NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, October 2002
What's Your E-mail License Number?
Bass explores ways to send better e-mail, not waste your recipient's time,
and make sure your mail's read

by Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group
(click to email author)

Washington is considering legislation that will force you to get a license before you can send e-mail. No, don't worry, you'll still be able to receive e-mail without any restrictions.

Sure I'm kidding. But it's no joke: People send out lots of email, with much of it needlessly long, valueless, bandwidth- hogging, inaccurate, and, of course, dumb. (Did I miss anything? Right-e-mails full of Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: and >>.)

Over the years, I've collected e-mail tips: ways to help you create e-mail that not only doesn't annoy others, but actually makes your e-mail worth reading.

Think in Paragraphs: You'd be surprised how many e-mails have one, long paragraph. Oddly enough, you may be using paragraphs but your e-mail program may be missing the hard carriage returns. Suggestion: send yourself, or a buddy, an e-mail and see how it looks. If necessary, add two "returns" between paragraphs when creating the e-mail.

Write Short: Keep your sentences short and limit yourself to three short paragraphs. Go beyond the Bass Int'l. limit of, say, four paragraphs, there's a good chance it won't be read. No Subject? Adios: Here's my steadfast rule: If I don't know you very well and your message has a blank subject line, it goes into the trash. The reason is there's a strong possibility a virus or worm is attached.

Use Smart Subjects: Say the right thing in the subject line and your recipient gets fair warning what to expect in the message.

For instance, even before I started using Yahoogroups, I started my message subject with "PIBMUG." For one thing, it helps AOL and Hotmail users, the people who get tons of spam, sort out real messages. (Others thought PIBMUG messages were spam, but that's another story.)

More important, it makes applying rules or filters to e-mail easy. For example, after a Home Office column hits the newsstand, I sometimes receive 100 messages a day. That's in addition to the usual stuff from PR flaks and PIBMUG correspondence. So I've encouraged everyone who sends me jokes to start the subject line with "jokes" enabling me to separate them from business messages.

"Fwd Fwd Fwd": Of course if you get lots of email, your threshold for junk isn't very high and subjects can give strong clues for what to delete right off the bat. For instance, if I see more than two "Fwd: Fwd:" in the subject, it's immediately sent to the trash. Adios.

That's Not Funny: Make sure you at least read the joke before sending it. That's a great technique for determining if it's really funny. No, really-people often send me lame jokes that are excruciatingly bad. Keep a mental note of the type of joke you send and match it up with their response (or non-response). You may notice you rarely hear back when you send a text joke but often get an "LOL" from a cartoon.

Want to see if people are reading your mail? Flood them with lame jokes-I mean fifth generation forwards of ribald stories or cartoons that weren't funny when they first ran in Playboy 20 years ago. Then slip in a legit e-mail and see if you get a response.

And if you're still going to send jokes, remove the millions of ">>>" brackets. The damn things make everything difficult to read.

No Reply Needed: I send dozens of e-mails each day with an explicit message that the recipient needn't reply. That's only polite because in many times the e-mail's just an FYI. So right above the message, I type, "This is just an FYI so no reply is necessary or expected. -Steve."

Who Are You? Many users haven't changed the "Reply to" name in their e-mail program, and it drives me crazy trying to figure out who's writing. For instance, one person uses a period-that's right, a dot-as his name. So when I look at the e-mail header, I haven't a clue (and still don't) who he is. Another person didn't know what to use so she stuck "Netscape" into the field figuring, well, something needed to go there. Head for your e-mail program's Options and poke around until you find a spot that asks for a "Reply with" or "Real Name" and put in your name.

Mail List Netiquette
Many of you subscribe to interactive mail lists. I'm on many, and I moderate quite a few, including my broadband and CD-ROM yahoogroups. When you reply to a message on this sort of list, it's essentially the same as sending e-mail, but with added restrictions.

Here are a few list rules to consider adhering to and maybe applying to your e-mails.

Don't Waste Bandwidth: So many messages, so little time, right? Well, avoid responses that the entire list won't find useful and feel obligated to at least glance at. So don't reply to the entire list with "thanks," "good idea," or "I'll try it!" Instead, reply to the sender. Look carefully and you'll probably see the sender's e-mail address near the top of the message.

Good one, Steve! In case you weren't clear about Wasting Bandwidth, consider this: When replying to messages, do it only when you have something substantive to say. Sorry, "Good one, Steve" does not qualify as substantive.

Snip, Snip: When replying, it takes a few seconds to snip extraneous junk and leave only essential portions of the previous message. No matter what you do, get rid of the tag line-the info about subscribing and unsubscribing-from the previous message.

Keep Snipping: Did I explain that it's best to quote only those brief portions of the previous message, and only items that are necessary to make your point? Good. I'm not kidding.

Avoid HTML: Stick with straight text when replying or sending messages on lists. Not everyone's e-mail program can read all your fancy fonts and formatting.

Keep Files to Yourself: Attachments are usually frowned upon on mail lists to avoid any chance of getting a virus.

Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World and runs the Pasadena IBM Users Group. He's also a founding member of APCUG. Check PCW's current edition at http://www.pcworld.com/resource/toc/index.asp and sign up for the Steve Bass online newsletter at http://www.pcworld.com/bass_letter.

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