Hi, my name is Jessie, and I’m a writer.
I can nail thriller scenes for novels, attention-grabbing article ledes, and persuasive product descriptions.
Yet one form of writing repeatedly eludes me: business emails.
Especially emails that involve my nemesis… negotiating.
Negotiation is an important skill for writers — freelancers dealing with prospective clients, novelists dealing with editors, indie writers hiring cover designers, and anyone who’s ever tried to organize a coffee date with a colleague.
It seems like negotiating would be easier via email than in person or over the phone, especially for us writer types. After all, you can take the time to craft every sentence and make sure your point is clear and polite, right?
And yet it can be devilishly hard.
Jessie’s Big Deal: a case study
I recently went through a high-stakes negotiation with a prospect, which involved some of the biggest numbers I’ve ever quoted. In a panic over every word, I read my email drafts out loud to my husband, who works in sales.
His verdict? My writing sucked.
In my quest to be polite, he explained, I was weakening my position and opening the door for my prospect to walk all over my quote.
My first email went something like this:
Thanks so much for getting in touch! I’d love to talk with you more about how we might work together. It sounds like what you’re looking for is [Project]. Based on [Variable 1] and [Variable 2] I feel like [My Proposal] might be a good way to proceed. My normal rate for work like that ranges from [$ to $$]. I think I’d need to know more about [Variable 3] before I could narrow that down. I hope that sounds all right to you. If so, let’s chat.
“Is that nice enough?” I asked my husband, who was rolling his eyes. “Is it polite? Is it getting my point across? Am I quoting too much?”
After going back and forth about the wording for about 10 minutes, my husband finally asked if he could just write the email for me.
My husband’s email read, in a nutshell:
Thank you for getting in touch. Based on [Variable 1] and [Variable 2], my rate would be between [$ and $$]. Please let me know how you would like to proceed.
The polite writer in me was appalled at his directness and lack of flowery ornamentation. But I had to admit, it would be much harder to walk all over my proposal in that email than my original version.
I touched up his version with a bit of my personality, but the lesson was clear: My tendency to hedge my bets was killing the negotiating power of my emails.
Minimize “minimizing language” for stronger emails
To show respect, many writers tend to use language that weakens their position. They aim for deference and end up timid. It’s part politeness, part impostor syndrome — and 100-percent bad for business.
The good news is that, like in my email above, it all comes down to a few problem phrases that you can learn to recognize and edit out. Business experts call it “minimizing language.”
It often sounds more polite to avoid direct statements. That’s why we say things like, “I think we need to turn left at the light,” instead of simply telling the driver to turn left.
Observe how the following deferential statements can be strengthened:
- “It seems like 3 p.m. would be a good time to meet up for me.” —> “Let’s meet at 3 p.m.”
- “I feel like [$$] would be a good rate for that type of work.” —> “My rate is [$$] for that type of work.”
- “I think I’d like to see a second draft by the end of the day.” —> “Please send me a second draft by the end of the day.”
In my original email, I used phrases like “sounds like” and “I feel like” to soften sentences that should have been direct statements. After all, it didn’t “sound like” my prospect was looking for a certain type of service; he was looking for that service.
“Do you ‘feel like’ making this proposal, or are you going to make it?” my husband asked. “Do you ‘think’ you need to know more about [Variable 3] before you can make a more accurate quote, or do you need to know it?”
Phrases like these introduce doubt in the mind of your reader and undermine your authority, but they’re not the only culprits.
“Just” is another insidious phrase that undermines everything around it. Look at how its inclusion in each of these sentences makes their meaning sound so insignificant:
- “I just have a few pages to read from my new story collection.”
- “I just want you to know…”
- “I’m just calling to check in on…”
- “My new novel? Oh, it’s just a story about…”
- “Hi, it’s just me.”
You should also keep an eye out for reassuring tag lines: phrases that go on the end of a sentence to soften its directness and ask for reassurance. Look out for phrases like:
- “Don’t you think?”
- “Isn’t it?”
- “All right?”
When in doubt, throw out your English degree
Tana French’s gorgeous prose and Margaret Atwood’s intricate sentence structures make for a wonderful reading experience – but in a business email, simple is better.
Take a look at my email examples from above again. In the first email, I was hiding my basic message — “here’s my quote, give me a call” — in a whole novel’s worth of subordinate phrases. That kind of email makes it harder for the recipient to know exactly what I’m saying and what I expect in response.
Clarity is critical whether you’re hoping the response will be “You’re hired” or “Great, I’ll meet you then!”
Next time you’re writing a business email, swap your writer hat out for your salesperson hat and cut out the fluff.
I just feel like you’ll probably get better results if you do, don’t you think?
How have your negotiation skills changed as you’ve gained experience writing?