Skip Navigation Links
By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
E-mail is such a simple thing. It's an elegant concept to send compact text messages to practically any place, retrievable at any time, and deliverable to almost any computing device you can think of. It's too bad that so many people get it wrong. After all these years, some people just can't get the hang of effectively using E-mail to convey their message.
This article may seem like a bunch of pet peeves, however, I like to think of it more as a guide to the misuse of E-mail. If you follow these guidelines, you can be assured that your message will fail to get to 70 percent of its intended audience, maybe 90 percent if you use them all.
The Mystery Subject
If you want you E-mail to be ignored, try using a subject like "Important" or "needed to borrow". These are most ineffective when E-mailing to large distribution groups. "Important" by itself is particularly good at eliciting responses such as "it must be important to somebody, but not me," or "I'm glad they didn't send that unimportant message." Likewise, "needed to borrow" implies "needed to borrow one or two more words so that you'd know what the heck this message is about."
To be effective, an E-mail subject should briefly summarize the message's content. If done correctly, you won't need to use the word "important" in the subject because your intended readers will realize the importance, such as "Water to be shut off in the Administration Building next Tuesday." Likewise, "Need to borrow a PC video projector for an on-campus conference" is much more likely to attract those who actually have such items to lend.
Related to the mystery subject, but equally ineffective is the "run-on subject." This is where someone starts the actual message in the subject and continues in the body of the E-mail. This leads to both an unuseful subject line and an incomplete message body which tends to be most confusing when one starts reading the message because they recognize the sender rather than because they read the subject.
The broader your E-mail audience, the more the context needed in your E-mail subject line. One word might be meaningful to a close friend or colleague, but it won't be to a whole organization. An effective subject will also prevent you from having to put in that line that say "ignore this message unless you are interested in...." If I am reading your plea to ignore, it's too late. A properly composed subject would have told me what the message was about and to whom it would be of interest.
MIME abuse is an ugly thing. No, I'm not talking about throwing a real box over those street performers pretending to be trapped in a box. I am talking about Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME). The MIME standard allows almost any kind of computer file to be sent along with an E-mail message. It's abuse when an E-mail message (with a mystery subject) reads "please see the attached file."
It is particularly annoying to spend CPU cycles launching a Microsoft program to read an attached file which says "you are invited to a reception for so-in-so..." (not to mention the fact that in spite of Microsoft's best efforts, not everyone has that program). No matter how proud you are of your graphic design skills, such a simple message could easily be conveyed in the E-mail itself and would actually garner more response. It's three lines: who, what, and where. A pretty border won't make that communication any more effective.
Possibly more effective, but equally annoying is to get the text message plus the attachment which says the same thing. The fact that there is an attachment implies that there is more information to be gleaned. Finding that it just echoes the E-mail text is a waste of clicks and cycles.
On a related note, why do I need to receive two versions of your message: text format and HTML format? My E-mail program will highlight any URLs you send me and I really don't need the text to be pink. E-mail is text. E-mail is written communication. I can read. You don't have to help with HTML formatting.
The Never-ending Quotation
Some E-mail programs seem to encourage you to type a reply above the quoted text. For a long time, the Internet standard was to quote the relevant text above a reply. The key word there is "relevant." The tendency to have type-above/quote-message as the default seems to lead to an unending and ever-growing string of quoted messages during an E-mail exchange.
For effective and efficient communication, you only need to quote the parts of a message which your reply addresses. I know what I said. I don't need to be reminded and if I do, I'll go look at my original message (I usually save a copy just for these occasions when the exchange is important).
It's the 21st century folks. We don't need to skimp on computer memory. It's okay to use the whole word. It may take a bit more work, but avoiding unnecessary abbreviations will ensure that your message is fully understood by its recipient. Sure, there are Internet shorthand acronyms such as FYI (for your information) and IMHO (in my humble opinion), but even these can be overused to the point where a message is unintelligible ("FYI, IMHO the FAQ is AGT(tm)").
The Double Hit
We've all done it. We've actually needed to send someone a formatted file like a spreadsheet or graphic and then forgotten to attach it to the E-mail. This usually results in the "double hit" -- that is a second message with the attachment and a line that says "oops, I forgot the attachment." More egregious is the message that goes to a distribution list with some (undoubtedly important) announcement and is followed by the double hit that says "ignore the date in the original message, the real date is...."
At this point, I can only call on the words of my eight-grade math teacher: "check your work!" I routinely reread every E-mail message I compose before I send it. I don't always catch the typos or misspellings (especially the "your" with the missing "r" and the "the/then" confusions which are transparent to the best spell checker, my brain not being among them). Checking your text before hitting "send" can save you from causing a double hit.
The Infinite Resend
If you must resend that cute item about "Bubba Claus" removing the header or headers from the previous resends will avoid a bunch of people's E-mail addresses being distributed to total strangers. It seems to me that such messages must be a treasure trove to E-mail spammers.
Likewise, when you do send the item about "Bubba Claus" to me and 20 other people I don't know, I'd appreciate if you would include our addresses in the BCC field instead of the TO field of your E-mail. This will keep me from accidentally E-mailing you brother-in-law, or from selling his address to the highest spam bidder.
A Final Word
I am not just a curmudgeon trying to take the fun out of E-mail. In some contexts, graphical cues do aid in communication, but the power of E-mail is in it's ability to convey the written word. Just use the technology for what it does best.
Some of us misguided idealistic types even used to think that E-mail would cause a resurgence of writing as a valued and expertly practiced art of communication. That didn't really happen. I dnt no Y....