I realize that not everyone enjoys reading email headers, typing out the SMTP protocol by hand or configuring mail servers and mailing lists. However, even if you’re not a particularly technical person, you can benefit by having a basic understanding of how email works. I’ve compiled a list of observations and recommendations that I have garnered from experience. I share them with the hope that others will avoid causing unnecessary frustration to the recipients of their emails. I would hope that most of these are obvious, but at the risk of stating the obvious, here they are.
1. Forwarding emails
If an email is forwarded, it will be from the person who forwarded it, not the original author. That means that if you reply, it will go back to the person who forwarded it, which may not be what you want. Whenever you send an email, it’s wise to check it over to make sure it’s going to the right person and that the subject and message say what you want them to.
2. You know your email address, right?
Remember your email address and type it correctly. If you send a message using a web form and type in the wrong email address, the recipient will not be able to reply. A typical email address will have the @ symbol followed by the domain. Entering a single word for your email address is not valid.
3. How did I get this email?
If you receive an email that doesn’t contain your email address, fear not, there are a few different explanations for how this can happen. The person might have put your email address in the Bcc (Blind carbon copy) field, you might be on a mailing list or an alias (a single email address that sends to multiple recipients) or the email may have forged headers (usually happens with spam). It is extremely unlikely that the mail server happened to deliver it to the wrong address, but for some reason people like to believe in the abnormal.
4. Keep your emails slim and trim
When replying to an email, especially from a mailing list, trim all unnecessary text. If you’re not replying to the content of the email, don’t include it in the message. If you are replying to something specific, put your response close to that text, not at the very bottom of the entire email. Pruned emails are easier to read because there aren’t extra mail headers and signatures to distract you from the content. Also, be aware of the Reply-To field. It can sometimes bite you in the hindquarters, making you look quite foolish.
5. Short sigs
Keep your signature short and to the point. If your signature is longer than most of your emails, you might want to consider a good old fashioned cropping.
6. Use clear and concise subjects
Use concise subject lines and make sure they describe the content of the email. I am of the opinion that it would often be better if people were to type the subject in after the message had been written because then they know what the message is about. Before it’s written, you only know what you think you’ll write about, and unless you update your subject, the two may not match. It will also make it easier to find later on.
7. Watch the size
Don’t send large attachments, especially without warning. Many people have quotas on their email accounts and a 15MB movie of your Christmas vacation may keep them from receiving any more email. There are other solutions better suited for the task of transferring large files.
8. Just the URL ma’am
Send the URL instead of attaching the HTML page, image or shockwave flash movie. It saves space on the mail server, bandwidth and will be especially appreciated by your friends with dial-up connections.
9. Plain vanilla text
Use plain text in your emails. For people that use text-only email clients, your emails will be just about as readable as viewing the source of this page. (Try it, to the untrained eye it’s not a pretty sight.) I rarely see an email that is particularly enhanced by including HTML tags. If you find that you do have such a need, refer to #8.
10. So you have lots of friends
If you’re sending email to a lot of people, consider using the Bcc field instead of putting all of the addresses in the To or Cc fields. This will keep unscrupulous people from gathering your friends’ email addresses for spamming and it makes the email easier to read because you don’t have to scroll down several lines to read the message.