Thank you notes: Should you send an email or write a note?

A recent Infographic on thank you notes caught my attention:

It's a lovely infographic, but I disagree with the process of decision making that it outlines. 

Instead, I would like to propose my own rules about when you can write an email and when you must send a physical thank you note.

When determining whether an email or an actual thank you note is required, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is the recipient the kind of inane and pedantic person who would be offended by an email in lieu of a handwritten thank you note?

If NO, send an email. Not only is it more efficient, but it allows you to say more in less time.
If YES, answer the following:

2. Is the recipient someone whose opinions you care about?

If NO, send an email.
If YES, consider sending an email. If you're still uncertain, answer the following question.

3. Is the recipient the kind of small-minded, vacuous person who might underhandedly complain about your failure to send an actual thank you note to people who you know and respect?

If NO, send the email.
If YES, grudgingly send the thank you note.

When these rules are unavailable to you, you can always rely on this one question to arrive at an equitable solution:

Is the recipient a backwards-thinking, arcane traditionalist capable of underhanded, passive-aggressive, prickish behavior with far too much time on their hands?

If NO, send an email.
If YES, send a thank you note. Or better yet, eradicate this person from your life entirely if possible.

I sent an email in lieu of a thank you note about 90% of the time. I am capable to write far more meaningful and memorable things in an email than I can in a thank you note, and I usually do. As untraditional and impersonal an email may seem to some, if done right, it can be far more meaningful and impactful than a small piece of card stock with 3-5 scribbled sentences.

When I send a physical thank you note, it's almost always in situations that still demand a physical thank you note (in response to gifts, for example, though even then, I will send an email to close friends) or when the recipient is likely to be offended by the email and his or her response to the email will be more troublesome to me than the actual writing of the thank you note.  

It should also be noted that if you are a person who thinks that a thank you note sent via email is never acceptable, you should know that you are a dinosaur. You are slowly but surely becoming extinct. You may enjoy your thank you note perch high above the masses, but please know that the world is moving on without you. 

Most of us understand that it's the thought that counts. It's a lesson we were taught as children, and it remains true today. 

 The thought - contrary to arcane and dwindling belief - does not require ink, envelope, and postage to count. 

Nine rules for making you more efficient with email and less of a jerk face

1. Email is often a means of informal communication. As such, you can dramatically decrease the amount of time spent with email with short, efficient replies like, ‘Thanks” and “Understood” and “Agreed.” Dispense with formalities whenever possible and increase efficiency. image

2. Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) is often the tool of the passive aggressive coward. Before including an email address in this field, always ask yourself why you are using it. If you’re trying to hurt or embarrass someone or conceal something, knock it off, jerk face.

3. Never send an email written to express your anger or disappointment with someone. Those emotions are better conveyed over the phone or in person, where unnecessary aggression and excessive vitriol cannot be shielded by the passive aggressive nature of email. In other words, don’t be a coward. If you’re upset, pick up the phone.

4. “I sent that angry email because I express myself better in the written form and was too anger to speak” is never an excuse for violating rule #3.

5. If you receive an angry email, pick up the phone and respond immediately. The faster, the better. The best way to handle a passive-aggressive person is in an aggressively direct manner. Angry email senders tend to be people who do not handle conflict well and therefore hide behind technology. Pulling back the technological curtain will be uncomfortable for them and will often knock them off their position.

6. Inbox zero should be your goal, if only for productivity and efficiency purposes. Leaving email in your inbox forces you to look at that email every time you access your mail application, which takes time and energy. It’s akin to sifting through the same growing pile of mail every day to find a specific letter or bill. Inbox zero will eliminate the time required to take action on incoming emails by not adding them to an already enormous pile.


7. Use a mail application that allows you to schedule a time when you want an email to hit your inbox. Turn email into something that you receive when you want to receive it. For me, this is Mailbox, though many other applications offer similar functionality. I often reschedule incoming email for a designated time during the day when I plan to read and respond, thereby keeping my inbox empty and enjoying the benefits of rule #6.

If I receive an email pertaining to taxes, I reschedule it to hit my inbox on April 1.

