Guidelines for Email Use

Recommendations and guidelines for composing and sending email


We assume any message you compose was important to you; you took the time to write it. Be sure to compose your message so that each recipient can determine, as quickly as possible, how interesting, important, and/or urgent, it is, for them, to read it.



Remember that the people receiving your email are busy. Plan the recipients accordingly.

Be cautious about mixing internal recipients (our core team) and external recipients (clients, partners, other teams) in the same email. Does the message need to be phrased differently fr "external" distribution.

If you send mail to a distribution list, the people who receive it will have different levels of interest and "need to know". Be sure to choose the most appropriate list for your message. Don't just send mail to very list yu can think of!


By convention, the addresses in the To: line are considered to be the "primary" (need-to-know) recipients. The names in the Cc: line are often considered to be "reading-optional" or FYI.

If you need a response from certain people, put their addresses in the To: header.

In Reply

When you compose a reply, check the headers before clicking send. Do you need to reply to "all"? Avoid sending duplicate messages, i.e. one to the sender's individual address and another copy through a distribution list.

Many distribution lists are configured to send replies to the sender. Others send to the entire list. Who needs to see the reply?


Tips for better Subjects:
  • Concise: Keep it short; many email clients truncate. (<= 50 characters is a good rule of thumb.)
  • Specific: Provide enough detail that a quick scan will provide some information, before opening the message. For example, is this for a particular project? Say so!

When possible, include a short, descriptive prefix to provide additional clues to the type of content, e.g.

  • RFC
  • FYI

If a message is particularly important or urgent, say so. Preface the Subject with IMPORTANT or URGENT and raise the priority. However, use discretion. If you abuse these keywords, people won't believe you when you really mean it.

Go easy on exclamation points and capital letters; they may trigger a spam filter.

Examples (Good and Bad)

Here's an eye-catching, specific subject for an obviously Urgent message
    Subject: ***IMPORTANT*** All-Hands Staff Meeting At 3m today

The following examples were all pulled from the archives of an actual dsitribution list for February 2007. These are the complete subjects from actual email.

Here are three excellent examples; the property (and, therefore, the intended audience) is obvious
    Subject: EPT: Taking epsearch1.scd out of rotation

    Subject: weather and tech has been failed out

    Subject: FYI - YKids - p1.ykids.re4 upgrade

These are not as good; the property (and audience) can be guessed... but less easily
     Subject: & have been down for days

     Subject: pulling fe1.oscars.movies.sp1 out of rotation temporarily

These examples are really bad. Don't do this!
     Subject: deployment

     Subject: nagios


Most email applications allow you to set a message's priority, with "Normal" being the default. If you really want people to read your message, set the priority higher. If it doesn't matter when (or if) anyone reads the message, lower the priority.

Urgency / Due Dates

Whenever possible, please provide clues to the level of urgency in the subject and/or the first few lines of the body. Do you need replies by Friday? Is this mail just FYI? Are there some people you absolutely must hear from asap?

If there is a date by which you need responses, make that clear in the message.

Content (Body)

Reiterate the Subject

The body of a message should be able to stand alone or still make sense if the subject is changed.

Unless the Subject would do equally well as a general label on a file folder, repeat the important parts of the subject in the body of the message. Copy and paste if necessary.

     Subject: Tuesday meeting moved to 3pm
     Our Tuesday meeting has been rescheduled to 3pm in room A1.

Not so good
      Subject: Tuesday meeting moved to 3pm

      It's in A1. See you then.

Some people like to send short messages wiith all content in the Subject and no body (other people really hate receiving these. :-)

If you're someone who likes this type of email, be sure to mark the subject in some way (e.g. [that's all] or [eot]), lest your recipients wonder if you clicked Send too soon. Better yet, copy the Subject and paste it in the body. It may seem redundant, but really, it does help.

Action Items

If there are action items in the body of the message:
  • call attention to them early
  • don't bury them in the middle of the text

Oh, By the Way...

Try to avoid adding unrelated topics as postscripts at the end of your message. If they're important, send them separately.

Avoid including action items or private notes to one recipient as apparent afterthoughts.

Prune (Carefully) When Replying or Forwarding

Think about how much of a previous message is necessary to retain context. Always prune unnecessary headers, footers, and signature lines.


Opinions vary over whether it's best to add your comments above, below, or "in line" with previous, "quoted" text. Opinions also vary regarding how much of the original thread you should preserve in your replies.

As a rule of thumb:
  • Retain sufficient information to provide context for a newcomer to the conversation. Imagine that your message will be forwarded to someone who has not read the original thread.
  • If you inline your responses, be sure to include adequate white space so that recipients can find your responses!

For a compromise solution endorsed by several people:
  • include the original unaltered text at the end of your message.
  • copy small, standalone snippets to the top and respond to those snips

This provides inlining as well as multiple choices for understanding context.

Follow these Do's and Dont's

  1. DO choose the most specific distribution list that covers your topic.

  2. DO some research before asking other people to do it for you.

  3. DON'T CROSS-POST to multiple lists.
    • Pick the best one. Spamming as many lists as you can find is rude.
    • When replying to a cross-posted message, don't compound the problem by cross-posting the reply.
  4. DON'T report production problems to devel-random or any other discussion list.

  5. DON'T discuss patents or other legal matters on e-mail.
    • Legal matters should be discussed with your (corporate) attorneys.

More Tips and Tricks

Writing Sensible Email Messages

If you want to be a good email citizen and ensure the kind of results you’re looking for, you’ll need to craft messages that are concise and easy to deal with. Read the article and comments at

-- Main.VickiBrown - 09 Jan 2008
Topic revision: r1 - 09 Jan 2008, VickiBrown
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