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How to keep out of trouble with your e-mail
Rules and etiquette for using Internet electronic mail
by Derek K. Miller
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At the June 2003 meeting the Editors' Association of Canada's B.C. Branch executive (of which I'm a member), my colleagues asked me to send out some basic rules for e-mail, and particularly e-mail groups and lists. The list turned out to be pretty big, so I'm posting it here too.
- Keep messages as short as possible. That doesn't mean that all e-mail messages have to be short (or I'd be in trouble!), but that in e-mail even more than in print, you should say only what you need to say. Get rid of extraneous material whenever possible. Other tips in this list may help in that attempt.
- Make your paragraphs shorter than you would in print. If your paragraphs exceed 7 or 8 lines, look at them to see if you can break them somewhere in the middle.
- Avoid jargon terms or abbreviations unless you're sure all your recipients understand them.
- Salutations are generally unnecessary if you quote wisely, as described below. If you're replying to a particular person but sending the reply to a whole mailing list, it might be useful to include that person's name, e.g. "Lee, I think you might have missed a comma there."
- Sign your messages. As with written text, informal e-mails, particularly between individuals, might make do with a simple "- Derek" or even "D." at the end of a message. Otherwise, try to include at least your full name and e-mail address. For full signatures, keep them fairly short. The old rule was 4 lines or less, but I don't follow that. If you're coming up on 10 lines, including witty quotation, that's pushing it, especially if the message you're sending is only 3 lines. Use the same rules for referencing e-mail and web addresses I note below.
- Use point form when you can, but use hyphens - or asterisks * as bullets, not actual bullet characters (because of the plain-text rule below). Don't try any tricky reverse-indenting unless you really know what you're doing.
- Extremes to remember: UPPER CASE MEANS SHOUTING! Multiple exclamation marks are bad!!!! The occasional smiley face is good, but too many make you look vapid and over-cute. :) :) ;) :P
- Use plain-text characters for emphasis: _underscores_ for italics, *asterisks* for boldface, and UPPER CASE only for heavy emphasis (see above).
- Use plain text. Avoid HTML, rich text (RTF), and non-ASCII characters. To put that in non-jargon form, if your e-mail program lets you use boldface, italics, colours, characters with accents or that you otherwise can't see on a North American English keyboard (such as en- and em-dashes or curly quotes), turn those features off. Check the options for your e-mail program and either disable all rich-text and HTML features or examine the address book and set your mailing lists so that you send only plain text messages to them.
E-mail sent to multiple recipients should be plain text because there's a good chance anything else will get gorped up in transit or display poorly at the other end. While you might see pretty boldface and other formatting, your recipients often see raw HTML markup code, bizarre characters, or, in bad cases, nothing at all. If you need the flexibility that HTML provides, build a web page and send the address to your recipients.
- Avoid attachments. Many mailing lists strip them out, and large files can really clog the e-mail pipe for anyone with a dialup connection. If you need to send an attachment, send it only to those who really need it, and if it is at all large (more than maybe 100 K), check with them first to see if they actually want it and are ready to receive it.
In particular, don't send .exe files or other programs—many people suspect (rightly) that they might be viruses, and spam filters often delete them before recipients even see them. Sending attachments successfully seems to be the hardest thing for most people in the world of e-mail, so if you do send one, be prepared for the recipient not to receive it properly, and to do some troubleshooting. Again, it's often better to provide a download address at a website instead of sending the file in e-mail.
- If possible, display your messages in a fixed-width font such as Courier New, Monaco, or ProFont, rather than a variable (proportional) font such as Times, Arial, Verdana, or Lucida. This isn't critical, but some people still assume fixed-width fonts for sending semi-tabular information in plain-text mail, and it also helps you enforce 72- or 64-character lines if you need to.
When sending plain text, the font you choose has no effect on what your recipients see—it's purely for your own viewing.
- Make links clickable. When referencing e-mail or web addresses, make sure they are cleanly separated from other text. Web addresses (URLs) should sit on a separate line if possible, and be prepended with the http:// identifier to help ensure they're "clickable" at the other end, while e-mail addresses do not require the mailto: prefix:
When putting e-mail and web addresses inline into a sentence (or, in fact, anytime), you might wish to enclose them in <angle brackets>, especially to avoid problems where they might absorb surrounding punctuation into becoming underlined and clickable, such as at the end of a sentence: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Angle brackets are also useful for long URLs that break across lines:
- Use sensible subject lines. If you're starting a conversation, make the subject line short (maximum 40-50 characters if you can) but informative. "Subject: Billie Burke" doesn't tell me much. Has she been fired? Promoted? Is she dead? Is it her birthday? Did she have a baby? Is she away from her desk for 15 minutes? Are we clarifying that it's "Burke" with an e? "Subject: Birthday card for Billie Burke" helps a lot.
