7 + 1 Tips for E-mail Subject Lines

E-mail gets a bad rap and depending on who you ask, it’s terrible or wonderful. To me, it complements numerous other tools and I realised that I actually over-think the subject lines for my e-mails. So, I’m sharing that here!

Despite everything, e-mail tends to stick around. It’s a standard that has stood the test of time and I am still able to access, read and reply to e-mails from 25 years ago. It supports text, rich text, HTML, attachments, embedded images, priority, sent notifications, threading, etc. It’s also extremely portable and can be moved between clients or between servers with a bit of effort.

Anyway, I detract – back to subject lines! If your e-mail might be around for 10+ years, you also might want to give it some thought. I approach this from two main viewpoints:

  • Communicating what the e-mail might be about it and if it needs attention
  • Being able to search it again later (days, weeks, months, years later)

1 – Useful, rather than overly generic

The e-mail subject line is the first thing that might get seen, and the easiest to search by when looking for the e-mail again. Avoid subjects like ‘Update’, ‘As we spoke’, ‘Further to the chat’ and so on. These might seem sensible when you wrote them, but a few months/ weeks/ days later, these subjects don’t mean anything. If it’s possible, be more specific (e.g., ‘Background Worker Performance Issues’). This quickly communicates to the recipient if this e-mail might be relevant to them.

2 – A bit unique

To help with searching the emails later, something a bit more unique is helpful, e.g., ‘Background Worker Performance Issues’ vs ‘Performance Problem’. On the other hand, don’t make it so specific that you can’t find it at all. It might be very sensible to have a subject like ‘Bg761’ which refers to Background Worker 761 but you’ll struggle to remember and find it later, if you need it. A great compromise could be ‘Background Worker Bg761 Performance Issues’.

3 – Make regular e-mails sortable

If they are regular emails, try to make them sortable, e.g. if they are a regular weekly update, following rules 1,2 and now, rule 3: don’t call it: ‘Weekly Update’ or ‘Weekly Update (12 Jan 2021)’ [which is better than just Update or Weekly Update] but I would prefer to call it ‘CW21 – Update’ (so that all emails line up as CW09, CW10, CW11, ..) and are easier to find/ sort. [Note: CW is Calendar Week starting from Wk 1 at the start of the year]. Consistency really helps in this case.

CW09 - Weekly Update (Web)
CW10 - Weekly Update (Web)
CW11 - Weekly Update (Web)
CW12 - Weekly Update (Web)

4 – Don’t hijack threads

Don’t hijack threads. If we are discussing ‘Background Worker Performance Issue’ don’t randomly switch to asking about ‘Server Outage on 12 Jan’ just because the people are the same – start a new thread. It might save you a bit of time but it really messes up e-mail clients that arrange e-mails into threads, and makes it difficult to organise and find. In some cases, the new topic gets buried further down and you can’t see the emails. It’s just not worth it!

5 – Change the subject if the discussion has changed

In contrast to the previous point, sometimes, the discussion changes as you go through it. In such cases, it might make sense to change the subject, especially when adding new people into the thread. For example, if you started out as ‘Background Worker Performance Issues’ and realised that you need to actually also look into database indexes and instance sizes, and are copying in people from the database team, you might want to change the subject to ‘Database Indexes/ Instance Size (was: Background Worker Performance Issues)’. This might attract the attention of the DB team more quickly than just ‘Background Worker Performance Issues’.

6 – De-escalate the subject

De-escalate the subject when it’s right to do. There are good reasons to start an email with the subject ‘Urgent! Server is down’ but once it’s resolved and we’re doing post-mortem (or technically post recovery), drop the Urgent from the title so that it does not cause any additional panic unnecessarily.

7 – A less disturbing subject

Alter subjects occasionally to make it easier on the reader. If you get an email from a colleague who is resigning, when you forward it, add their name to the e-mail so that in a quick glance, the reader does not panic thinking that you are resigning. In such a case, it could help to change the subject; so, don’t forward ‘Fw: My Resignation’ – instead, do: ‘Fw: My Resignation (Kim Hong)’. This is similar to #6.

Plus 1 – The Vanity Subject Rename

Finally, and I apologise that I do this some times – the vanity subject rename. I will sometimes respond to an email just to change the subject because the spelling error in the subject is irking me personally… and it could make it tougher to find the email later (unless I remember the error). So, I might do a reply to a thread and correct it, e.g. if you called it ‘Background Pefrormance Issues’, I might reply back and rename the subject to ‘Background Performance Issues’ so that the spelling error in ‘Performance’ does not bother me any more.

I know some of the items might feel controversial, and you might want to discuss whether e-mail is the best medium for some of the hypothetical scenarios. But, I’m just listing out how I approach it when I am using e-mail, and how I think about the subject lines.

If you have any ideas to add to the list, please share in the comments below.

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