Email Efficiency Part 3

Written and published October 20, 1999

This week I had planned to talk about the most basic issue of message composition -- plain text vs. Rich Text (HTML). But with the newest version of Outlook Express just released (on Tuesday, October 19) I need time to look at it. (I wouldn't want to give you out-dated advice and I wasn't on the beta team.) So instead, this week we'll look into the actual contents of your message. Things like... well, making sure your name is on it so the recipient knows who he's hearing from or talking to. The content of this column has again, been determined by your fellow readers who wrote to me asking to mention these things.

In journalism, the first thing you learn is that every article should include these details: who, what, when, where, why, and how. I learned that in 9th grade and never forgot it. Emails are often not that different -- especially when you're writing a business message or writing to anyone who isn't a good friend. Just because e-mail can be dashed off quickly, doesn't mean it shouldn't be complete. If you're recommending a web site, include the URL. If you're talking about an event, include the date, time, location, etc. or at least a reference to enable the recipient to learn these facts. If you don't know them, that can be ok, but explain. Otherwise, you'll be asked for those things -- and if the exchange is on an e-mail list you'll unnecessarily clutter the list.

You're already watching your spelling and punctuation so recipients who don't know you won't think you illiterate, right?

It's a good idea to not hit Send the second you finish typing. Instead, consider saving it as a draft for a little while, then coming back to it with a fresh perspective and look it over before sending.

Consider what you're sending

Before you send a message, ask yourself, "Is this really helpful?" and even "Is this really true?"

If you're responding to a message on a list, before you reply, check your inbox to see if there is an amendment to the original. Then read, consider and quote any pertinent replies. This can save you the time spent drafting a response in vain. But, more importantly, this is respectful of the many others on the list who don't need to spend time receiving, reading, and considering issues that have already been addressed or progressed past the point of your response. (Not to mention that it can be embarrassing for you as well.) If you're not on an e-mail list, this is not as important. Crossing messages with a friend is not so bad, just confusing.

Speaking of lists: many people don't realize that when a message comes to you, it also coming to others (often many others). You don't have to respond and in fact, you are not expected to respond. Address a post only if you are certain of the answer. If no one comes forward with a definitive answer after a while, then it can be nice to take a stab at helping. As you watch a list for a while, you get the feel of its community and tone so you can know when and how to respond.

The ease of sending messages and the speed at which e-mail travels has created a rumor mill the likes of has never been seen before. Misinformation, hoaxes, and urban legends cycle through, recycle, and never seem to die. And the jokes go 'round and 'round... Chain letters and petitions recycle, and never seem to die. And the jokes go 'round and 'round... Celebrity Legends perpetuate. Free offers and 800 numbers too good or crazy to be true circulate. And the jokes go 'round and 'round.

If you're new to e-mail this might be fun. But it all gets old -- very fast. (As do the jokes.)

How often have you been sent... make that how many times have you been sent a message about a horrible virus that will destroy your computer if you open a certain document, a terrible internet tax, or such? When you get these messages, please, please check it out before passing it on. It's easy to learn the truth. Just check out Urban Legends. If you're not sure about a story, alert, scare, free offer, or such, and don't want to take the time to verify it, then just let it die with you. Even if you send it to one good friend, that friend may send it to others... and the cycle continues.

Now about those jokes. You get a joke and enjoy it, so you send it on. Please know the person you're sending it to. Ask if they'd like a joke once in a while. All too many people don't appreciate them. Not that the joke is not good, but they may have heard it already. Or they may already be dealing with hundreds (yes hundreds) of emails a day. If you must send a joke, at least begin the subject with "[Joke]" so the recipient can read it at a convenient time or filter it to a joke folder or to the trash. (In case you now think I just don't know how to have a good laugh, I should tell you that several of your fellow readers begged me to put this in. Not to mention that I have seen the same joke come to me 5 and 6 times.)

By the way, Urban Legends is a fun site to read at your leisure (after you're finished here). It's even got the stories behind all those classic horror stories -- something to check out with Halloween coming up.

While considering what you're sending, you also have to watch who you're sending to. All too often, people send out messages and broadcast the addresses of every recipient. If they're all not mutual friends, this isn't cool. I'll get into that in more depth later, and show you some tips on how to check this.

Coming up

I've been wanting to talk about how to reply to an e-mail -- physically style your message, that is. But first I need to cover the very format of e-mail: the plain text vs. html issue. So that'll be coming soon.

Wanna take a stab of explaining to your fellow readers how to choose between regular and html mail? I'd love your help. I've got OE and Netscape covered. Use a different mail app? I could use that too. Don't know what I'm talking about? That's ok. You will next week.

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