When scanning new messages or searching through old ones, the subject line of an email message is a critical indicator of content. So why are so many poorly constructed, or even non-existent? Here are some tips for creating helpful subject lines.

Scroll through your email inbox and I’ll bet you’ll find messages with subject lines including “Hi” and “Feedback,” or other equally enlightening phrases. We often zip through the writing of an email message, and may not pause to consider the effectiveness of our subject line; yet the subject line is critical to the recipient’s ability to prioritize, search, and scan messages. Here are some tips for constructing helpful subject lines.

  • Use meaningful keywords. The problem with a subject like “Feedback” is that it doesn’t indicate what the feedback is about. Even if it’s obvious right now what the feedback is about, if the message is filed away it will have lost its context, and won’t be easily found by searching or sorting. A better solution would be to provide the project or reference name in the subject, such as “FYO9 Budget Feedback.”
  • If you’re providing very succinct information, consider using the subject line to convey it. For instance, “Arriving late (11:00) today” would be a great subject: gives the critical information, leaving the recipient with the option of whether to read the details of your misadventures.
  • Consider using “FYI” to indicate an informational message with no need of reply, and “Question” to indicate an inquiry. For example, “FYI: Timecards due TODAY,” or “Question: Reimbursable Expenses.”
  • Don’t use “Hi” or “Hello” as subjects. I’m guilty of this in personal messages, because so often I’m just writing to, well, say “Hi!” Nevertheless, there’s no appropriate use for that in a business related message: it doesn’t give any information to the recipient.
  • After a few replies, replies to replies, and so on, even the best subject line may become outdated. If you’ve veered off the original topic, go ahead and change the subject line. It will be helpful later if you try to search for the message.
  • Finally, never leave the subject line blank. This should be obvious, but apparently it’s not.

If you’d like to read more ranting on subject lines, visit