Email 102(b): What (Not) To Write

In my previous post, Email 102(a): What (Not) To Write, I addressed the dos and don’ts of writing professional and effective emails, with particular emphasis on the greeting, body, and closing. In this post, I address dos and don’ts surrounding two additional elements of email communication: the subject line and the signature.

The Subject Line

I dare say that there is not a soul on the planet–human or otherwise–who likes to be ignored. Did you know the quality of your subject line can determine whether or not your email gets opened or is simply ignored? Fortunately, there are some dos and don’ts that you can follow to increase the likelihood that your email will be opened and read.

Don’ts:

  • Do not use a subject line with more than 40 characters, the equivalent of five to seven words; anything longer than this will be “cut off” and, therefore, invisible to the recipient. It probably goes without saying that any parts of your subject line that remain invisible to the recipient are a total waste of your time and energy. So  do yourself a favor and forego lengthy (and otherwise problematic) subject lines such as “Please help me I’m freaking out,” “Help Needed for Part-Time Job Fair, Career Fair, and Benefits Fair this August,” and “Questions About the Midterm Exam, Final Exam, and Major Research Paper for PSYC 101.”
  • Do not “piggyback” on a previous email without changing the subject line to match the content of the “new” email. Let’s imagine that your PSYC 101 professor, Dr. Freud, has just sent an email about the online midterm. Although you have no questions regarding the midterm, you do have questions about the upcoming research paper. Instead of composing a new email–which, by the way, is the polite thing to do–you reply to Dr. Freud’s email about the midterm. Dr. Freud is totally annoyed when he opens your email to find questions about something entirely different. The moral of this story: at very least, change the subject line!

Dos:

  • Ensure that your subject line is relevant to the content of your email. Drawing on the scenario outlined above, imagine you want to email your PSYC 101 professor, Dr. Freud, with questions about the upcoming research paper. An appropriate subject line would be something akin to “PSYC 101 Paper: A Quick Question.”
  • Whenever possible, make your subject line appealing to the recipient. The sample subject line shown directly above (“PSYC 101 Paper: A Quick Question”) seems to suggest that responding to the email will not detract too much time from Dr. Freud’s ongoing, grant-funded research project. Therefore, is is far more appealing than a subject line such as “PSYC 101 Paper: Totally Lost and Have Lots of Lengthy and Unnecessary Questions.” If you expect faculty and staff to make your work (i.e. learning) appealing, you should also strive to make their work appealing.
  • Keep your subject line as brief as possible. The maximum length for a subject line is 40 characters or five to seven words. Miranda Paquet, Content Manager at Constant Contact, explains that, “Your readers want to scan through their inbox quickly, [so] sometimes subject lines that use only a word or two can stand out and get the most engagement.” Examples of brief subject lines which are relevant within a university setting include “Assistance Appreciated,” “Grading Concern,” and “PSYC 101 Paper.”

The Signature

Your email signature can speak volumes about who you are and where you are going in life. It can also entice, intrigue, or even impress your reader by showing that you are not only an interesting person, but also a budding professional. Therefore, it would behoove you (i.e. be beneficial or advantageous) to devote some time to crafting an appropriate email signature. In workshops I facilitate for undergraduate students, most attendees report that they had never even considered using a signature for their student email account–my typical retort, “It’s free, easy, and helpful, so why the heck shouldn’t you?”

Don’ts:

  • Do not fill your email signature with copious amounts of unnecessary information. Anything longer than four or five lines might confuse your recipients or even make them question your ability to distinguish important details from unimportant ones. Consider the following ridiculously long and obnoxious–and, of course, completely fictitious–signature line.

Sigmund Freud, III, M.D., Psy.D., Ph.D.

Endowed Professor of Applied Psychoanalysis

Professor of Applied Psychoanalysis

Director of the Institute of Applied Psychoanalysis

University of California at Lofty Dreams

12345 Egomania Parkway South

Lofty Dreams, CA 24242

Office: Room 103A, Jung Hall

Office Phone: (123) 555-4567

Cell Phone: (123) 555-9876

Work Email: iheartego@fakemail.mail

 “To be or not to be; that is the question.” –Shakespeare

  • Do not include text, graphics, and emojis solely for the purpose of being “cute.” Professionalism with a dash of personality is okay, but anything more than a dash of personality can leave recipients wondering if you are overly eccentric, or even lacking in judgment. For example, an individual whose signature contains a quote in a font like Curlz or Bradley Hand followed by a number of colorful emojis is likely to leave a negative impression on faculty, staff, and other professional recipients.

Dos:

  • As Pallav from Mailbird explains, “the main aim of the signature is to let others know who you are and how to get in touch with you apart from email.”  Thus, your signature should emphasize key pieces of information such as your name, your role or title, and no more than 2-3 contact details (e.g., phone number, Skype ID). The following example represents an email signature–fictitious, of course–that might be appropriate for a student in a university setting.

Suzy J. Lions

Math Education Major

Sparta State University

Phone: (123) 555-6789

Skype: SuzyJLions

  • To verify that your signature looks professional and appropriate, do the following before sending it out to faculty, staff, and other professionals: (1) Ask two or three trusted individuals (e.g., parents, mentors) to read your signature and provide honest feedback, and (2) Send emails to your other email addresses so you can see what your signature looks like on the receiving end. Finally, revise and edit your signature accordingly.

Given that email remains one of the official forms of communication in academic and professional settings, it’s crucial that you acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for crafting effective and appropriate emails. Once you understand the the dos and don’ts described in this post and in the previous post, Email 102(a): What (Not) To Write, you will be ready to apply that understanding to real-world communications. To help you better apply that understanding, my next post, Email 201(a): Writing Done Right, will offer sample emails and a brief analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.

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