Refining Your E-Mail Etiquette Can Help Control ‘Inbox’ Clutter


I am spending most of my holiday season handling--reading, deleting, answering--about 3,500 e-mails, and right now I am about halfway through. As I read all these e-mails, I am thinking of lots of advice for the writers.

Of course, I write from the position of someone who already has broken one of the cardinal tenets of e-mail: Answer your mail.

So please take this column in the spirit intended: Someone far from perfect is trying to pass along some helpful advice. Shameful as it is, my poor example might be a taste of the future: At the rate things are going, everyone will have too much mail pretty soon.


Your challenge is to make it easier for them to read and handle your e-mail first. So you need to think not just about what you are writing but about what the recipient is reading.

Assume you’re writing to Alice. Alice is very busy. When she gets an e-mail about “board meeting,” she’s not sure which board it is about.

When she gets a message from or or even, she is puzzled. If the mail says, “Yes, it’s a great idea. Please follow up and I’ll let Juan know,” she is even more puzzled. What was the idea? Who’s Juan? And what should she do to follow up?

Now, you could say that Alice should be more organized; she should remember the people she corresponds with, and, in short, she should be less like you, me and most normal people.

But you can’t fix Alice. All you can do is make it easier for her to deal with you than with her other correspondents. Here’s how:

* Use a meaningful, specific subject line.

Just as a book needs a cover with a title, an e-mail message needs a subject line. “Hello” might be enough for your mother, but for most people, it’s annoying.


Tell the reader what it’s about--a meeting, an introduction, an opportunity. And if it’s not about anything, perhaps you shouldn’t send it.

And if there’s a date involved, put the date in the subject line. That helps to set the proper level of precision and urgency. If there’s a location involved, state the location.

One common mistake, aside from leaving the subject line blank, is using “Message for Alice.” Alice knows it’s for her; it’s in her inbox.

Another mistake is using anything vague, such as “Hello,” “Hi,” “Request” (for what?), “Important” (let the reader judge). However, “URGENT to sign Wizard Corp. documents” is specific and meaningful.

Once you’ve told Alice what it’s about, tell her what you want her to do. Should she confirm the date? Read the business plan with a view to investing? Read the resume to proofread it? Send you money (if she’s your mother)?

And when do you want action? This is a tricky one. You want an answer as soon as possible, but you don’t want someone to think, “Oh well, I already missed the deadline.” The best approach is to be as specific as possible: “The sooner the better, but the winner will be picked on Monday.”


You know what you want, but Alice, as she skims through her e-mails, is not going to think very hard to figure it out. She might save yours to come back to later. And if its subject line is vague, she might not notice it again for a long, long time.

* Keep the history.

When Alice reads your mail, she might have forgotten the one that you are answering (which she sent you long ago). Most mail tools automatically save and include the text that you are answering, but not all do. Some mails that have gone back and forth a few times can get unwieldy, so use your judgment; cut off the bottom, leaving just enough to establish the context.

* Limit the use of attachments.

Attachments are useful for sending large, formatted documents but not as a substitute for the regular text of an e-mail. It takes several seconds to open an attachment; often, Alice instead uses those seconds to handle the next mail, planning to open the attachments later.

If you do send an attachment, be sure to explain what it is: a news release (including what it’s about), a business plan, a resume.

Finally, these days, attachments might carry viruses. So Alice doesn’t open anything that she doesn’t know is meant for her specifically: a business plan with an introduction or a product description, for example. And she simply does not open any .exe files without asking the sender to confirm what it is. So far, she has avoided getting any viruses. The old rule--don’t open attachments from strangers--is no longer good enough because most messages come from people who do know you: They got infected, and now they are inadvertently sending out viruses to all their friends.

* Use a sig file.

You might not have much choice about your e-mail address, but you can help people figure out who you are with a good signature file. This is a small block of text that automatically follows each mail you send. It should give some idea of who you are--full name, affiliation, phone number (if you want people to have it), perhaps a slogan. (Mine is “Always make new mistakes!”) Consider it your virtual business card; it lets people know who is writing to them.


* Check your spelling.

Why not look as good as you can? Since Alice doesn’t know much about you, she’ll form her impressions on whatever information she has. She might be forgiving if you’re writing in a foreign language, but do what you can.

Esther Dyson edits the technology newsletter Release 1.0 and is the author of the best-selling book “Release 2.0.” Comments should be directed to Esther Dyson at