You want to know something that annoys me?
Okay, that seems a bad way to begin.
How about this…
You want to know something that will make your life easier and more organized?
Make your email subject lines specific.
Say I have a question for you about, hmm, buying a kangaroo.
I would email you with the subject line “Buying a Kangaroo.”
And you would email me back under that same subject line. And any time we discussed the intricacies of kangaroo buying, we would do so under the “Buying a Kangaroo” subject line.
Then, at any time in the future, I would easily be able to search for and find the emails on that subject. You know, to forward to my other kangaroo-fanatic friends. Or whatever.
By the way… It totally doesn’t bug me if your email subject line says “hi” or “It’s Friday!!!!1!!1!11” or “OMG guess what?!?” or whatever. I send those emails all the time. But they are generally a) to my mom and b) not really about anything specific other than a little note to say, hi, the weather is snowy, I am making spaghetti for dinner or whatever.
But when there is Something Specific at Stake, I think the specific subject line is pretty much a necessity.
Yet so many people refuse to use them! They often completely IGNORE the subject line field, when it can be SO VERY USEFUL!
I also firmly believe that email conversations are excellent (in gmail, one conversation under the umbrella of a single subject line takes up one line in your inbox; I’m not sure what happens in other email services, but I think you’d have 20 lines in the inbox, all with the same subject line)… BUT if anyone involved in the conversation switches the subject, it is critical to begin a new email with a new subject line.
I mean, say we have been going back and forth about kangaroo buying, and then all of a sudden you want to know if we are still on for dinner next Tuesday and where exactly should we go?
Well, I think that requires a new subject line – something like, “Dinner Next Tuesday.”
- If I see YET ANOTHER email from you about kangaroo buying, I may not open it right away because I am sick of talking about the stupid kangaroo… thus missing your important question about dinner and inadvertently snubbing you and completely ruining the friendship.
- If I forget, between now and Tuesday, whether we agreed to go to the new Thai restaurant or Olive Garden, it will be difficult for me to find the answer without bothering you again. Because why would I possibly open an email about buying kangaroos to find out about our dinner plans?
Along these lines, please, for the love of god, don’t just randomly pick out an old email and click reply because it’s easier than remembering my email address. That is what “Contacts” lists are for. Or, if you MUST do that because the old email has the exact right list of people in the CC field or whatever… please take the extra five seconds to delete the old email and replace the old subject line with something new.
Because there is nothing weirder than getting an old email that says RE: That One Scrubs Episode that doesn’t reference Scrubs at all and is, instead, about the best place to rent skis or something.
Oh! That reminds me of another way to make emails easier and better!
Try to stick to one subject per email.
Maybe this is more of a work-type issue (although I’ve certainly run into it with personal emails), but it happens All the Time.
A few years ago, a gal I supervised would send me emails with a bunch of different things in them at once. Like… She’d ask me a complicated question about how I wanted her to complete a project… And then in the same email, she’d ask who was the best person to contact about an HR issue… And which three people I wanted her to include on a weekly report she sent out… And then she’d ask me how my weekend was… And then a question about how to perform a certain function in Word.
So what I would do was break them apart. I’d respond to her project question – in an email with the subject line “Response to Your ABC Question about XYZ Project” – in one email.
Then I’d respond to her Word question in a separate email – with the subject line “How to Do Footnotes in Word.”
Then I’d break her other three – smaller – questions into numbered bullets and answer them all in corresponding numbered bullets.
Then I would encourage her to ask questions like that in the future – giving big, complicated questions their own email, and asking multiple small questions in numbered bulleted lists.
She didn’t like me very much, if I remember correctly.
But! In any event! That is what I do when I write emails. A boss showed me how to do it a billion years ago. And it enhances clarity immensely.
And along the same lines…
Please don’t respond to just one or two of the 5 questions I asked you. I promise that I broke them out in a very clear, numbered list and I need answers to ALL of them, it’s not a “pick and choose” type of thing.
Maybe you don’t have an answer to one… Or you don’t have an answer YET… But please, for the love of lobster, just SAY THAT. It’s better than answering two of the questions and leaving me to fret over whether I should take your lack of response as “no” or “I don’t know” or whether I should email you back and risk getting an annoyed “I’m working on it” response.
Wow. I cannot believe that I just wrote 950 words about how to write emails. Clearly I need to get out more.