The Lost Art of Subject Lines

Does anybody know how to write a subject line anymore? I’m talking about something tight, meaningful, and sortable that actually summarizes the message.

Now, before I get into this, let me just emphasize this doesn’t apply to you unless we work together, and even then it’s only for predominantly work-related messages. To people who send me personal messages: I love you, you’re perfect, don’t change.

But for those who actually expect me to do something, could I maybe get a little more than this:

To: [me]
Fr: [him]
Subj: [company name]

Yes I do.

I just got this a few minutes ago, in response to one of three messages I sent to this guy. To what is he responding? I have no clue. Am I supposed to do anything? You got me. Perhaps the subject line would have given me a hint, but the huge, huge majority of messages I get from this person simply have the company name as the subject. (As if he’d be e-mailing me about anything else.)

Let me contrast that with a few messages from my outbox. See if you can guess what each message contains:

  • Changes to Shift Summaries Page
  • leave requests report active
  • i'll kill the bitch myself
  • quote/invoice customer experience [was: [Fwd: Re: quote format & project display [edited]]]
  • To-Do List: Phase II bugs / Phase II+ wish list

(I slipped a personal message in there, see if you can guess which one it is.)

Of course, I cherry-picked those; like everyone else, I certainly have written several that are not at all clear. Often it’s because we’re rushed, or it’s a one-off. But I think much of the blame also falls on the standard layout of the message composing window. Perhaps it would be better if the subject line and “send” button were along the bottom edge of the window, so that you got to them when you’d completed writing. At that point, you’d have a much better idea what the message actually was about, and could try to summarize it there.

While I’m on the, erm, subject, I like to sometimes use the subject line as the “body” and write a brief message with “[eom]” appended to signify there is no more. Some of my coworkers (Pinky, this means you!) have also adopted this approach and it’s just great to be able to quickly see a subject line such as “Server has been restarted, as requested [eom]” and know you don’t have to open it up. (This is especially good for slow webmail.)

Finally, I’d like to single out two more subject lines. One is from a client, and I received it yesterday. It’s too long by half, but I’d certainly take that over yet another subject that says nothing. The second is from Jesse, and I think he deserves the last word:

  • Enquiry regarding sales agents display in drop down menu when creating a new lead
  • you know I don't like subjects and you just use them for your archives anyway

Hit Me With It


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