writing great email

Like many people, I get a lot of email. Maybe not as many as Cory or Steve, but a few hundred a day, fairly easily. I manage to read and respond to most of it pretty quickly.

Last March, boingboing pointed out Stever Robbins’ article at the Harvard Business School, Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload. In September, they followed that up with Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders piece, Writing sensible email messages.

Update: Guy Kawasaki has more tips.

Update 2: tips from Richard Jones.

Go read these. I’ll wait.

Both articles stress the importance of clear, succint and descriptive Subject lines.

Robbins writes:

Use a subject line to summarize, not describe.
People scan their inbox by subject. Make your subject rich enough that your readers can decide whether it’s relevant. The best way to do this is to summarize your message in your subject.

BAD SUBJECT: Deadline discussion
GOOD SUBJECT: Recommend we ship product April 25th

Mann goes further, giving both reasoning and examples:

You can make it even easier for your recipient to immediately understand why you’ve sent them an email and to quickly determine what kind of response or action it requires. Compose a great “Subject:” line that hits the high points or summarizes the thrust of the message. Avoid “Hi,” “One more thing…,” or “FYI,” in favor of typing a short summary of the most important points in the message:

Lunch resched to Friday @ 1pm
Reminder: Monday is “St. Bono’s Day”–no classes
REQ: Resend Larry Tate zip file?
HELP: Can you defrag my C drive?
Thanks for the new liver–works great!

I agree with this one hundred percent. Please, please, please don’t send me an email entitled “info,” “question,” “hi,” “hi paul,” or, even worse, with no subject whatsoever. When I have dozens of emails from you and I want to find the right one, having a scannable subject line with specifics helps. A lot.

Let’s take this a little further. How do you make good subject lines even better? Context.

What you write depends very much on who you’re writing to. If you send a message to my sister, “Down and Out in the Magic Kindgom” is a good subject line. She’ll know right away that it’s a message about Cory’s book. (Well, maybe not; I’m not sure Stephanie reads any Doctorow.)

However, if you send that same subject line to Cory, it’s a terrible subject line. Cory gets hundreds, if not thousands of emails about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Think about why you’re writing Cory about his book. Then, write the subject line. Some examples:

  • REQ: Autographed copy of Down and Out
  • Down and Out translanted into Pig Latin under CC
  • Down and Out cover art featured in PDX gallery

Another group of people who will greatly benefit from improved subject lines are mailing list subscribers. While “Mac question” is an okay subject line for your computer-savvy cousin, it’s an awful subject line for [email protected]. All the messages they get are (hopefully!) Mac questions. So, be specific:

  • PowerBook battery indicator inaccurate
  • Photoshop crashes on launch in CoreFoundation
  • Correct permissions for foobard.kext

If you don’t know how to describe the problem in technical terms, describe the symptoms as best you can:

  • Screen turns purple intermittently
  • Strange characters when I type

When you send out a message to a mailing list, remember it’s going to dozens — if not thousands — of people. Be even more careful and considerate. Taking an extra thirty seconds will save a few combined hours of people’s lifetimes.

If you’re writing to a musician, booking agent, manager or venue operator, remember, they get hundreds of emails about “gig”s, “demo”s, “request”s and the like.

My friend recently requested (and received) a photo pass for a Tegan and Sara show. I helped her craft the request. The last question she asked what she should write as the Subject. Let’s walk through the thought process I went through.

  • “photo pass” (her suggestion) is a good start. But remember the five questions: who, what, when, where and why?
  • Maybe this management company manages a few artists. So, let’s be more specific. “Tegan and Sara photo pass” is better. That answers the “what” and the “who.”
  • Perhaps they get a lot of requests for photo passes. Let’s help them out some more. If we title the message “Tegan and Sara photo pass SF 2/1,” that tells them when and where. They know how urgent the request is, and they can prioritize it appropriately.

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