6 tips for good email message subject lines

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Writing good subject lines in your email messages is important. As email continues to serve as a primary communication tool for many people, and as our inboxes are filled up with ridiculous amounts of stuff that we may or may not need to actually act on, we will all benefit from writing good subject lines that save time and improve productivity.

My suggested tips for success:

  1. Don't leave the subject line blank. When you send someone an email with a blank subject line, they are lost. They have no idea what the message is about. Even if they know you, even if they're expecting an email from you, there will be that moment where they just don't know what's gonna happen when they open your message. That kind of uncertainty breeds fear and paranoia, and you don't want to be a part of that, do you?
  2. Don't put the name of the person you're sending the message to as the subject line AND don't put your name as the subject line. The sender/recipient information is already embedded in the message in these handy little fields called the "To:" line and the "From:" line. You need not repeat them, and it's a waste of subject line space.
  3. Don't replace the subject line of a reply with something completely different (unless the topic has really completely changed). Even if the subject line is no longer completely accurate or timely (e.g. "feedback about this afternoon" still being used 3 days later), it's still an important cue to the reader that tunes them into the ongoing conversation quickly. When you obliterate it just because you can, you make your recipient work harder. In some cases, mail reading programs also take advantage of the repeated subject line for better sorting and searching. One possible exception: if you're forwarding on a message to someone for the first time, you can enhance the subject line for their clarity of understanding.
  4. Be specific but concise, don't use generic words. Your goal is to help the recipient know in about 5-10 words exactly what they can expect to find in the content of your message. If it's a request that requires action, say so. If it's an FYI, say so. Use nouns and verbs that will evoke meaning, and don't use words that just take up space (e.g. "a message about...").
  5. If it's time sensitive or high priority, indicate that. If someone gets a lot of email, they may not read your message right away, so don't wait until the message body to indicate your expectations for how they will prioritize it. If you need a response by a certain date, tack that on to the end of the subject line, e.g. "reply by 10/5/08". If it's just generally high priority, you can say that instead (and in addition to using your mail program's priority flag, which not all other mail programs recognize), e.g "high priority".
  6. Be careful about words that may be caught by junk mail filters. Sadly, a modern consideration for email sending is whether or not your message will seem suspicious to automated spam filters. If you use words that reference items of a sexual nature, pharmaceutical solutions, or money-making opportunities, know that your message may be more likely to be delayed. In some cases, your recipient may not ever see it.

Of course, efficiency isn't always the only consideration in writing email subject lines. You may be writing to be clever or mysterious, or to brighten someone's day, in which case you can happily throw out the above and I promise not to call you out on it.

How do those work for you? Do you have other tips and suggestions to add?

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