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Tom Worthington With Tom Worthington FACS, Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

How to Read and Write E-mail, 29 October 2001

Skip the junk mail. Write messages people will read

Joining the On-line Community

Information Technology professionals may know how to build a data network or program a computer, but that does not mean they necessarily know how to use them to communicate to people. It should be no surprise that they, and others, need to learn how to read and write e-mail messages. I wrote about it in my book Net Traveller - Exploring the Networked Nation (available free on-line), which this is adapted from.

In my work the Internet is the primary tool of trade. With the Internet I research material, send out drafts for comment, collect input and publish results, as well as keep in touch with people.

The skills I use to do this have been built up from years of practice, as well as from courses in marketing, graphic design and IT. Many of the people I work with appear to have trouble with this new medium and ask ``how do you cope with all the information?'', ``how do you get approval to put draft policy documents on-line?''. Here, I set down the tips and techniques, which have been useful in keeping up. In addition, I ask all information professionals to apply their professionalism to on-line communication.

When you first get an e-mail address, post a news item, or upload a web document, you are joining a community. That community and your peers will hold you accountable for your actions in cyberspace as much as in any other place.

Electronic Mail

The basic tool of the Internet is electronic mail. While the web might be glamorous, plain old text based e-mail is the first and most important tool to master.

E-mail on the Internet is much the same as you might have used in your work place. The difference is the scale and familiarity: there are many more people to communicate with (or not communicate with) and you do not necessarily know who they are, or what they expect.

How to read e-mail

To write good e-mail messages you first need to know how to read them. Initially you will be excited by the novelty of receiving messages from around the world. This will change within a few days to worry about coping with the volume of material and trying to filter useful content from the rubbish.

I am a moderately heavy e-mail user and receive about 100 messages a day. How does anyone cope with reading this many messages? The answer is simple: I do not read more than about one tenth of them. You will get more mail than you can read and need to adopt techniques to sort and sift the mail. Here are the ones I use:

Pre-sort with multiple addresses

As soon as the e-mail gets to be a burden, consider obtaining separate e-mail addresses for different types of e-mail. I have one e-mail address for my work and one for ACS business and personal e-mail.

Separate addresses allow the people who write to you to sort your mail for you. If you have a special function or project, that is likely to generate a lot of mail, then create a special address for it. You can then let that mail build up until you need to read it (or have it forwarded to someone else and not read it at all).

Read in batches

Do not read each message as it arrives, let the mail build up and read it in batches. How often you read the mail depends on how much you get and how important the particular e-mail address is to you. I read my work mail about every fifteen minutes while at my desk and my ACS mail once or twice a day.

In this way, you can exploit one of e-mail's great advantages over the telephone: you do not have to be interrupted continuously by it.

Sort by subject

When you have a batch of e-mail to read, do not just read it one item at a time in the order it arrived. You can use the features of your e-mail software to sort items to make them easier to handle.

I usually sort items by subject. Good e-mail authors will use a descriptive subject line on their messages. Usually e-mail will be sent to several people, who will then reply to the list. Good authors will use the original subject when replying, so if you sort by subject you will get the thread of conversation, ready for easy reading.

If your e-mail package cannot sort mail, then get a new one which can. Otherwise, you are going to waste a very large amount of your time.

After you have sorted by subject, look down the list and see if there are any very interesting topics. Open the first item of the most interesting topic. If this is not interesting then close it and have a quick look at the authors of the other items on this topic. If there is not anyone interesting, then do not bother opening any other items, just delete them all and go on to the next subject.

When you do find an item of interest, quickly read other messages on that subject. Do not send any replies or act, until you have looked through all the items. Most likely what you were going to say or do has already been said or done by one of the other authors already.

Use folders

Do not leave mail in your in-tray after you have read it. If it is not worth keeping, then delete it. If you need to keep it put it in an appropriate folder. Otherwise, your in-tray will become unmanageable in a few days.

Apply filters

Occasionally you will get continual mail you do not want or not want to look at immediately. The first step if you do not want the mail is to ask the sender not to send it. However, this may not work and you will get repeated unwanted messages. You can then set a filter on you mail system to remove items from that address or topic from your in-tray. You might have these put straight in the bin, forwarded to someone else, or put in a special folder which you can look at occasionally.

