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How to send and reply to email (might.net)
175 points by p4bl0 on May 30, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments

There is only ONE rule you need to follow. - Speak to people how they would like to be spoken to.

I get so annoyed with all this email rules BS. 5 sentences max, Twitter-style "body in subject", dot points only etc etc. All a load of crap.

You don't need rules. You need to learn some simple etiquette.

If someone always writes to you starting with "Hi Alan", then you better be sure you reply with "Hi Bob". If someone (important) takes the time to write you a well thought out, detailed email, you bloody well take the time to reply in kind. If someone writes to you in dot points, then and only then is it ok to reply in dot points.

Being curt with someone who appreciates detail is just as bad as being verbose with someone who appreciate brevity.

True, but I do think there are more general rules that can be applied categorically. Be precise, for example. If you find yourself using a lot of "and/or" statements in an email, or qualifying a point you're making, then you're probably not being as precise as you could be. Some people like long emails, and some people like short emails, but nobody likes vague or confusing emails.

"Mirroring" as an etiquette strategy only works with those currently in a position of being your social peers. It doesn't work with social superiors (e.g. mailing in a resume when applying for a job) or inferiors (e.g. "I see you're all trying to guess how X works. I made X; I'll explain.")

> If the entire email fits in the subject, put it in the subject.

There is a special place in hell for the people that do this. I'll hope you get there as fast as possible.

Seriously, Just because you have preview windows set to display the subject as a paragraph, doesn't mean I've got the same set up on my blackberry. If you want me to answer, write the text of the email where it friggin belongs, not in the subject line.

The author is not suggesting to cram a substantial paragraph into the subject line. That comment comes directly after a suggestion to limit the subject to 72 characters or less.

If your blackberry cannot handle 72 characters that's a mail reader limitation most people don't have.

This, combined with a polite [EOM] tag, makes subject-messages much more rapid than writing a full email. I have much more rage at people who type e-mails with nonsensical subject lines that are just as long than their body content.

Would you rather have someone email you with:

1) Subj: Can you print an extra copy of the Excel for 10AM? Thanks! [EOM]

2) Subj: Quick request for you before our meeting today Body: Can you print an extra copy of the Excel for 10AM?

Personally, I much prefer the first.

Personally, I much prefer the first.

Do most people know what [EOM] means? I'd never seen it before. Given the context I guessed it means "end of message" or "entirety of message", but were I to have first seen it as part of an E-mail I'd have no idea and would just go read the body.

That just goes back to the far more fundamental point of writing emails (or anything else) for your audience.

One should always write for their audience, not some given set of rules.

I've been EOMing for about 2 years. Its a great tip, I recommend it.

No, I don't think most people have seen it before, but they seem to figure it out and several of my clients have adopted the habit. No one has been annoyed, or confused.

Getting over my fear of people reading too much into my email tone has been a huge productivity boost in general.

Eom or n/t seems like the kind of thing that you figure out the very first time you see it.

The first time I saw it, I thought they forgot to type a message.

EOM? Ever since the start of time I have been using n/t for this. n/t = no text.

There are plenty of people who do this and I would much rather have the subject in the body as well, as my android client will put the subject at the top, a place I'm unlikely to look.

It probably stems from the fact that I visually filter by email address more than subject line.

Couldn't agree more. Let's look at the majority of email someone gets paired with the average workflow of actually reading email. 1. mail comes in, 2. glance at subject. {insert personal workflow.. pause, sort, filter, instant reply, et c.} 3. open email. now, what takes longer, the expectation of seeing real content and processing it or the shock that someone just put the entire email in the subject line and figuring out what to do next with it.

special place in hell +1.

I put a copy of the subject line inside the body. I think it's good style to ignore the presence of a title or subject in the body of any text.

Yes and no. If the entire content of the email is something like "Can you please add me to the new repository for X?", I have no problem with that being the subject line with a blank (or "Thanks!") body. I'm with you on paragraph-style subject lines though.

