Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

E-mail: Keep It Simple

© 2004 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

I recently found myself in the middle of an E-mail exchange that annoyed me on any number of fronts. I went looking for a set of on-line rules of E-mail etiquette and style, but what I found were outdated, focused on the wrong things, or were nonsense. So I wrote my own.

I routinely get several hundred E-mail messages a day. Many of them are sent by computers, telling me about their status, and a huge number are sent by the countless Windows-based Spam-spewing zombies that pollute the Internet. Most of these get filtered out in various ways, leaving me with a few dozen each day meriting attention. How do you get attention?

No more than one topic per E-mail

This is a simple rule, adopted from the sacred rules of business memos. If you write a message, limit it to one topic. If you have multiple topics, you are all but begging that most of the topics will be cast aside, overlooked, or ignored.

Use a good subject line

An E-mail is a simple form. It has three fields: the addressee, the subject, and the message. It is amazing that, given its simple nature, so many messages manage to get at least one of these fields wrong.

Of course, if you get the address wrong, that isn’t too much of a problem: the recipient won’t see the message, and it won’t bother them. If you forget to include the message itself, that’s also easy: some anti-Spam filters will automatically toss the message.

Anti-Spam filters may also automatically flag messages that have dollar signs in the subject, since it is a good guess that “Earn more $$$ now!” is not something you need to read. Sending budgeting information as “$$ info” is probably not a good idea. “Meeting agenda” is also poor, since it doesn’t identify the meeting, time or purpose. If you have two dozen meetings to go to in a week, getting two dozen messages titled “Meeting agenda” could strain your sanity.

Most modern E-mail clients allow you to search messages by subject line, so be as descriptive as possible: “2006 budget figures for extrasolar research” is descriptive, as is “Your silly editorial comments on E-mail.” My anti-Spam filters won’t delete these, and I’ll probably read the messages, too.

Make sure the E-mail has a clear purpose

People tend to read E-mail in a hurry. If you are asking for help, ask. If you are telling a joke, tell it. If your purpose isn’t obvious, you probably won’t get a response. If you routinely send messages without a purpose, the recipient may simply add your name to their anti-Spam filter.


Spam is considered a delicacy in some countries. In the U.S., it has a somewhat different reputation. By following some simple guidelines, you can keep your carefully-crafted E-mail messages out of someone’s anti-Spam filter, and have them read as well. (Photo by Lawrence I. Charters, taken with a Canon PowerShot S-300 digital camera at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.)

Use short paragraphs

Many people still have tiny computer screens, and long paragraphs are hard to read. Even if they have a giant screen, long paragraphs are also tiring to read. If it is easier to delete your message than struggle to read it, people will delete it.

Check your spelling

Almost all modern E-mail clients have spell checkers. If you couldn’t take the trouble to correct the spelling, should the recipient take the trouble to read it?

Proofread your E-mails

In the past few weeks, I’ve received E-mail messages that had these improbable claims:

“We will be pairing down the projects.” Presumably this has something to do with animals and an ark.

“I will wait with baited breath.” You have a mouth full of worms?

“He will right the forward.” But who will write the foreword?

“Your positive response to this message indicates your concordance.” Presumably, they meant to say, “Unless you respond to this message, we assume you concur.” But who knows?

Would I say this in person?

Because E-mail is fast and seemingly instantaneous, people tend to be more belligerent in E-mail than in person. It is easy to “flame” someone in the height of passion, especially when they aren’t around. So ask yourself: if this person was standing right in front of me, within range of their fist, would I say this? If the answer is “no,” don’t send it via E-mail.

A good general rule: send any angry E-mail messages to yourself, first. When it arrives in your In box, read it again, putting yourself in the shoes of the recipient. If the message doesn’t make the world a better place, don’t send it.

Will this person know I’m joking?

People are fired every day for sending something via E-mail that they intended in jest. They send fake seduction notes, jokes about bombs or other violence, parodies of something a boss or coworker said or did, etc. If the recipient doesn’t know it is a joke, or doesn’t believe it is funny, you could lose your job. Or get locked up.

Many people advocate the use of emoticons, such as :-) – to indicate that something is a joke. My own view is that English managed to convey written humor quite nicely for a thousand years before emoticons were invented, so I avoid them. Whichever path you choose, make it clear when you are being humorous.

Send the E-mail as a text message

Every E-mail client in the world can read text messages, and text messages also are the least burdensome on networks. If you send a heavily formatted message, with multiple type styles and colors, not to mention sounds and graphics, there is a good chance the recipient will not be able to read it, and it will certainly take longer to receive – a burden for those using dial-up connections, or cell phones, or PDAs.

