The Art of the Subject Line

By Charlotte Huff

Oct. 13, 2008

Hit “send” these days and you never quite know where your e-mail will be read.

Your recipient could be sitting behind a desk, but he’s just as likely to be sunbathing on a Mexican beach or weaving through a downtown traffic snarl. Perhaps more important, the reader could be scanning that game-changing e-mail a few lines of type at a time on a personal digital assistant.

As if business writing wasn’t challenging enough, the proliferation of PDAs has added a new layer of writing complexity for readers and writers, says Kiko Korn, a Los Angeles-based writing coach who works primarily with attorneys. It’s still a business communication, she warns her students, regardless of where that message is composed. “If you’re e-mailing your client from a BlackBerry while driving, you still have to make sure your e-mail is appropriate.”

One good first step for PDA writing: Pay attention to subject lines. If space is at a premium, a subject line can get a message noticed and deliver crucial information. When introducing a new subject, take an extra moment to start a new subject heading rather than piggybacking on a previous e-mail thread.

In the e-mail itself, explain concisely why you’re getting in touch and what action you need, Korn says. Given the small screens, there’s no luxury of an introductory paragraph, she says. “I would say those first three sentences are the key.”

What if you’re uncertain how an e-mail will be picked up? When a lengthy document is involved, J.D. Schramm advises his MBA students to attach rather than paste it within an e-mail. That way the sender can properly format the memo or report with the appropriate bullets and various headings without worrying that all of those presentation details will be lost on a tiny PDA screen, says Schramm, director of the CAT (Critical Analytical Thinking) Writing Program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Along with the attachment, you can send a brief e-mail warning the recipient that the document might require some time to peruse, he says.

For some verbose writers, PDA communication may promote writing discipline, Korn says. By learning to synthesize complexities into just a few sentences, an attorney may develop similar skills for more lengthy documents, such as 10-page briefs, she says.

When in doubt, though, listen to your instincts, Korn says. Sometimes nothing beats a quick phone call to a colleague or a client. “Anything you write down never goes away,” she says. “You can’t undo the tone—you can’t undo that misstep.

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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