GRAD SCHOOL DIARIES
emails science writing bees communication

re: thoughts about something you’re going to write anyway…

Five Sentence Emails

Brevity is the soul of email. Here’s the buzz about writing emails that are concise, elegant, and logical

To: aspiring scientists

Cc: current scientists

Subject: Five Sentence Emails

Dear reader,

I used to imagine most scientists spending all of their time pouring fluorescent liquids into Erlenmeyer flasks while wearing white lab coats. I imagined other scientists, spending weeks or months outside, following monkeys around the rainforest or collecting pollen from the legs of bees. What I didn’t imagine was that scientists spend a lot of time writing emails.

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Fig. 1 How I imagined most scientists. (CC0 Public Domain)

It doesn’t mean we don’t also pour liquids, tag along with monkeys, or catch bees; it just means that doing those tasks usually requires emailing. Emails recruit undergraduate research assistants that will help prepare chemical solutions and clean glassware. Emails coordinate transportation logistics to and from Thailand. Emails arrange focus groups with beekeepers so you can learn about their hive maintenance practices.

An excellent emailer isn’t that different from an excellent scientist. Like a scientific argument, a perfect email, in my opinion, is concise, elegant, and logical.

Concise: provides lots of information in a few words

Elegant: pleasantly simple and neat

Logical: well thought-out and makes sense

A scientist I know follows the Rule of Five Sentences to effectively and efficiently compose emails. The idea isn’t too different from texting, Twitter, or Snapchat [1]. With limited space or characters, you have to be slick about expressing yourself. You have to pleasantly and neatly provide all your information in a few words such that everything makes sense. This blog post [2] has some tips and examples about writing concisely, although in the context of pitching or summarizing a book.

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Fig. 2 Screenshot from Rachelle Gardner’s advice about summarizing big ideas [2].

These five ingredients are essential parts of any effective communication recipe. Scientists use these elements when writing scientific papers, and we can use these elements when writing emails. How might these apply for a scientist emailing beekeepers in order to coordinate a focus group?

→ A character or two

That would be the scientist writing the email and the beekeeper receiving it.

→ Their choice, conflict, or goal

Will you attend a focus group next week to discuss the things you do to maintain your beehive?

→ What’s at stake (may be implied)

We need to better understand colony collapse disorder [3] in order to protect our local bee populations!

→ Action that will get them to the goal

Sharing your hands-on experiences will help us better understand this problem.

→ Setting (if important)

This would be specific focus group details, such as where, when, and for how long.

And for the final email:

Dear Belinda the Beekeeper,

I am a graduate student at Local University reaching out to beekeepers in the area. I would like to invite you to attend a focus group in the next few weeks to discuss the different activities beekeepers use to maintain their hives. The goal of my research is to better understand colony collapse disorder and what we can do about it. Hearing about your hands-on experience with your colony will help us better understand bee populations in the area. If you are interested in attending a focus group, please let me know which one works best for you! …details about where, when, and for how long…

One of the goals of science is to understand how nature works. But nature is messy and it isn’t always easy to figure out exactly how A causes B and B causes C. There is inevitably a lot of noise, in which F causes C and A also causes E and E and F always seem to show up together, and when B is present, F usually isn’t… Scientists try to sort through the noise to discern the simplest, neatest, explanation that is capable of explaining as much as possible in a way that makes sense.

So when I spend most of my day writing emails, I try to keep them concise, elegant, and logical. That is what scientists do, and if I’m not out there collecting bees, I might as well be doing science in my inbox.

Sincerely,

Evan

PS: Bonus points for a limerick

Dear beekeeper,

I’m a scientist studying bees,

Attend a focus group soon won’t you please?

In expertise you are wealthy,

So let’s make bees healthy,

Pick a time and we’ll cure the disease!

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Fig. 3 Source


References:

[1] “five.sentenc.es,” accessed April 18, 2016,http://five.sentenc.es

[2] “The one-sentence summary,” accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.rachellegardner.com/the-one-sentence-summary/

[3] “Colony collapse disorder,” accessed April 18, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder

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