Subject Lines


As someone who sends and receives dozens of emails a day, I’m kind of fussy when it comes to email composition. I hate top-posted replies, though I’ve come to grips with the reality that I’m in the extreme minority. I do occasionally top-post a reply when I compose it on my phone, where the interface does not support easy inline replies. Beyond that, though, I always edit my replies to post inline.

I despise long email signatures. There’s little more annoying than receiving a one line email followed by a fourteen line email signature. And don’t get me started on the confidentiality messages appended to the bottom of emails sent from business accounts! Also annoying are the “sent from my [mobile phone]” email signatures. I don’t care if you used your iPhone or your Blackberry to compose your message to me.

But what’s really been on my mind of late are subject lines. Writing a good, meaningful subject line seems to be a lost art. One of the users I support never types a subject. Every time I get an email from him, the subject is “<No Subject>”, giving me no clue whatsoever as to the relative importance of his message. He could be asking for help, or simply sharing an unrelated picture – I have no idea until I open his message.

This works to his extreme disadvantage, of course. I often prioritize what messages I’ll read in my inbox based on the subject line. If I get a couple messages at the same time, I’ll skim the subject lines looking for things that need immediate attention. I’ll read and address any such items. Then I’ll get around to reading the “<No Subject>” messages, and dealing with them.

Another user I support often describes his entire problem to me using nothing more than the subject line. I’ve come to appreciate that: it helps me do my job more effectively, and I usually end up providing better, and more timely, support to him. Now if only I could get him to disable his 14 line email signature…

When sending personal emails to friends and family, I usually use a single word or short phrase to provide an indication of the message’s contents. I don’t want to send a “<No Subject>” message, nor do I want to communicate solely through the subject line. So I try to set the tone of the email through the subject line.

Thinking more about this issue, though, I begin to realize that I almost never use the subject of an email later. I don’t browse through my email archive looking for that message with a specific title. Instead, I search for relevant keywords. Only then do I skim the subject lines of the search results to filter for what I’m looking for.

Do you use subject lines? Do you care about their contents?

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