Dealing with the Purgatory of Unanswered Email


What's the email equivalent of the dead letter office?

What’s the email equivalent of the dead letter office?

What’s the hardest thing about being a writer? For some, it’s as simple as writing. I’ve spoken with professional writers who told me that they hate writing.  They describe the actual process as if they’re talking about digging graves. Then they tell me that it’s only the product of the work that they love. I can’t understand that for the life of me. I love to write, I’m happier the more writing I have to do.  For me, what makes writing difficult is everything is I write about on this blog: the whole freelance life. The business. Remembering to write certain things off, networking and emailing people over and over again. I hate rejection. If there is one single thing that I find to be the hardest part of this job it’s un-answered emails.

I could go insane if I still obsessed over every unanswered email the way I used to. I still obsess, but I take certain factors into consideration now. For instance, if your un-answered email was sent to an agency slush pile, it’s less like an email and more like you entered a contest. If you’ve no personal connection to the person you are emailing, don’t expect a quick or un-prodded response. Simply put: don’t expect too much.

I’ve talked a lot about the mercurial specificities of email communication at TFL.  Following up on an un-answered email is one of the most difficult of those specificities. Here are a few tips on following up.

Don’t Call In the email age, calling can be a powerful gambit. However, you can’t graduate to calling after an un-answered email. In doing so you graduate from potential colleague to stalker.  The phone call only works if you do it off the bat, or after a successful email relationship has been established.

Circle Back This is a really nice term that a lot of people use. I hadn’t heard it until mentioning my unanswered email problem to a colleague (use the word “colleague” a lot, too).  Starting your email with:

Hey Octavio, Jon Reiss here, just circling back regarding____ (be sure that blank is re-capped as succinctly as possible.) Appreciate your thoughts on this.

Short and Sweet Make that super short and super sweet, like cloying.  Your initial email was probably way too long anyway. In my experience, the shorter the follow up, the more likely you are to get a response.  Don’t re-describe the purpose of your initial email if you don’t have to, and throw in something to make you seem personable.  You are better off with a quick joke, than a re-cap, in my experience.

 The Forward Trick I don’t know why this works. I couldn’t even begin to try and deconstruct the psychology of it, but this is the most effective follow up email technique I know and it has yielded the best results for me.

Simply forward your original email. Easy.  Add a short message on top reminding them who you are and…bingo.  Such as:


Just wanted to circle back about the pitch I sent you last week (below).




Those are my tips.  If you are as neurotic as me when it comes to email communication, allow me to recommend the book How To Say It, Choice Words Phrases, Sentences and Paragraphs for Any SituationHaving recently bought the e-book for my Kindle, I have to admit I find it a major comfort for this aspect of my life that I obsess and worry over constantly.

For instance in the Follow Up Letters section of the book, they recommend using words like: mention, notify, prompt, remind, repeat and suggest. As well as phrases like: “Jog your memory,” “Make sure you’re aware of” and “Prompt you to.”

This book is sort of like The Elements of Style, but for correspondence. There’s even a section for email. Now, we need a book dedicated entirely to the etiquette of email.  Would you buy it? Let us know in the comments section below and maybe we’ll start plugging away.

For more about my more whining about living freelance and dying hard, check out my blog or follow me on twitter here (check out the last Twitter Tips for Writers installment of TFL to see what I just did there).

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