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Copyright Judd Winick A Brief E-Mail Primer

Minding Your E-mail Manners

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Table of Contents

The Three B's of Composing E-Mail
DON'T SHOUT!
Avoid Tabs and Other Unusual Characters
Take Your Subject Lines Seriously
Experiment with Yourself
More Snippets of Sending Sensitivity

A commercial society whose members are essentially ascetic and indifferent in social ritual has to be provided with blueprints and specifications for evoking the right tone for every occasion.
—Marshall McLuhan

One of the first things you notice when you're drifting around the Net is that it attracts more than its share of bohemians, nonconformists, and rugged individualists. And even though all of these people surf to the beat of a different drum, the Net resolutely refuses to degenerate into mere anarchy. Oh, sure, you get the odd every-nerd-for-himself hurly-burly, but civility reigns the vast majority of the time.

Usually, most Netizens are just too busy with their researching and rubbernecking to cause trouble, but there's another mechanism that helps keep everyone in line: Netiquette (a blend of network and etiquette). Netiquette is a collection of suggested behavioral norms designed to grease the wheels of Net social discourse. Scofflaws who defy the Netiquette rules can expect to see a few reprimands in their e-mail inbox. To help you stay on the good side of the Internet community, the next few sections tell you everything you need to know about the Netiquette involved in sending e-mail.

The Three B's of Composing E-Mail

Back in the long-gone days when I was a good corporate citizen, my boss used to call his secrets for successful presentations "the three B's": be good, be brief, be gone. These simple prescriptions also form a small chunk of the basic Netiquette landscape. Being good means writing in clear, understandable prose that isn't marred by sloppy spelling or flagrant grammar violations. Also, if you use some facts or statistics, cite the appropriate references to placate the Doubting Thomases who'll want to check things for themselves.

Being brief means getting right to the point without indulging in a rambling preamble. Always assume that your addressee is plowing through a stack of e-mail and so has no time or patience for verbosity. State your business and then practice the third "B": be gone!

DON'T SHOUT!

When writing with your high-end word processor, you probably use italics (or, more rarely, underlining) to emphasize important words or phrases. But because e-mail just uses plain vanilla text (that is, no fancy formatting options allowed), you might think that, in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream. That's not true, however. In fact, many e-mail scribes add emphasis to their epistles by using UPPERCASE LETTERS. This works, but please use uppercase sparingly. AN ENTIRE MESSAGE WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS FEELS LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING, WHICH IS OK FOR USED-CAR SALESMEN ON LATE-NIGHT TV BUT IS INAPPROPRIATE IN THE MORE SEDATE WORLD OF E-MAIL CORRESPONDENCE.

NOTE: ADDING EMPHASIS
There are other ways to add emphasis to your e-mail prose. For example, you can *bracket* a word with asterisks. To find out more about these and other e-mail conventions, see E-Mail Miscellanea, in the next section.

on the other hand, you occasionally see e-mail messages written entirely in lowercase letters from lazy susans, toms, dicks, and harrys who can't muster the energy to reach out for the shift key. this, too, is taboo because it makes the text quite difficult to read.

Just use the normal capitalization practices (uppercase for the beginning of sentences, proper names, and so on), and everyone will be happy.

Avoid Tabs and Other Unusual Characters

The Internet mail system works fine most of the time, but it's a temperamental, finicky beast. As long as things are just so, the mail should get through, and your recipient will be able to read your well-crafted thoughts. But if you throw any kind of monkey wrench into the works, well, who knows what can happen. One of these monkey wrenches involves using characters that aren't part of the alphanumeric array on your keyboard. (By that, I mean the letters and numbers, and symbols such as $, ?, and %.) Tossing in tabs or any of the so-called control characters (characters created by holding down the Ctrl key and pressing a letter or number) can throw your e-mail software for a loop.

Take Your Subject Lines Seriously

As I mentioned earlier, busy e-mail readers often use the contents of the Subject line to make a snap judgment about whether to bother reading a message. (This is especially true if the recipient doesn't know you from Adam.) Most mail mavens hate Subject lines that are either ridiculously vague (for example, "Info required" or "Please help!") or absurdly general (for example, "An e-mail message" or "Mail"), and they'll just click their mail software's "delete button" without giving the message a second thought. (In fact, there's a kind of illicit thrill involved in deleting an unread message, so don't give the person any excuse to exercise this indulgence.) Give your Subject line some thought, and make it descriptive enough that the reader can tell at a glance what your dispatch is about.

Experiment with Yourself

When you're just starting out with e-mail, you'll likely want to try a test drive or two to work out the kinks. Unless you can enlist a friend or colleague as a willing guinea pig, don't send out messages to just anybody, because, believe me, they've got better things to do than read a bunch of "Testing 123" messages. The best way to perform e-mail shakedowns is just to send the tests to your own mail address.

More Snippets of Sending Sensitivity

Here, in no particular order, are a few more Netiquette gems that'll help ensure that you always put your best sending foot forward:

  • If you receive private e-mail correspondence from someone, it's considered impolite to quote them in another message without their permission. (You're probably also violating copyright law, because the author of an e-mail message has a copyright on any and all messages he sends. There's even an acronym that covers this point with admirable succinctness: YOYOW—you own your own words; see An Initial Look at Internet Acronyms, in the next section, for more acronym fun.)

  • When replying to a message, include quotes from the original message for context. Few things are more frustrating in e-mail than to receive a reply that just says "Great idea; let's do it!" or "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Which great idea or dumb thing are they talking about? To make sure that the other person knows what you're responding to, include the appropriate lines from the original message in your reply. You'll need to use some judgment here, though. Quoting the entire message is wasteful (especially if the message was a long one) and should be avoided. Just include enough of the original to put your response into context.

  • As I mentioned earlier, keep your signatures down to a dull roar. Believe me, nobody is interested in seeing your resume or your curriculum vitae at the end of every message you send. The accepted maximum length for a signature is four to six lines.

  • Forgive small mistakes. If you see a message with spelling mistakes, incorrect grammar, or minor factual blunders, resist the urge to "flame" the perpetrator. (In e-mail lingo, a flame is a nasty, caustic message designed to put Internet scofflaws in their place. I'll talk more about them later.) For one thing, the international flavor of e-mail just about guarantees a large percentage of participants for whom English isn't their primary language. For another, I hope you have better things to do than nitpick every little slip of the keyboard that comes your way.


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The artwork displayed throughout this primer is Copyright © Judd Winick.


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