If my team receives an email requesting action on our part, I reschedule it to hit my inbox in 24 hours in the hopes that one of my colleagues will handle the request before I need to.

I also use the “Someday” time frame in Mailbox to randomly reschedule emails that make me smile or feel good about myself, allowing me to experience the joy of receiving that email all over again.


8. Respond to emails that require action as quickly as possible, and always within 24 hours. Failing to respond to an email – even if your response is “I’ll get back to you tomorrow” – projects the image of a person who is overwhelmed, disorganized, and inefficient.

9. Choose subjects for your emails that will allow your readers to identify the general purpose of the email without actually opening it and help you search for that email in the future.

A peek into the inbox of an author

One of the goals of my future podcast, at least until my theoretical listeners redefine my goal through their input, will be to offer unpublished writers, readers, and even fellow authors a glimpse into the daily life of an author.

It’s the kind of thing I would like to hear:

Successful authors talking about their careers, their daily routines, the nuts and bolts of the industry and the choices and challenges that they face on a daily and weekly basis.

Occasionally we will get a glimpse of an author’s life through an interview on radio or in print, but never have I been granted access to an author’s life over an extended period of time, probably (and thankfully) because they are too busy writing. I’m simply stupid enough to be willing to waste a few precious hours a week producing a podcast in hopes that someone wants the same thing I want and will care.

Oh, the title of the future podcast will be Author Out Loud, suggested by blogger Heather Clow.   

The first segment of the podcast will focus on the things that have happened in my writing career during the previous week. It will be that ongoing peek into an author’s life that I would like to hear someday. This could include a discussion of the manuscript that I am working on, the promotion for my latest book, a description of a recent author appearance, a lamentation about my latest second place finish at a Moth StorySLAM, the editing and revising that I am doing with my agent or editor, the progress of film and television deals related to my books, the machinations surrounding the rock opera that my friend and I are producing, my recent forays into children's literature, and many, many more topics. A week does not go by that would not be filled with material to discuss.

The collection of email that I received today is a good example of something I might talk about for a minute or two in order to offer a peek into the day-to-day life of an author.

First, an email from a reader in Greece who read the Greek translation of MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND and wrote to me in perfect English.

Next, an email from the publisher of the audio version of MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND informing me that the book is going to be on the Audible homepage for a second week in a row.

Next, an email reader in Singapore writing to tell me that every copy of MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND is reserved for the next seven months in his local library. In addition, the library has 17 copies of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, and at the moment, all are checked out.

I should probably move to Singapore. 

Next, three emails requesting author appearances at their various establishments. Two are from booksellers and one is from a charitable organization.

Next, an email from a clever and enterprising PhD student who wants to sit down and chat with me for an hour about writing and opened her email by informing me of a typo in the bio on my blog as a means of getting my attention.

It worked.

Next, an email from a book blogger with a list of ten questions for me to answer as part of an author Q&A that will appear on her blog.

Next, an email containing feedback from one of the readers of my current manuscript.

Finally, an email from a reader in the United States discussing how much the character of Max in MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND reminds her of her son.

All that arrived today, and it doesn’t include any of the communication I received on Twitter.

As you can imagine, I am forced to dedicate a significant chunk of time to responding to email each evening, and while this admittedly takes away from some of the time I have to write, today’s batch of emails were neutral or positive in nature, making it much more enjoyable to respond, and they did not require a great deal from me in terms of time or effort. I also responded to almost every email while my three month old son slept in my lap, so it’s debatable how much actual writing I would have managed in that time anyway. 

The never-ending flurry of communication from readers and others related to my writing has been one of the most surprising aspects of my authorial  career. I never expected readers to reach out to me as often as they do, and the seemingly unusual emails like the ones from the Singapore reader or the PhD student are unusual only in their specificity. Tomorrow I will receive an entirely different but equally unusual set of emails from people I can’t begin to imagine.

I never know what to expect when an email arrives pertaining to my career as an author, and it makes the job persistently interesting, occasionally unwieldy and always surprising.