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The Subject is Writing Subject Lines

subject linesSeveral weeks ago, Ed Gandia, who is a writer you might want to follow, sent an email that I think was at least partly about writing the subject lines of emails. The way I remember it the main idea was that your subject line is critically important, particular when you’re working with clients. His recommendation was as I recall that we write those important tiny bits of writing in a way that makes a connection with the recipient.

While I like the idea of emailing you with a subject that’s something like, “Mary, I really liked your article on Entrepreneur” or “Thanks for the great job on my website,” there’s another use for email subject lines that I don’t think I’ve seen written about.

Make subject lines useful

Even more important than connecting I think, is being sure your email subject lines are useful to the reader. We’re all buried in email and when subject lines are vague, or even worse, duplicated because they are picked up from a previous email, it becomes hopeless to try and sort them out except by opening them one at a time. Annoying to say the least.

Here’s one example. A client recently emailed me six files attached in an email. The only subject was “Ok?” If we hadn’t talked an hour or so before he sent them I might not have had any idea that what the email was about. Of course, he was asking if I could read the documents – it would have been much more understandable if he had put something like “Let me know if docs give you any problems. eom” in the subject line. BTW eom stands for end of message and when used often means the email itself doesn’t have to be opened.

Email chains

I have another client who instead of writing a new subject line will reply to an old email of mine and not bother editing the old subject line. As a result I’m often expecting something about a past project rather than something new.

It can get even worse when there are multiple people involved in an email conversation. As a rule no one changes the subject line so I end up with a dozen or so emails all with the same subject line even though the conversation is evolving.

For example, someone recently sent an email around our community asking us for our opinion about an issue. The original subject was something like “What’s your thinking about paving the parking lot?” A dozen or so emails later the discussion had changed to the practicality of using those paving blocks with holes that allow plants to grow through. I started adding “/Anne’s opinion” when I was expressing my thoughts on the theory that some might want to know who was speaking up about what. I still think it’s a good idea but it sure hasn’t caught on here.

Subject lines are sort of like headlines

In many ways the subject line of an email is not unlike the headline on an article. It’s meant to attract attention by giving the reader some notion of what the email contains. That’s, in my opinion, only polite, and it’s more likely the reader will actually open and read the email. Incidentally, this can be done while you make a connection.

What’s your opinion on writing email subject lines?

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