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How to Recover From E-Mail Gaffes

E-mail gaffes are all too easy to make—and all too common. Here’s how to recover from four cringe-worthy mistakes. by Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

Have you ever hit “Send,” only to spot a humiliating error just as your e-mail launched into cyberspace?

We’ve all done it: moving at rocket speed, pounding out one last missive before dinner, and neglecting to reread our words before clicking that magic button. Sometimes the consequences are funny and easily remedied, but not always—especially when the recipient is an editor or other important contact. After all, as a writer, your very profession is defined by communication.

So what to do when it happens to you? Here, four writers bravely confess their e-mail sins in order to share secrets for a clean recovery—plus tricks for catching the most common mistakes before they leave your inbox.

“My wife handles my business bookkeeping duties,” freelance finance writer Rick Grant says. “I was considering getting larger clients to wire funds directly to my account, and asked her to look into it. She e-mailed that it involved a monthly fee and per-transaction rates, which were too high. I responded that we didn’t need the service and quipped, ‘but I still love you.’ Within a few minutes I received a terse reply from the bank’s vice president—to whom I [had] accidentally sent the e-mail.”

THE FIX: It’s simple, but often a crucial strategy: Resist the urge to hide your head in the sand. Instead, keep the lines of communication open. Grant immediately called the bank official to own up to what had happened, and clarify that no inappropriate declaration had been intended.

“E-mail is a great tool, but when we move quickly, we make mistakes,” he says. “I try to fix those mistakes by phone.” Further, Grant suggests including an automatically generated checklist at the top of your e-mail signature—something large, colorful and impossible to miss. For instance, your checklist could ask, “Are you ready to send? Did you check for the proper recipient, required attachments and appropriate content?” Just don’t let the checklist turn into its own blunder: Before you send the e-mail, remember to delete it. If you want to be extra cautious, wait to add your recipient’s e-mail address until after you’ve written the message and looked it over.

“After an editor of a major magazine offered $600 based on my e-pitch, I was so excited that I had to share my success with my mom,” says Angela Neal, a writer in Scotland. “I hit ‘Forward’ and wrote, ‘Woohoo! 600 spondoolies for a piece on parenting, and I don’t even have kids!’ I babbled for a while before hitting ‘Send’ … but I’d pressed the ‘Reply’ button instead of ‘Forward.’ Away whooshed my e-mail to the editor’s inbox.”

While communication can be key, in this case, silence was the best policy: Neal considered e-mailing the editor, but let it be. The editor never mentioned it, and the article moved forward as planned. Says Neal: “I now have the five-second ‘undo’ feature enabled on my Gmail inbox. It gives you the option to cancel or ‘undo’ an e-mail within five seconds of pressing ‘Send.’ ” To set up this unique feature on your Gmail account, click “Settings,” the “Labs” tab, and then enable “Undo Send.” From now on, after your message has been sent, a temporary “Undo” box will pop up, and you can cancel away.

“A few weeks ago, I e-mailed a Boston Globe travel editor and addressed her as ‘Annie’ instead of ‘Anne,’ ” says Melissa Hart, a University of Oregon journalism instructor and the author of Gringa. “I realized this mistake right as I hit ‘Send.’ It may not seem like a big deal, but if someone addressed me as ‘Mel’ or ‘Missy’ instead of ‘Melissa,’ I’d be annoyed.” And when you’re sending query letters, the last thing you want to do is irritate the editor.

THE FIX: Hart took the communication route and e-mailed the editor immediately, saying, “I’m sorry—I meant to type ‘Anne’ instead of ‘Annie.’” All was well. When you’re composing and sending e-mails, slow down and avoid the temptation to multitask. But don’t get bogged down in the details. And after a blunder, don’t obsess. Everyone makes mistakes. Move on, and don’t try to overcorrect, which could draw more attention than necessary to your error. “Editors expect polished correspondence,” Hart says, “but they don’t stop working with you just because of an occasional e-mail typo.”

THE BLUNDER: Corporate communications consultant Kathryn Hammer’s most memorable e-mail gaffe involved a speech she wrote for a client. It included a mischievous line never meant for the talk, culled from an unrelated humor piece she’d written: “For best effect, wear panties on your head. Preferably, a thong.”

THE FIX: Hammer called the client to explain how the underpants landed in the speech; her client thought they belonged there for laughs. Ironically, blunders can work in your favor. If you can turn a tragedy into a future assignment or the foundation of a relationship, take any opportunity to do so. Says Hammer, “After one mishap-ridden project, a client sent me flowers with a card saying, ‘How do you thank someone you’ve gone through hell with? You’re the best.’ ”

Who knows, your blunder could set you apart from the masses—and give you something new to write about.

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