If you're participating in an already-going conversation, keep the subject line the same (unless the original one was terribly inappropriate), with a "Re:" in front, unless the topic has changed and the conversation thread needs a new name. You may truncate long subject lines—especially any ending bits referencing a previous subject such as "(Was: Quilts and comforters)"—and should delete multiple "Re:", "FW:", and other such repeated prefixes. Follow any list rules. The Editors' Association of Canada's private national e-mail forum, for instance, has subject-area conventions such as "CHAT:" and "HUMOUR:" that help people sort messages.
- Quote sparingly. Most e-mail programs have the nasty habit of quoting the entire message you are forwarding, or to which you are replying, either by putting a huge block of text with > symbols on each line before your reply, or by appending a copy of the entire preceding message to the end of your own.
While software developers seem to think that this helps maintain context, it usually ends up being more annoying and confusing than anything else. It's best to quote the very minimum necessary, using > symbols, and to intersperse your own comments appropriately, as you would when quoting in a printed manuscript. For example, someone named Marian might write:
On 25 June 2003, Johnny Starks <email@example.com>
> Fred <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
>> I think this argument is totally full
>> of hooey, Johnny-Boy!
> I must respectfully disagree, Mr.
Both Johnny and Fred are wrong. The argument has booth
hooey and non-hooey elements. In addition, check this
On 26 June 2003, Sternly McBoss <email@example.com>
> Please try to keep offensive language
> such as "hooey" out of company e-mail
> communications. Remember, we are watching
> your every move.
Mr. McBoss's warning certainly makes me think --
Also make sure that the number of > quote marks is appropriate:
>>>>>>> Lines like this probably shouldn't be there --
>>>>>>> you can usually remove several levels of quote
>>>>>>> marks so that the latest one has just a single >
>>>>>>> bracket in front.
The key here is to avoid quoting anything but the most relevant text from the previous writer(s), and interspersing it with your own comments, rather than (at its most extreme) quoting a 95-line e-mail and then putting "Me too!" at the top.
- Reply only to those who need it. Do not "Reply All" reflexively. Send to a single recipient whenever possible. Before replying to a mailing list, ask yourself seriously whether your reply would be better going just to one person, or to a few, or not at all. Actually read the To:, Cc:, and Bcc: fields in your outgoing e-mail window, to make sure that you're not replying to a list when you want to reply to an individual, or vice versa. (Also make sure you're sending to the correct "Jim" in your address book, for example, or you could be in for some embarrassment.)
Again, avoid "me too!"—have something constructive to add. If someone's conducting a straw poll, reply only to that person and let him or her summarize the results, unless you have additional comments for the entire list. Posting everyone's individual vote without any detail or commentary is essentially just noise. We like to think everyone should be included in a discussion, but often we achieve the opposite by making a conversation so lengthy and content-free that people tune out.
- Use a spell checker, read over each e-mail at least once before you send it, and make sure the recipients are correct. If you can afford to wait a few minutes and come back to read over your outgoing messages, so much the better. We editors should know better than to fire off an e-mail in immediate reply without proofreading or sober second thought, but I'm as guilty as anyone.
- Try to be sensitive and not to provoke others. E-mail doesn't have the subtleties of spoken or face-to-face conversation, and it's remarkably easy to be misunderstood or to offend someone. Resist the urge to join a flame war just to get your point in. It only fuels the conflagration.
- E-mail is not private, nor is it ephemeral. Messages get stored in places you'd never expect, and can even end up easy to find on Google if you're posting to a list that keeps web-based archives. Unless you're encrypting it and sending only to trusted individuals, expect what you write to be in public (or at least semi-public) view, or to be able to get there if someone goes hunting or gets a search warrant.
- Filter your e-mail so material from different sources or on different subjects goes into folders in your e-mail database, to avoid having your Inbox grow and grow and grow uncontrollably.
- Try a list digest. If you're on a mailing list and find the traffic overwhelming, see if there is a "digest" version that allows you to get a single large message with the day's posts (or the last 30, or whatever), instead of dozens of individual e-mails throughout the day. Unless you really need to be right on top of the conversation every minute, a digest subscription can cut down the clutter.
- Unsubscribe appropriately. If you're on a mailing list with many members and you go on vacation or are otherwise away, unsubscribe from the list and resubscribe when you come back, especially if you have an auto-reply set up on your e-mail address saying "I'm away on vacation"—fellow list members really don't want to read that for every message that goes on the list, and thus bounces back from your computer.
Another pretty good primer that covers much of the same material with a slightly different slant is at I Will Follow. The Wikipedia, Yahoo!, and the Open Directory also have good resources on netiquette in general.
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Page BBEdited on 20-Mar-04 (originally published on 7-Jul-03)
© 2003 Derek K. Miller. Some rights reserved. You may use content from this site non-commercially if you give me credit, under the terms of my Creative Commons license.