Get less e-mail while `away'

There are many clever technical ways to read your e-mail while travelling. For several years I have explored the limits of where mail can be read; in hot air balloons, on warships, snow skis and in trains (Worthington 1994). However, you do need a break occasionally. First, reduce the volume of mail:

You might want to break the rules about letting mail build up, while away and just handle the essential items. You can forward mail to yourself at another address (useful for when people send work items to your personal address). You can also send yourself e-mail as a way to file electronic documents.

Before going away test that the measures you have put in place actually work. Check the automated reply function is working. It should be able to only reply once to each sender, not to every message received. Preferably, it should not reply to messages from mailing lists at all.

Check you have actually unsubscribed from mailing lists. A badly behaved auto-reply function could annoy thousands of people, by sending everyone on every list unwanted replies in your name.

Be a critical reader

When reading e-mail retain a sceptical attitude to the message. Remember it may not be from whom it appears to be from or they may not be honest. If you get what appears to be an offer that is too good to be true, it probably is.

Look carefully at the address the message claims to be from: is it plausible? Did the sender include non-email contact details you can use for verification? Does the e-mail address match the name and contact details?

Messages that have subject lines like: ``Read this!'' and ``Check this out!'' are usually unsolicited advertising material and should be discarded. You may want to tell the sender not to send any more, but first check the address the mail was sent to. If the mail was not sent directly to you, but to a mail list you are on, do not reply. The sender may not have your address, just that of the list. Ask the maintainer of the list to do something about it.

Remember that while e-mail messages can be faked, they are formal written communications and can be used as evidence in court. If you receive a message indicating an improper or unlawful activity, you should refer it to the appropriate authorities for investigation.

How to write mail messages

The first and most important skill in writing mail messages is to know when not to write. Writing a good mail message is a time consuming task: do not start unless the topic is worth spending the time on. A badly written message will do neither you nor the recipient any good and may do a lot of harm. Remember that your casual off-the-cuff message is a written legal document and may be used in evidence against you, perhaps by someone other than the intended recipient.

Do not write messages that will not be read

Most messages are replies to other messages. Remember that you are not the only one who gets more mail than they can read. Before adding to the problem consider that the recipient most likely will not read the message you are going to send.

Before you write, check if someone else has already said it, or are likely to. Do you have something useful to contribute, or are you just trying to show off? Do you need to write to a large group, or would a reply to a few individuals do? Do you need to write now, or can it wait? Are you angry or upset and likely to say something you will regret? Do not write now, or at least do not send the message now.

Set up your e-mail system

Make sure that your e-mail system is set up to add the appropriate information to messages and test it works. Each message should automatically include your return address, name and a signature block on messages. Check you correct e-mail address is sent and test it by sending someone a message and having them reply.

Set up your name in your e-mail system: The system might have a default setting, like ``insert user-name here''. Having this sent on the bottom of every message will not enhance your reputation as a professional.

Set the signature block to be included on the bottom of each message: This should include your name, organisation, affiliations, e-mail and postal address, phone and fax number (where appropriate). Do not make the signature more than about four lines long. Very long signatures do not make you look important, just foolish.

Do not rely on the ``business card'' facility in your mail system: Some mail systems include a facility to send an electronic ``business card'' with each message. Unless you know your recipients have this facility, do not rely on it. The business card is sent in a format easy for computers to read, but not easy for people.

Set the line length: Some e-mail packages can only cope with about 76 characters on one line of text. Unless you know your recipients can receive longer lines of text, set your system to word wrap at 76.

Write messages to be read

Consider your message from the point of view of the reader. Compose a subject line that is a summary of the message and indicates what you want the reader to do. Do not send subjects like ``important information'' or ``please read this'', as your message will likely be treated as junk mail.

Send your mail from the correct e-mail address. If it is official correspondence from an organisation, use the official e-mail system to send it. Do not use your organisation's e-mail system for personal correspondence, unless this is authorised.

Use a descriptive summary

The first few lines of the message should be a summary and indicate what action you want the reader to take. Unlike paper correspondence, you should have the conclusion at the start of the message, not the end. Remember that the reader will see only the first 10 to 20 lines of the message on screen. If those lines are not interesting, they will delete the message without reading further.

Check the spelling

Check the spelling of the message before sending it. Numerous spelling errors will result in the content of your message being discounted, regardless of its worth. If your e-mail package does not include a spell checker, you can copy the text to your word processor for checking.

