Declutter your email subject lines

Long ago in a town far, far away, I was an undergraduate student. I had one teacher, professor O’Brien, who insisted that his students communicate with him via email. Back then, I sent and received at most two messages per week.

Today, you can put a pair of zeros behind that number.

I’m sure I’m not alone. For many, reading emails is more of a chore than a convenience. One thing you can do to make things easier on your recipients is to write clear, uncluttered subject lines. It’s not very difficult, but can go a long way to making this often irksome task more pleasant and efficient.

First and foremost, keep your subject lines short. According to Business Insider, most computer-based email applications only show around 60 characters in email subject lines. On smart phones, mail apps show maybe half that number. Full sentences won’t really work to meet those restrictions, so consider key words or ideas. Focus on the heart of what you’re going to say. And, to be clear, “Hey!” is not a worthwhile subject.

Since mobile phones give you so little to work with, get the most important words out first (often it’s a verb). “Cancel lunch Friday,” for example, is just 19 characters, the crux of the message, and “cancel” is featured first.

With that point made, it’s time for some decluttering. We aren’t shooting for a diagrammable sentence here, so implied words may be sacrificed. This isn’t always a good idea, of course, but if you’re pushing the limit, feel free to jettison an “although” or even an “after,” if you can without changing the meaning.

There are a few people I communicate with regularly who have a habit of indicating whether or I not I need to respond in the subject itself. For example, “no response needed” or “please respond.” I don’t like this practice, though I know many do. I think it’s just extra words for me to process, but I also understand that if you’re skimming your inbox, it can help identify which messages need attention and which can be set aside. I’ll leave this one up to you.

If your recipient understands the meaning, a message that is completely conveyed in a subject line can be ended with an EOM (end of message). This is good for simple status messages like “Finished (EOM)” and “Meet me in lobby in 5 (EOM).” It saves your reader time by knowing they don’t even have to open the email. If you have more than 25 characters, however, it’s best to keep the subject line brief and put a longer message in the body of an email. Anything longer than that and your reader might have to open the email anyway to see the whole subject line.

Finally, I have two pet peeves I want to share with you. Unless you’re aiming to be funny, don’t start a sentence in the subject and then finish it in the body. Typically I din’t know that’s what’s going on, and I read the body as a fragment sentence, which is confusing for a few seconds until I interpret your setup. I’ve seen this work where the subject is the setup and the body is the punchline, but that’s rare.

And, this should go without saying, don’t use all caps. Slogging through email is annoying enough; yelling doesn’t help.

Sometimes I long for the days when I was sitting in the library at Marywood University, that orange cursor blinking at me while I banged out a simple, three-sentence message to Dr. O’Brien. Two messages per week? I could live with that.

5 Comments for “Declutter your email subject lines”

  1. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    Acronyms in email subjects cause confusion unless both parties are familiar with the acronym in question. I once sent an email to my hubby and he replied, typing only “ACK” before the original subject line.

    I understood ACK to be an interjection that one yelled before going to panic stations. I immediately phoned my hubby and asked what the problem was. He explained (while laughing) that “ACK” was the military short form for “ACKNOWLEDGED” and everything was just fine and to proceed with what I had outlined in the email.

  2. posted by Mark Harrison on

    My pet peeve is that messages from my childrens’ school inevitably have the subject line “A message from the Headmaster.”

    I’ve taken to replying to them, titled “A message from Mr Harrison”.

  3. posted by Larry Feeney on

    You didn’t mention the most irksome practice of all: let’s ban the “Reply” button! There is nothing more irksome than to receive a message like “Thanks for the status report” followed by 8 paragraphs of the original message, copied and sent again. If you must use “Reply,” please learn to use the “Delete” key as well.

  4. posted by Becky on

    At our work, we have a system that our subject lines start with the the location and then sub-location then subject (“Market Square, Taco Bell – broken fryer repair” for example). This makes filing (and later retrieving them for report writing) much easier even if sometimes the subject lines are fairly long.

  5. posted by Josie on

    It’s not necessarily a good idea to delete the body of the message in the reply. Depending on what you’re doing, especially if the emails may later be relied upon in court, you should leave the original message beneath your reply so that it’s clear what you’re replying to and why. Otherwise it isn’t in context, and that can be manipulated.

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