> If the entire email fits in the subject, put it in the subject.

> If you think that's rude, it's not.

Maybe not rude, but awkward nonetheless when you're trying to reply to it.

It's really annoying on my android device, especially when people put a link in the subject line.

I wish the point about adding and removing people to the thread had some more rules, like:

* if people are added to the thread, the body of e-mail should start with [adding A and B so they can {do X}];

* if people are removed from the thread, they should be BCCed and the first line of the e-mail should read [BCCing C and D for now to minimize the noise].

Also, can't really agree with the breaking up e-mails point. It's usually costlier to follow extremely branchy thread than to filter the relevant points from a linear thread.

[edited for formatting]

I get annoyed by people that are so anal about email. I don't disagree that these rules help. It's just that It really seems like these kinds of rules miss the forest for the trees.

The ultimate criteria of a good email should be if the recipient can easily read and understand the email, not whether you're quoting people properly or using bullet points rather than paragraphs. Sure those things help, but it's possible to write a good email that breaks all these rules or a bad email that follows these rules to the letter.

And if you can do that successfully without help, then more power to you, but lots of us need things to be given explicitly to wrap our weak minds around.

Why? Don't you receive email? What kinds of emails do you like to receive?

I receive emails, and I know what kind of emails I like to receive. However, I am not particularly representative (find me a mathematician who is), so there is little value in extrapolate my desires to others.

Why not? There's nothing wrong with having a different approach, nor does being a mathematician necessarily make you bad at email.

You don't know anybody who gets offended by things that you don't get offended by?

How do you explain to people that emails regarding leftover popcorn downstairs in the office and the like are not "high importance"? This gets my every single time. I see the red flag and think interesting this has to be important otherwise why would they have added the flag and then sure enough get fooled every time. Perhaps I should consider the high importance flag to really mean this email is not important.

At my first programming job we had a solution for this. Everything generated by computer was filtered into a folder named for the application or mailing list that cause the email to be sent to us. My entire team did this. It meant that any truly important email from individuals or management ended up in our inbox instead of a folder. I had an additional filter set up so that anything labeled "high importance" was dropped into an "X-Important" folder. I would read those after I got bored reading the Marketing, Art Department and Support mailing lists.

It's not a "High Importance" flag, that's just what the label says. Evidence suggests it's really a label that says "I came from a secretary or HR". Why we need a special flag for these things in our email clients I don't know, but here we are.

As someone who answers a lot of e-mails every day (VLC support in my free-time), I wish people would actually follow those kind of rules...

Though, I wish there was a point on politeness and about the "tone" of an e-mail.

This is a great suggestion. I'll add this in to the article.

Politeness is so important that I've set my email "signature" to "Thanks!"

More often than not, it's appropriate to leave it in.

There's more to being polite than setting your signature to "Thanks!" In fact, it's more likely to come off as inauthentic fluff than actual politeness. Which is more polite?

    If you frobulate the widgets one more time, 
    I'll kill you.


    I know I'm being a pain about this, but could you
    please not frobulate the widgets anymore?

Dont underestimate the importance of "inauthentic fluff" -- such is the basis of courtesy and grace. I think dropping the fluff because is seems inauthentic (whatever that means) is THE basic social interaction mistake made by programmers and other math-y people.

I'm not arguing against having manners, I'm just saying that they're not enough. You can't say something rude and then make it all better with a token "please" or "thank you".

Having thanks in the signature can be really irritating sometimes though. An example would go something like:


Can you do this inconvenient thing that is a lot of work because I kind of slacked off a little this week.


Only made worse by the use of "TIA", which says, "Not only am I presumptuous but I can't even be bothered to express gratitude with a complete sentence."

Could I also suggest a modification about the 'Reply to all or reply to sender?'. The advice should be modified in case of mailing-lists.

That doesn't fool very many people, and makes an especially sour impression on the people who know you are faking.