Use small attachments sparingly, in common formats

A lot of time is wasted by people sending mail messages with large word processing documents attached. Many of these are in formats incompatible with the recipient's system. Most would be better sent just as text e-mail. Many include letterheads with graphics and images of autographs, which add nothing to the information content of the message, but waste network bandwidth and storage space.

If you have a document to send which includes formatting and diagrams essential to the topic, then attach it to the message. However, attachments can cause problems and they should be avoided where possible. Describe the attachment in the message and explain why you are sending it. Use common formats for attachments (RTF for word processing documents). Check you actually did attach the attachment, before sending the message.

If a document is an early draft, or does not rely on any formatting, then send it as plain text in the body of a message, not as an attachment. If some of your recipients are unlikely to be able to receive attachments, then send the text as well as the attachment. If the document is very large, then just send a summary and offer to provide it on request. If it is public then put it on the web and include the URL in the mail message. If your organisation has a secure web site, put the large documents there and tell authorised readers it is there with mail.

Some mail packages allow two versions of the message to be sent: one in plain text and the other in HTML. Unless you know your recipients can read HTML in the body of mail messages, just send plain text. Otherwise, your readers get a poorly formatted text message with a whole lot of HTML code appended.

Provide complete web addresses in mail messages

A good way to communicate is to send a short e-mail message and provide details on the web. However, you need to include a complete, correct web address. Use a complete Universal Resource Locator (URL) in mail messages, such as

Many e-mail systems can automatically detect web addresses and allow the recipient to open the document just by clicking on it (if your mail system does not do this, it would be worth considering an upgrade). In paper correspondence, it is usual to leave ``http://'' off a web address. Do not do this in e-mail, as the software may then not recognise this as a valid address.

Do not type a URL into a mail message. It is very easy to mis-type an address. Open your web browser, bring up the web page on the screen and then copy the URL from the browser to the message. Check for extraneous characters next to the URL, which might be confused for part of the address (such as a period after it). It is very frustrating for your readers to get a URL that does not work and embarrassing for you to have to issue an apology and correction.

Quote just enough of messages in replies

Most of the messages you write will be replies to other messages. You need to quote enough of the message being replied to, to make sense of your answer, but no more. The recipient needs some context as they may not have received the original message, may not remember it or know which it is. However, they do not want the whole of their message quoted back at them.

Use the ``reply'' function on your e-mail system to generate a reply message to the sender. This should prefix the originator's subject with ``re:'', quote the time and date of the message, add addressees and quote all the text of the original message. If your mail system does not have this function, upgrade to one that has. Some mail systems quote the original message at the end of the reply and do not let you easily edit it. If you have one of these systems, it is time to get a new e-mail product.

Do not send back the whole of a message with a reply, this is calculated to annoy. Cut the original message down to the essential points you want to address.

Address each point in the original message, in the order given. If there is a general point you want to make, then make that first. If you were asked to comment on a document, then give suggested alternative wording, rather then just general comments.

Check what other comments have already been made on this subject. Has what you are going to say already been said? You might want to summarise several responses from others and add something extra, rather than send several replies.

Know to whom you are writing and reply to the minimum number

Before you send a reply, check to whom it is going. Do you need to reply to everyone on the list? Do you know who these people are? Is this a public mailing list you want to be quoted in? Are these people from outside your organisation? Is the sender's address genuine or is the message fraudulent?

Do not reply in haste or anger

I make it a practice to wait until the next day before sending most mail messages. Before dispatch I review each item and frequently make changes or delete replies. If your e-mail system does not allow you to hold items for later dispatch, then upgrade to one that does. This can save much embarrassment.

Occasionally you will want to write an angry and impassioned mail message. Write it, but do not send it until you have calmed down. It is almost never a good idea to send an angry message. Remember that these are formal written communications and you can face civil and criminal court proceedings because of an e-mail message.

Keep the messages you send

If it is worth writing a message, it is worth keeping. Create folders for topics and keep a copy of mail sent in the appropriate folder. Do not leave mail in the out-tray, as it will quickly become unmanageable.

Mail messages can make or break you

This may all sound like hard work for doing something as easy and casual as sending a mail message. However, consider that e-mail will be the way many (perhaps most) people know you. You are not sending e-mail for entertainment, but for serious business. Your professional reputation can be enhanced with good e-mail communication or destroyed by poor communication.


Thanks to members of the Australian Computer Society, Department of Computer Science ANU and the Link mailing list for assistance.

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Copyright Tom Worthington 2001.