our pens or keyboards?

When we produce a set of construction documents, we include lots of details and information about each facet of the project because we're conscious of our audience: the contractor. We explain the project with a fair amount of detail because we know that the contractor cannot read our minds, and and it would be cumbersome and time-consuming for him/her to ask us all the questions necessary to build a good project. The same principle is true of writing (and also speaking) in architecture; we have to provide all the information necessary to the parties being addressed so that the intention or question is clear. The first essential step to writing a good email is to assume that folks are generally familiar with your project but they cannot read minds. Do not assume that they understand slang (yours or anyone's), and do not assume that they have room numbers memorized, or even have the plan memorized. Provide all the information required so that whoever is reading the email can make an informed decision regarding what you're stating or asking.

Let's say you want to move some lights around in a particular room, and you need to ask the electrical engineer if you may do so. Recently, I've seen emails that look like this (and if I ever catch any of you writing like this, I will throw a copy of Graphic Standards at you).

"Hey yo peeps were gonna move the reception desk towards the north. can we do that? or, do we need more lights and whatnot over there."

For more clarity and professionalism, your email needs to read something like this:

"In Reception/Waiting A-334, we are moving the reception desk to the north side of the room and would like to move the pendant lights over the reception desk accordingly. However, we are concerned that the pendant lights will not provide enough light at the reception desk when it is moved away from the windows along the south wall. Can we make this change in the lighting layout, and if so will we need any extra lighting?"

You may also want/need to include a PDF of the room in question showing what you want to do sketched in red over the existing plan. This message will leave little or no room for confusion when you ask the engineer for his/her input, and now the engineer will not need to email you back and forth (or call you) to find out what you meant by "over there and whatnot" or try to divine your less-than-stellar punctuation, spelling, and grammar.

In the next post, we'll talk more about writing clear emails to get better results out of bosses and consultants In the meantime, if you have a question or would like to see a topic discussed here, please let me know in the comments or via email from the sidebar. Thanks!


  1. "Peeps, yo"??? Seriously? I can't even fathom getting a question like that regardless of how friendly the team is. In our evolving 140 character Twitter society I'm worried about it getting worse before it gets better. Scarier to me right now, the person who wrote that has a job and I don't! I'll have to think about whether that is helping my state of mind today...

    Hey, I'm intelligent, I can draw, write, etc. It can't be too hard to land one of them jobs. Or, I'm intelligent, I can draw, write, etc. Who cares, do you know Pevit and Photoshop?

    All kidding aside, I have been knocked over my career for wordiness in my emails. The criticism usually was too long so I haven't read it yet. I then make the next one shorter, but spend a half hour on the phone with the consultant/contractor making sure we're talking about the same thing. Somewhere, there is fine line between CYA detail and conveying what needs to be discussed.


  2. JD: I wish I was kidding about the casual nature of that email. I'm going to have to post (anonymously) some of the emails that land in my inbox so everyone can see what you're about to deal with in the workforce (or used to deal with, if you've been laid off). I too have been heckled for verbosity, but I'd rather err on the side of completeness and clarity than brevity and cuteness.

    Alos, it looks like your comment got cut off; was there more?