The art of email

Also published at Short Words (Autumn 2001).

Email is a wonderful medium: direct, cheap, spontaneous, combining the one to one intimacy of a phone call with the measured reflection that is possible of a letter. Email is easy and intuitive to use straightaway--a characteristic of a well-designed computer system--but a little additional knowledge is necessary to use it really well.


Most importantly, email is an asynchronous medium: in other words you write and reply at a time independent to that of your correspondent. Almost certainly, you, and the people you are emailing, will have many email conversations, known as "threads", happening at the same time. A few conventions, known as "netiquette" will smooth communication between you and your correspondents, and ensure that your emails are a welcome commodity, not a source of irritation for others.

Do as you would be done by

The essence of netiquette is to do as you would be done by; but with an important proviso: you have to be aware that others will be accessing their email in very different ways from you.

Some will be accessing your messages on modern computers using a fast office network; others still be rely on a slow dialup connection. Sending a large attachment could swamp a slow modem connection for half an hour or more. (see bandwidth box). Some will be picking up their email using a mobile device with a small screen. Many users may be accessing their mail using text-based applications in academic networks. Neither will take kindly to a message that is reliant on anything other than pure text.

The tendency of modern email clients to encourage HTML-based graphical email is to be deprecated. Get into your email client's preferences and switch it off. And don't assume that everyone has access to the same software as you: sending Microsoft Word documents as attachments is the commonest offence in this category: do you really want to force your correspondent to shell out several hundred pounds to Bill Gates just to read a side of A4 from you? (He was rich enough already last I heard). So stick to formats that are open standards such as ASCII text, PDF (portable document format) or (RTF) rich text format. (You'll find they are available to you in most word processors via the Save as... command).

Useful subject lines

Most email software allows you to sort the emails you have sent by the subject line, so that you can easily review the whole thread. As the course of the thread changes, it may be useful to change the subject, but if you do, it's polite to include the former subject in brackets, so that it still appears when you sort mail in your email client. For example: a thread might start with a subject line: "Commissioned article", and become "Here it is! [was: Commissioned article]".

Actually that's a bad example: subject lines should be as informative as possible: "Wanted: article about writing email" might have been a better starting point. Keep them short too.

Healthy mind: healthy body

Keep email short--a few hundred words at most--think haiku not Proust. Long emails can be tricky to reply to in the midst of many brief messages, and anyway, the conversational aspect of email allows the reader to request any further information they may want. You've already set up your email program to store all received and sent email, and you should assume your correspondents have too. (You haven't? explore the filters/rules commmands in your email client.)

You don't want or need to repeat the whole email back at the person who sent it, so quote only the parts you wish to respond to directly, and snip out the rest with your cursor. When you hit the reply button to an email, most email clients will quote the whole email by default: indenting the text of the received email inside a series of quoting characters, most usually a > symbol. Then get busy snipping out the bits you don't need to quote in your reply.

Salutations and signatures

How should you begin? If you're replying it's easy: just copy the way your correspondent addressed you. Initiating an email conversation is a little more tricky. "Hi" is common convention because email grew up in the computer science cloisters of North America, and Americans say "Hi" to each other as a polite yet informal mode of address. But we Brits may instinctively cringe from this. Hello, Hi Tim, Tim: Dear Tim, and Dear Mr Albert would all be acceptable variations of increasing formality. To the email purist, all are redundant: the person addressed already appears in "To:" field of the email, so further use of their name within the body is unnecessary. The best compromise is probably to include a salutation at the outset of a thread, but to cut straight to your message once the thread is established.

The same reasoning might lead you to think that there's no need to sign an email: all email clients have already filled out the From: field. But including a "signature" is useful should you wish to swap to another mode of communication. Most email clients will let you edit a signature file, that typically contains your name, job title, telephone and fax numbers, and physical address, which is automatically appended to the end of each message. By convention it should be no more than 4 lines long.

Finding a voice in the medium

Email provides the perfect training ground for a writer: the essence of email is focussed written composition for one person, which encourages a style that is direct and personal. It's informal, so it's easy to use direct and colloquial language, active verbs, and speak personally; all of which aid readability. Email encourages the newslike inverted pyramid structure, with the message in the first couple of paragraphs, because that is the part of the message that is seen first when it is clicked open on screen. The standard of writing will rise as more and more people send email. The exercise of writing for a single recipient, paradoxically generates prose that is more readable for a wider audience.

Email and news

Email (and its close cousin news) allows the personal to become global. By joining interest groups on email and news servers, you can post to many users at once. While friends and family may be willing to forgive your foibles in the skill of internet communication, on lists and groups it is absolutely vital that you follow the basic tenets of internet sociability. Reading without posting is known as "lurking" and if you're going to be polite you must do it for a while before you introduce yourself. If the list is a busy one, there will almost certainly be a document called an FAQ (frequently asked questions) that deals with common situations, and you should make an effort to find and read this document before you post to a list. If you do not, you waste bandwidth, and may be flamed (sent abusive email). Worse still, the experts on the list might decide to automate the sending of all subsequent mail from your address to a kill file unread.

That said, one of the rules of netiquette is to be tolerant and helpful of new users, so don't let such fears paralyse your exploration; just make sure you think of others and and are considerate as you learn the ropes.

Further reading

Understanding bandwidth.

(A little bit technical, but it's worth it believe me)

Network connections are rated in bits/second. For example, the fastest kind of analog modem receives information at 56,000 bits/second (commonly known as 56k). There are 8 bits in a byte, or character, so a typical email of a few hundred words weighs in at around 2 kilobytes, and would be transmitted over a typical modem connection (33600 kilobits/second = 4 kilobytes/second) in about half a second. An attached Word document with exactly the same information, plus a little formatting might be 50 kbyte (13 seconds), and an uncompressed colour image might be 500kb (130 seconds). Sending people large files without prior permission is antisocial, because it ties up their bandwidth. It's better to upload them to a website, post a link (probably about 50 bytes), and let anyone who is interested fetch the big file for themselves.


First published 2001. Thanks to Tim Albert for commissioning me to write it.

Links updated May 2002.

Dougie's internet icon Copyright Douglas Carnall 2001. You may reproduce this text in any medium provided this copyright notice is maintained. You may reproduce derivative versions of this text provided that a link to the original verion is also maintained.