how to use email

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.


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  1. Thanks,that was really helpful :)

    Comment by Tammie on August 29, 2002 @ 1:56 am
  2. I have to agree with most of these observations/suggestions. I really don’t like get the point of sending a web page as an attachment. I just don’t get the point of that.

    I do have to object to number 9. I used to read all my mail with a text based email client and would occasionally get html filled email. The bottom line is that adding html to an email can be useful and most mail clients support reading it. So I am less worried about text only email, although I do try to only send ascii text email to others.

    I would also like to add another observation/recommendation. Remember that if you forward every joke, quote, riddle, etc. to your friends, you should pay attention to whether they want to receive your junk mail. I constantly get sent this sort of stuff from relatives and friends and I don’t ever respone to it or thank them for it. It takes some longer than others to realize that I don’t appreciate it.

    Comment by scott on August 30, 2002 @ 10:20 am
  3. How was the HTML useful? If you’re reading it as text, the extra tags make the email a lot harder to read. Instead of:

    That was a really funny joke

    You see:

    That was a <em>really</em> funny joke.

    Comment by dan on August 30, 2002 @ 1:23 pm
  4. I should clarify. Having the capability to format the text of an email with HTML, as you have demonstrated above, is useful and can aid in delivering a message.

    My point is that if you use a text based mail client, you should learn to deal with email messages with HTML. Like I said, my opinion on this has changed over the years. The fact of the matter is that most email clients support HTML.

    It really is a limitation of your client, not a problem with the sender.

    That said, people should probably be more aware of what they are sending to whom. I really dislike getting loads of attachments or pages that contain portions of the document on the web that must be loaded before I can read the email.

    Comment by scott on August 30, 2002 @ 4:42 pm
  5. I understand your point, and respectfully disagree as a devil’s advocate ;)

    When email was first used, HTML didn’t even exist. I don’t know of any official declaration that all email clients have to be able to support HTML. I actually don’t mind it too much, but I prefer that people do it for a reason rather than sending all their emails in HTML that are nothing but plain text wrapped in HTML tags.

    Comment by dan on August 30, 2002 @ 6:04 pm
  6. As I’ve argued before elsewhere, it really wouldn’t be that difficult for the maintainers of terminal-based email clients to add html support. I think they refuse to do so for the same reasons which have compelled Dan to complain about it here. Developers of free software tend to be a stubborn, idealistic bunch. Once they dig in their heels against something, it’s hardly worth trying to change their minds. I’ll write more about my thoughts on email later, now I must sleep.

    Comment by Levi on August 31, 2002 @ 3:16 am
  7. I just found a site that gives six reasons not to use HTML in your e-mail and it reminded me of the discussion on this entry.

    Comment by dan on February 17, 2004 @ 2:51 pm
  8. Um, sure, that all makes sense if you’re living in the early days of the internet, like he is apparently still trying to do. I found a page a while ago that rebutted all the major arguments against HTML email, but I don’t recall where it was. I also ran into an RFC a while ago for HTML-in-email, so it’s on the standards track. Those 6 reasons really don’t hold much water these days.

    If you look at this guy’s main page on his domain, he is (or was) advocating full use of the internet through email. He includes gopher-by-email, and no one has used gopher for years. Thank goodness he’s seen the light and is no longer pursuing his email-only campaign. He is, instead, cycling and enjoying being retired. I am envious.

    Comment by Levi on February 17, 2004 @ 6:11 pm
  9. I rarely (if ever) receive HTML e-mail that really needs to use HTML, and that’s my biggest issue with it. Spammers have a need to use it because they can add images to track who reads it and to be able to make text larger and more annoying. I don’t see the need for regular e-mails to have colors and different font sizes, but maybe that’s just me.

    Comment by dan on February 17, 2004 @ 10:11 pm
  10. When does textual communication ever NEED fancy formatting? But surely you wouldn’t argue against the aesthetic improvements in the World Wide Web since the early days of web browsers and HTML. They were functionally complete, allowing textual information, images, and hyperlinks. But web pages sure look at lot nicer these days, even if there are a lot of awful abuses of the greater display control.

    I think the point you’re missing is that you and I are not the primary users of email. The average email user uses either a web-based email system or Outlook, both of which interpret HTML automatically. They want to be able to send URLs and images to their friends. They want to personalize their correspondence. HTML email makes it possible for them to do so easily. It also happens to be abused by spammers, but if we cut off every form of media that was abused by advertisers, we wouldn’t have much left, would we?

    Also, the nutcase was not only arguing against HTML, he was arguing against all MIME encodings in email. I’m not quite sure how that fits with his desire to have all of the internet accessible through email, but that’s what he says. No attachments, no PGP encryption, etc. No thanks, I like evolution and progress in my computer systems.

    Comment by Levi on February 17, 2004 @ 11:11 pm
  11. I have to side with Levi here. My feelings are that on mailing lists and such, one shouldn’t use html mail, but most users nowadays use html-enabled clients and some messages (such as informative ones with tables), are vastly better than plain text.

    Comment by Cameron on February 18, 2004 @ 8:59 pm
  12. Although outnumbered, I still maintain that I rarely see a useful HTML e-mail. I prefer having images attached rather than embedding them right in the e-mail, and URLs can be sent plain text quite easily. In fact, many text e-mail clients will permit you to click on URLs.

    I understand that I’m not a typical e-mail user, but just because lots of people use HTML doesn’t make it correct. I don’t know of a single e-mail client that doesn’t handle plain text, and a quick explanation on how to attach files doesn’t seem too hard for non-technical users.

    Plus, users with size limits on their inboxes would benefit from smaller sized e-mails.

    Comment by dan on February 18, 2004 @ 11:34 pm
  13. Whether widespread adoption of something makes it correct or not is largely a matter of philosophy, but it IS the philosophy by which the free software/open source community works. As I mentioned before, both MIME and HTML MIME messages are specified in RFCs, which are basically community consensus documents rather than standards imposed by an outside governing body.

    The arguments you cited work against ALL MIME encodings, not just HTML. Thus, if you use those arguments against HTML, you must also discard attachments of all sorts, since they use MIME. I really don’t think you want to cripple email like that.

    Arguments based on size and bandwidth may have held some water a few years ago, but space and bandwidth are now pretty cheap. Your argument that HTML is objectively incorrect because you don’t like it is silly. Also, you never answered my points about the increased aesthetic and structural control that HTML provides.

    Hey, if you want to continue disliking HTML email, that’s fine with me, and I won’t try to talk you out of it. If you want to claim that it’s objectively wrong, though, you’ll have to make a real case for it.

    Comment by Levi on February 19, 2004 @ 11:11 am
  14. Speaking of HTML emails, are you plagued with some coworkers that download those dubious programs to add images and icons and 8 gazillion smilies to emails? I am. And those things are spyware. They’ve had to remove them because they were chronically popping up ads.

    Comment by Renee on February 19, 2004 @ 2:54 pm

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