Writing Better Email: Subject Lines

“Reminder.” “FYI.” “Got a Sec?” “Event.” “Announcement.” “Special Request from Sentyu Emaiyle.”

How often do you get emails with things like this in the subject line? I do, often, and I have to admit I’ve sent emails with useless subject lines. You probably get a lot of email that isn’t particularly useful, but one way to improve your use of email is to send emails with better, more informative subject lines. This is especially true when you’re sending mass emails to lots and lots of different people representing lots and lots of different constituencies. “Reminder”–of what? Are you wasting valuable screen real estate by not being more direct about what you’re reminding people of? Yes, it only takes a click to find out, but just as enough drops will fill an ocean enough clicks of a mouse to find out about the contents of emails with opaque subject lines will add up to substantial time over the long run. Respect the fact that email allows you to treat your colleagues’ attention as if it were a common pool resource. Norms for managing those resources are still evolving, but here are a couple of things I’m going to adopt to try to improve my emails:

1. Clickless Emails. Can I find a way to fit everything into the subject line? If so, I will so as to avoid creating more clicks for those with whom I’m corresponding.

2. A Clear Idea of What People Are Going to Get When They Click. I’m going to try to write email subject lines that give people a very clear idea of what to expect when they open the email. So long, “Reminder,” “FYI,” “Announcement,” and even “Opportunity for Students.” The latter will become “Student Opportunity: ‘Liberty, Democracy, and Decisions’ Seminar at Rhodes, 2/24-2/26.”

3. Fewer Emails. “But this will make email more costly!” Precisely. One of the problems is that email is way too cheap. It allows people to encroach on others’ time and attention at very low cost. By employing a couple of simple tricks, you can help reduce the flow of clunky and inefficiently-communicated information.

4. Less URGENT! Email. If I need an answer RIGHT NOW, then email isn’t the way to do it. There are two ways to handle this. First, don’t things build up until they become crises. This is, of course, much easier said than done, but it’s something toward which we should strive. Second, knock on the door or pick up the phone. If it’s truly URGENT!!! URGENT!!!, then it’s probably worth dealing with face-to-face. If it doesn’t need to be handled face-to-face, then it probably isn’t really “urgent.”

How can we make email better and more useful? What subject lines are most likely to get read?

A lot of what I know about email I’ve learned from Jason Womack (disclosure: for whom I’ve done some work before). Here’s Jason on subject lines. Here’s my “Quick Guide to Email.”


By: Art Carden