Subject Lines: Explicit is good when you’re writing email

Clear, precise language in email subject lines increase the chance that people will read and respond to your message. Specific subject lines help readers understand:

  • What you want
  • If they can help you—was this sent to the right person; do they have an answer?
  • What priority to give your message—how important and time-sensitive is this?
  • How much of their time you want—does this look simple or is it going to take up their whole week?

What’s My Line? How to Write Successful Subject Lines

  1. When you’re writing subject lines be brief, explicit and precise. What’s the shortest, clearest way to describe your message?
  2. Write from your reader’s point of view: what do they want and need to know?
  3. Provide context; your recipients may not know you or immediately understand what you’re talking about.
  4. Unless you’re writing to your sweetie, cute subject lines are illegal (well they should be) and will probably be ignored, or given lowest priority.

Self Test: For each example, choose the better subject line. (Answers follow)

1. You’re emailing a university to enquire about your application. Which subject line is more clear?
a) Regarding the status of my application
b) Application status: Atwood, Lucinda (your last name, first name)

2. You’re sending a meeting request to 10 co-workers. Which subject line contains more information?
a) Notice of upcoming Department Meeting
b) Team 3 Meeting: 10 am Tuesday, Conference room

3. You want to know if you can get your new car in mint green or lemon yellow. Which subject line is more precise?
a) About your cars
b) 2016 Porsche Cayenne—available colours?

4. You’re not sure about eligible tax deductions. Which subject line is more efficient?
a) Tax question: Can I deduct the costs of feeding and grooming my elephants from my total income for last year?
b) Question: T303A—pachyderm deductions ok?

5. You’re inviting everyone to your surprise birthday party. Which subject line sounds fun?
a) what to bring on thursday
b) Party! Thursday July 15, 10am, Lucinda’s yacht

Answers:

B is the better choice in every example, because:

  1. B gives the context (application status) and then the detail (your name).
  2. B gives more information, presented in order of importance: what, when, where.
  3. B is specific. Sending email with a vague subject line to a large organization may lead to it being forwarded from department to department; a specific subject line helps administrative staff direct your email to the right person. Also, B includes a question mark to show that it’s not a complaint or suggestion, telling the recipient that it might be something they can respond to quickly.
  4. B is briefer and still specific.
  5. B is more specific and gives context. “What to bring next thursday” can mean different things to different people. This subject line also gives most of the important details right away, so readers don’t have to work to find that information (and are more likely to get it right).