Return to Sender

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe are old friends who meet for lunch in Manhattan every so often. Inevitably their talk turns to what's new at work. At one point they realized how many of their tales involved e-mail: flame wars between colleagues or misdirected messages with comical results. Both Shipley, op-ed editor at The New York Times, and Schwalbe, editor in chief of Hyperion Books, figure they spend nearly half their day dealing with e-mail, yet neither felt adept at it. "Nobody quite understands why, if [e-mail] is such a presence in our lives, nobody is able to master it," Shipley says. Together they intoned the magic phrase that's often uttered when media types gather: maybe there's a book in that.

The result of their collaboration—backed by a big publicity campaign—hits bookstores this week. "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home" aims to help desk jockeys increase their e-mail IQ, and it could hardly come at a better time. A host of scandals—from the NASA love triangle to the sex-and-advertising scandal at Wal-Mart—have been fueled in part by investigators uncovering megabytes of e-mail that shouldn't have been sent.

Quite apart from illegal or unethical message trails, companies are realizing that as employees spend more time communicating via their in boxes, bad e-mail practices can hurt productivity. The result: "I'm definitely seeing an upswing in the number of companies that offer e-mail training," says Nancy Flynn of the ePolicy Institute, which offers such classes to corporations.

"Send" is filled with war stories of e-mail mishaps, advice-driven lists ("Five Reasons to I.M. and Text Instead of Email") and pointers on the etiquette of issues like blind copying. Much of the advice is common sense, but the authors argue that even if most readers already understand these lessons, many of us could use a refresher course. "This is about cultivating a state of digital mindfulness," says Shipley. "It's meant to remind you not to do the things you do on e-mail." Shipley and Schwalbe say their research has made them change their behavior. Today they write more-precise subject lines, think more carefully about not writing anything in a tone that could be misconstrued and think harder when choosing between e-mailing, calling and setting up a face-to-face meeting. For many of us, these reminders will lead to an inevitable conclusion: we're relying too much on e-mail for complex interactions that are better handled by another means. "Think before you send," the authors advise. Wise counsel indeed.