Srsly With the Email Subject Lines

I love what I do. I love language, I love discussing word usage and origins and debating the Oxford Comma (I’m against it, in case you’re wondering).

Much of my work time is invested in communications of the virtual variety. That’s right: emails. How wild and different the world was before email. I sometimes think back to when my parents were working and how sometimes my dad would drive 30 miles into the city for a meeting that was canceled at the last minute. This is all pre-mobile phones, pre-internet, pre-email. I don’t know how all of that shook out back in the 80’s but maybe you were just like, “Oh well, guess I’ll just write a letter in my spare time.”

Honestly it sounds kinda nice: no email?

It reminds me of a professor I had in graduate school who gently and quietly refused to get a computer or receive an email address when that was all the rage. He would type me messages on little slips of paper he had stored in a little box next to his typewriter (which was not plugged in, by the way). Can I just say he was MY FAVORITE professor because of those little benign yet practically haiku-like notes he’d type and stick in my box that sounded something like: “Claire, your story feels polished. Page 12 has more notes. Thanks, JK.”

ANYways, back to your email subject lines. Here are the top 7 worst email subject lines or grievances I have…and how to make them great:

  1. [      ] My all-time favorite, the “no subject line” subject line. This is for sure bogus trash that happened to slip by my spam filter. If you don’t have time to write a subject line, you should probably text the person or pull over and make a phone call. Now granted, sometimes we get all brainy in the email body and simply forget to include a whip-smart email subject line. Forgiven. But after I have received multiple emails from the same person without a subject line I begin to wonder whether they can be trusted with an email address in the first place. C’mon people.
  2. “Hey!” This subject line immediately flashes “NOT IMPORTANT!” to me and I will probably not open it until all my urgent email is handled. So if you have no interest in anyone reading your email nor responding to it, definitely use this for a subject line. Also, “Hay is for horses” as my father would say any time I’d walk into the house and say something like, “Hey, what are we having for dinner?” If you really want to get someone’s attention among the multiple streams of Massive Interrupters we got going on (ahem, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, pets, children, everything on Hulu) then for sure do not write “Hey” in the subject line. I will fire you for this.
  3. “Assignment for the Blog” This is a subject line that has me going “meh” in my mind because it isn’t atrocious but I’m left generally unimpressed. Where it really starts to unravel is when the body of the email briefly mentions the blog assignment for which it prepared me and then goes on to list the feedback from a client call they had, dates for a possible kickoff meeting in the future, questions about my dog who I had to bring to the vet and my plans for the weekend. Gah! Please please make the content of your email MATCH the subject line. Think of it as a matching game (I’m playing these on an hourly basis with my threenager right now, so….). Write multiple emails if you must do a brain dump of everything you want to say to a person. I do this even with my friends. I want to schedule a coffee date, share a video link I mentioned and find out where she bought her shoes she was wearing the other night at the blahdy blah. Three separate emails, my friends. Three. One for each subject. Keep it organized.
  4. Derailment. I think a complete derailment is when a group of people start sparring on email with content that doesn’t match the subject. It is like watching a Squirrel Circus with a feral cat as the ringleader (can you imagine??). This approach really bites especially when I’m trying to find an old conversation that had direction in it and I’m having to search for an email…I’ll try to imagine what key word would be in the subject line. When someone starts what I call the Manic Loop of talking about a subject unrelated to the subject line I start a new one that makes sense and gets people over to that new [smarter, better] thread. Alternatively I gnaw on my hands when this happens.
  5. Not So Great Expectations. Manage them, baby! I will often write emails like this: Thank you + Coffee Date. Guess what my email is about: thanking the person for their contribution to whatevs and scheduling a…wait for it…coffee date! Email is really not meant for the element of surprise. It is a tool–use it correctly. I mean unless you plan to propose marriage over email (highly discouraged) and you want the punchline to be a real zinger, I guess you can build in some disconnect between the subject line and the body, but otherwise, please no.
  6. Starving for Consistency. Okay, so I blog for several different companies and I always always always write the email subject lines in the same organized manner each time I communicate with my client. Does that sound boring? No, that sounds brilliant and genius–so glad I thought of it for you. I know it sounds simple, but really, just develop a smart system and keep it consistent. You know who will love you for it (besides me and everyone you work for and all people until the end of time)? You. When you go to search for something you’ll be like, “I am such a friggin’ prodigy that I organized my emails in such a delicious way I could EAT MY EMAIL it looks so good.” Here is an example list of emails that may show up in my email search:
    1. ADT // AUG Blog 1 of 3 // Best Idea #1
    2. ADT // AUG Blog 2 of 3 // Who is the Smartest?
    3. ADT // AUG Blog 3 of 3 // Why Didn’t I Think of That?
    4. ADT // SEP Blog 1 of 3 // You Should Get a Back Rub. Nightly.
    5. ADT // SEP Blog 2 of 3 // What Smells?
    6. ADT // SEP Blog 3 of 3 // Ways to Celebrate Ingenuity
  7. Lacking a CTA: If you want me to take some action on something like editing the employees bios on your new website or list my top favorite Beatles songs, don’t hesitate to BOOM just say it right there in the subject line. One client provides Google Analytics reports to me each month so I can plan blogs around what was working hard for a brand in the previous month. They’re pretty form-like and basic but every once in a while there will be something hidden in the body of the email that has a question or task of me. If only their subject line said something like “edits needed” or “your thoughts” or “please help” or “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” then I might move that email to my urgent priority list. So here’s a little quiz: Guess which one signals action is needed?
    1. CED // Blog image
    2. CED // Blog image // your feedback requested

Sometimes I get an email and I tear up because it is so awesomely organized I wish I could reach through my screen and crown the emailer with a crown of all those Oxford commas I never use. I also sometimes see an email and wonder if it is a sign of the End Times because it is so completely crazy making.

You can do this! You, too, can write crown-worthy email subject lines! And you really should because, I mean, srsly.


3 Comments on “Srsly With the Email Subject Lines

  1. Pingback: 5 Tips for Writing and Revising Blog Posts | Latchkey Writing and Editing

  2. Ok, Claire, I like your blog, agree with your suggestions, and confess sometimes I put too much into one message (as you have experienced when working together). But what does Srsly mean?

    Ahhh, now I get it–seriously. 🙂 Carry on, my friend.


    • Thanks for reading, Ruth! Oh we’re all on a spectrum, I am always learning how to do things better or different or more efficient. I loved working with you! 🙂


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