Tuesday, November 11, 2014

In Praise of the E-Mail Subject Line

Yesterday was the first big snow of the year, complete with terrible traffic. I spent enough time in meetings to melt my brain. So it’s possible I’m a little loopy, but I’d like to devote today’s blog post to the humble e-mail subject line.

I love a good subject line. I also spend a ridiculous amount of time reading and responding to e-mail messages from authors, illustrators, photographers, agents, and colleagues. While I’m going to look at all my messages no matter what, a good subject line helps me in a few different ways:
  • I can better prioritize
  • I’m in the right frame of mind when I read the message because I already have a sense of what it’s about
  • I can find the message again later if I need to refer back to something one of us said (sure, my e-mail program has a “search” function, but it’s far from perfect)
To get at what a good subject line is, perhaps I first need to spend a moment on bad subject lines, those lost opportunities for helpful communication. Blank subject line? Not helpful. Sender’s name in subject line? I can already see that in the “from” field. My name? I know that already too. URGENT? I’m going to look at this right away, heart pounding. But URGENT doesn’t exactly mean the same thing to everyone. Do you have a new submission you really want me to see right away or did your house just burn down? “Question”? Okay, but what kind of question? Book title? That can be helpful, but can you tell me a little more?

Let’s make up a hypothetical book called I Love Cake. Here are some subject lines related to the project.

I Love Cake/completed manuscript
I Love Cake/photo ideas
I Love Cake/revision timeline
I Love Cake/phone call to discuss revision
I Love Cake/cover design options
I Love Cake/comments on final proofs-DUE FRIDAY
I Love Cake/great review
I Love Cake/award news

All right, I think you get the idea. Does anyone else out there put way too much thought into e-mail subject lines? Anyone have any tips of their own to share? I’d love to hear them!

3 comments:

  1. It's not so much loving a great subject line as it is hating a bad one. If soeone's thoughts aren't organized enough to provide a snapshot of the contents, I anticipate extra work on my part.

    One of my favorite approaches for micro emails is putting the message in the subject line followed by n/t to indicate the email has no text. I really hate the combination of useless subject line and email text of a word or two.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Using n/t is a good idea. I've also heard of using EOM at the end of a subject line to signal "end of message."

      Delete
  2. I received an email this afternoon with the subject line "Am I fired?" , hmm, I have to open that one right away- and no she was not fired.

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