The perfect way to write an email subject line, and 9 mistakes to avoid

Writing an important work email is one thing. Getting someone to actually
open it is the challenge.

Turns out the key to grabbing your recipient’s attention is an excellent subject line.

The problem is, most people don’t give it much thought. They quickly type something in before clicking “send,” or don’t bother writing anything at all.

“We call the subject line, ‘the most important, most neglected line’ in email,” says Will Schwalbe, who coauthored “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better” with David Shipley.

But if you want people to read your emails — and respond — you need to craft the perfect subject line.

“It needs to be descriptive, informative, and inviting,” says
Barbara Pachter, a business-etiquette expert and author of
The Essentials Of Business Etiquette.” “You want to target your reader. Often, people will not open an email unless the subject line indicates it’s something worth reading.”

Here’s what the perfect subject line looks like — and nine mistakes to avoid.

The perfect subject line

Your subject line will look different depending on the nature of the email (is it a request? an announcement?) and the recipient(s). But generally speaking, the perfect email subject line 'is short, specific, has the most relevant word or words at the start and not at the end, and refers to the conversation at hand -- not one from weeks ago,' says Schwalbe.

Here's what the perfect subject line looks like:

It's short

A typical inbox reveals about 60 characters of an email's subject line, while a mobile phone shows just 25 to 30 characters, Amanda Augustine, a career advice expert at TopResume, previously told Business Insider. Get right to the point in about six to eight words.

It tells the recipient what the email is about

If your email is a question, your subject line should say something along the lines of, 'Question about your service,' or 'Question about your latest report,' Pachter says.

If you're making a suggestion, title your email 'Suggestions for today's meeting.'

If you're sharing an update or status report, label it as such.

Tell the recipient exactly what they can expect in the body of the email.

It says something unexpected

Want to stand out? Include surprising information, such as 'I'm relocating to our Dublin office!' -- but only if it's true.

It drops names

Normally name dropping is obnoxious, but in emails it works.

When you write, 'Jacob Jones suggested that I contact you' or 'Jen Smith gave me your email address,' the recipient may be more likely to open it.

However, do not mention someone's name if you don't know the person, Pachter says.

It provides a call to action

If you need the recipient to take action, or meet a deadline, or be somewhere at a certain time, say so in the subject line!

It communicates good news

Instead of, 'Here's what happened at today's meeting,' try highlighting the good news: 'You were nominated for an award at today's meeting!'

It thanks, congratulates, or compliments the recipient

You can simply use 'Thank you' when emailing a thank-you note. You can say 'Congratulations' if the recipient was just promoted -- or something like 'Nice job with today's presentation' if your email talks about why you enjoyed it so much.

Mistake 1: Leaving it blank

Jenna Goudreau, a former deputy editor at Business Insider, writes: 'Not including a subject line is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.'

She says Augustine stressed that the subject line 'can be the most important part of the email, since it often determines whether an email is opened and how the recipient responds. An email with a blank subject line will likely get deleted, lost, or immediately irritate the recipient, who is forced to open the email to figure out what it's about.'

Mistake 2: Failing to tell the recipient anything

Avoid using useless subject lines that don't tell the reader anything, like, '???' or 'Two Things' or 'Question' or 'Urgent,' says Schwalbe.

Mistake 3: Typos or wrong names

Read your subject line very carefully before hitting send.

'Do not have typos. Your professionalism can be questioned,' says Pachter. And check that any names you include are spelled correctly and are actually the right name.

I can't tell you how often I get emails that say, 'Hi Jessica, just checking in.' I usually just hit 'delete.'


'Using all caps may get someone's attention, but in the wrong way,' Goudreau writes.

The recipient may feel like you're yelling at them, Pachter adds, so don't do it.

Mistake 5: Rambling on and on

Again, you want to keep it short and sweet.'Do not make the subject line too long,' Pachter says. 'Use just a few words and do not use a period at the end of the phrase. You can use a question mark if your subject line is a question and you can use an exclamation mark sparingly.'

Mistake 6: Using an outdated subject line that's not relevant to the message you're sending

Keep it current.

'If a thread started about one thing and has long since morphed into another topic -- or you decide to reply to an old tread -- change the subject line (or just start a new one), Schwalbe suggests.

Mistake 7: Starting a sentence that ...

... finishes in the email.

'If you begin a thought or question that ends in the email body, then the reader is forced to open the email,' Goudreau writes. 'It's annoying, and since clarity and being respectful of the recipient's time is the goal, it's not very helpful,' says Augustine. 'Consider whether instant message, a call, or an in-person chat might be a better medium for your question.'

Mistake 8: Using 'spammy' words

If your subject line says, 'Great Opportunity' or, 'Wow, wait til you see this!' -- it probably won't get opened, says Schwalbe.

Mistake 9: Being too vague

Be specific, says Schwalbe. 'If I recommend you write someone I know, write 'Will Schwalbe passed along your contact information' and not, 'A friend of yours gave me your email.''

'The subject line should communicate exactly what the email is about so that the recipient can prioritise the email's importance without having to open it,' writes Goudreau. 'For example, writing 'Do you have a sec?' is too vague, says Augustine, since the reader will have to open the email or reply to figure out what you want. Don't make the reader guess. Keep it specific, straightforward, and use logical keywords that will make it searchable later.'

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