BitDepth 581 - June 19

Writing an e-mail has become the most commonplace form of communication. So why do so many people do it so badly?
Composing the digital missive

Why is this so hard to do? An e-mail with a subject, to the point response and quoted text makes virtual life just a little easier.

You're probably thinking that this is a pretty thin premise for a column. You dash off e-mails, you don't compose them. That's the sort of thing you did with laid paper and envelopes back in the era of fountain pens and postage stamps.
There's no denying that e-mail's immediacy demands economy in writing. Some e-mail exchanges I've had on a hot project have distilled down from a sentence to a phrase over a matter of minutes.
"Is it ready?"
"Gimme an hour."
"So at 7 then?"
"730, now lemme work."

It would be courtly, though a little insane to expect communication to roll back to the days of civil correspondence, letters that had a format and a proper sequence of announcement; the date, then the recipient followed by the obligatory "Dear..."
It's all so last century. Just thinking about it makes me think not of 1990 but of the Tudors and big pens with flowery shafts.
But then, you haven't seen my in-box. So here are some thoughts on the ways you can make your e-mails more effective and more usefully, more readable.

What's it all about?
You can't click the send button on an e-mail without telling the message where to go and the mail address you're sending from will automatically become part of the message. But you can fire off an e-mail without a subject and that makes managing incoming mail just a little more annoying for someone who receives an e-mail with no hint about its contents.
Every e-mail in-box displays messages as a scrolling list that you can customise, but most normally default to showing the date that the message was received, the sender and the subject.

A message with no subject is an irritating curiosity, and it's one that's amplified if the e-mail starts a "thread" a related series of exchanges on the subject matter which can quickly end up with in-box entries like "Re: Re: Re:" which explain nothing at all. Take two extra seconds and let folks know what the e-mail is about with a brief subject title.
Conversely, don't drop a long sentence into the subject line just because what you have to say is brief. Those long sentences get clipped in most in-box views and can end up as mysterious as blank entries.

It's still about words.
Nobody expects courtly English in an e-mail, but ease up people nah. Observe the basics of communication in a message by writing sentences that have a noun, a verb and an object. If you're older than 18 or writing to someone older than 35, back off the instant messaging contractions. I wnt to rd yr msg nt dcde it.

I shouldn't have to say this to people who can afford a keyboard, but don't send messages in all-caps. It isn't shouting, as most folks offended by messages THAT LOOK LIKE THIS might observe, but there is a reason typography is a craft. Many artists over centuries took their time to create typefaces with capitals and common letters that read well together and while there are some types designed for headlines that use only as capitals, most typefaces get harder to read in long runs of capital letters.

Careful quotations
Quotations are one of the most useful features of e-mail. Select a message and hit reply and you get a new message with all the information of the first one into which you can add your comments and observations.
Unfortunately, even this wonderful feature can be abused. I routinely get messages in which eight paragraphs of text are quoted with the comments right down at the bottom, so I have to scroll through everything I've already written to read two sentences right at the end.

Quote effectively. Extract the crucial bits of the original message by selecting them before hitting that reply button. If the extract is longer than a paragraph, consider breaking it up and interspersing your comments between the quoted text.
So please, tighten up those wonderful words of inspiration, hilarious jokes and insightful tidbits of web trivia before sending them along to me. I really don't want to scroll through 16 pages of forwarded addresses before deleting your e-mail about the miracle of kindness.
Out of space here, but visit my
blog for more e-mail preparation tips.
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