Interesting. I type all that out afresh each time. I deliberately don't correct any typos, so that regular listeners know it's been added by hand. The personal touch, or too much artifice? I could never decide.

I never put an exclamation mark in, though!


* to3m 8

The bigger issue in this case is that Outlook's quoting style is so thoroughly broken that you are unable to do inline replies within Outlook.

Outlook also forces the user to type above the previous email because of it's non-existent quoting support...

If you set Outlook up to convert to plain text, you get normal '>' style quoting when you reply. It also has the advantage that anyone replying to your mail sends in plain text by default as well. http://support.microsoft.com/kb/831607

That's not an advantage. We've lost the "email should be short plain text" war, and we have to deal with real email which is coloured, formatted, fonted, has images and attachments and signatures and so on.

Auto-switching email like that to plain text makes it difficult to read, screws up the layout, and loses information entirely.

Each to their own, I suppose. I mail a _lot_ of copy-pasta from shell output, so not having to switch to plaintext manually saves time. To be honest the sort of mail that's multicoloured / multifont / etc. generally isn't worth reading, let alone replying to; but that's just my experience.

I have my Mail.app set to only send plain text emails, people still reply to me using Outlook using non-plaintext email.

Is this still true for newer versions? Crap, people have been complaining about this for so long, you'd think they would have fixed it by now.

Switching to text format is not a solution. There can be good reasons to use different fonts and layouts in an email (for example to format code or diagnostic output differently from the text, or to highlight things..).

I'd add one thing to this list: take the effort to regularly summarize the results of complex and long email threads, most especially when they are highly technical.

State assumptions plainly. Sum-up results. State action items bluntly. Add assumptions and results from in-person meetings. Don't force people to follow the convoluted and disjointed ramblings of a long email thread in order to get up to speed. Not only does it waste time and effort it also doesn't guarantee that everyone ends up on the same page, as many email threads on complex topics often include blind alleys, vague assertions, and abandoned options.

My screenwriter friend used to get into arguments with me whenever I replied to her points inline. She saw my "chopping up her email" as an act of cruelty. :-)

We have reached the bottom of the barrel when how to send an email is on the front page of hacker news

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox article from 1998 on "Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines" is still very relevant. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/980906.html

Now: how do you politely tell people to follow these guidelines?

Codify these guidelines into a "Standard". Give it a name, say "Email Efficiency Specification". In your automated footer, add:

"This email was composed to comply with the Email Efficiency Specification: http://eespec.org

Once it gets some traction, have profs at b-schools / PHBs at corps mandate it. To sell the idea, call it the 7th sigma or something.

There is this old RFC (from 1995):


It doesn't seem to have had much effect, sadly.

I used to use the academic style with academics, and the clunky style with everyone else.

Now, I just use the academic style with everyone.

And, slowly, it starts to catch on.

In reality, I think we'll have to teach proper email composition in grade school before it becomes standard.

My favourite anti-TOFU (German for Text Oben Fullquote Unten, text above, fullquote below) educational signature is:

  Because it sounds backwards.
  > Why should I not use the style?
  >> Text oben, Fullquote unten. 
  >>> What is TOFU?
But educational email signatures only go so far. I personally consider the struggle against TOFU lost.

> If there are things that the recipient must do, place them up top instead of burying them in the body.

Amen to that. At cruxly.com, we have figured out a way to detect just that and give an alternate view of messages.

Some of this is good advice that I wish people would follow. I receive a fair amount of email asking questions that are answered on our website.

Other points are subjective, or opinions. Most people I write to expect that I will have a conversational tone, not a terse IM style or a 'list of points'.

I do not like subject only emails. When I have such a message to send, I copy it to the body.

Most of these 'rules' simply won't work everywhere. Stop getting hung up on your (or their) particular format.

- Respect the recipient's time. Be brief as possible, but not vague.

My golden rule: "people’s time is precious"


Five sentences? Not enough for me. And everyone else on mailing lists.

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