If this wasn’t bad enough, many users set their E-mail clients to explicitly strip out everything but text, regardless of the capabilities of the client. They do this as an anti-Spam measure, or to speed up the transmission and receipt of E-mail, or simply because they find the formatting annoying.

Avoid enclosures or embedded graphics

Possibly the most aggravating E-mail is one that says, “See attachment.” You download the attached Word file, open it up – and discover it is a two-paragraph memo. If at all possible, include your message in the E-mail itself – not in an attachment.

Exercise similar care with graphics. Many recipients with older E-mail clients may have trouble with multiple attachments per E-mail, so in case of doubt, send no more than one photo per message. Make sure the photo is in a form the recipient can read (virtually everyone can read a JPEG-formatted graphic). And make sure all attachments have an extension. Word documents should end in .doc and JPEG graphics should end in .jpg – failing to add such extensions may leave your recipient with a message filled with gibberish.

Learn what “priority” means in an E-mail system

Many E-mail clients have a “priority” setting. You can declare a message normal, High, or Low priority, or use some other scale. Believe it or not, the priority settings will not make your message get to the recipient one second faster, or slower. Since “priority” has no standards-based equivalent, whatever priority you pick will be ignored by anyone using a different client. Apple’s Mail client, for example, has no support for “priority” at all.

Adding “Important,” “Urgent” or “Act now” in the subject line won’t work, either, since this is a popular technique used by Spammers. Priority, ultimately, is your good name and reputation: if someone thinks you are important, they will read your messages without delay.

Beware of carbon copies

Generally speaking, avoid sending carbon copies and blind carbon copies to people. Unless there is a genuine need to tell the same thing to multiple people at once, this is often counter productive.

Case #1: You think sending a carbon copy to a bunch of people will put pressure on the recipient to do something. It is just as likely they will be irritated at the implied pressure, and use this as an excuse to ignore you completely.

Case #2: You think sending a carbon copy will “let everyone know” something and act accordingly. But since all the recipients see that “everyone knows,” they may all decide that “someone else” will act, and nothing will get done.

Blind carbon copies have another drawback. So much Spam is sent out as blind carbon copies that many anti-Spam filters automatically trash messages in which the recipient isn’t explicitly mentioned in the “To” or “cc” fields.

Beware of forwarding

Merlin, King Arthur’s tutor, lived his life backward. He knew what the future held, but had no knowledge of the past. This made things awkward.

Equally awkward are Merlin-like messages. If John sends a message to Bill, and Bill forwards it to Ruth, and Ruth forwards it to Sally, and Sally forwards it to Karen, and Karen forwards it to you, and everyone has tacked on a few of their own comments, what do you have? You have a difficult to read message, since you must read backward in time, trying to discover the original thought.

Forget using receipts

Some E-mail clients have provisions for “return receipts,” which send back an E-mail message to you when the recipient reads the message. These don’t work unless all the recipients use the same client, and are all using the same E-mail server.

Even worse, getting a receipt does not mean the recipient read the message. It is just as likely to indicate that the message passed through some E-mail gateway somewhere. You think the recipient read the message but, in reality, it was “read” by a computer that passed it from one point to another.

Include a signature line

Most people neglect to identify themselves in their E-mail messages. This is fine when you are writing to your mother or daughter or someone else that you regularly correspond with. But what if the person doesn’t know you that well, or at all? What if your E-mail address is less than descriptive? Your nickname might be “duke,” or you might like “charging horses,” but an E-mail address of duke@comcast.net doesn’t really tell people who you are, nor does chghorse@erols.com.

So add a signature block to your messages, especially those sent to people that may not know you. The signature block should give your real name, and if possible add something to your message. You can use it to promote your hobby, your personal Web site, you voting preference – whatever seems appropriate. Examples:

    Lawrence I. Charters webmeister@wap.org
    Mac OS X: Because making UNIX user friendly
was easier than fixing Windows
    Lawrence I. Charters makeditor@wap.org
    Washington Apple Pi Journal: http://www.wap.org/journal
    In the force if Yoda's so strong, construct a sentence
    with words in the proper order then why can't he?

Warning: avoid signature blocks wider than 70 characters, or longer than four lines. Many mail clients will simply throw them away if they exceed these limits.

E-mail, e-mail or email?

Which is correct: E-mail, e-mail or email? My preference is for E-mail, using as my grammatical precedent the use of V-mail (Victory Mail) in World War II. But that is an issue for another article.