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Dec., 1999



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E-mail Etiquette (Netiquette)

By Chris Pirillo

Poor Richard's E-mail Publishing
by Chris Pirillo
Click here for ordering information.
This part of the chapter is not just for newbies; even if you've written e-mail for years, review this section carefully. Certain unspoken conventions are very important to keep in mind when you're composing e-mail messages. If you were a novice before, you need to be a professional now.
  • ONE OF THE BIGGEST MISTAKES PEOPLE MAKE IS TO TYPE WITH THEIR CAPS LOCK ON. All-caps might look cool to you, but experienced users will write you off as an idiot. It's okay to use all-caps for headings and/or titles in your messages, or even to EMPHASIZE certain words, but anything beyond that is equivalent to screaming at someone. Do you like being yelled at?
  • When you're upset with someone, the last thing you should do is write him an e-mail message. Yes, I've broken this rule quite a few times (and everybody probably has or will at some point). I've regretted blasting "nasty" e-mails to friends before chilling out first, but it's even worse to send angry e-mail in a business context.
  • If you can say it in three words, please . . . say it in three words. The last thing anybody needs is a 30-paragraph document explaining how to open a door. If a user sees a message that contains several paragraphs, he'll be less likely to read everything in it. Keep that in mind when you're trying to determine how much content you want to include in an e-mailing. Don't try to send out the entire text from a Web page if it isn't necessary. All Web pages (online) have URLs-refer the readers to the actual Web page instead.
  • While discussion lists are great for promoting and sharing ideas, be sure you're adding something valuable to the "conversation" if you want to toot your own horn. Offer help or advice, and then mention what your product or service is. Randomly interjecting your URL is simply rude.
  • Keep signature files down to 4-6 lines; this part of your message is the last thing the receiver will read. A signature typically includes your name, title, contact information, URL, and sometimes a little ASCII graphic or two. Many e-mail clients can be set up to automatically attach a default signature file to the end of all your outgoing messages (including replies). They're perfect for conveying important information, but should remain short and sweet.
  • If you're going to forward a message to someone else, strip all the extraneous information and characters from it beforehand. It cuts down on the size of the message and makes it easier to read. This is just another form of common e-courtesy that too many people have forgotten (or don't think about).
  • When replying to a person, be sure to include a quotation from the original e-mail that can provide context for your response. Most e-mail clients will insert a character before the original text of the sender's message in your reply. (The most common is the greater-than symbol.) Whatever you do, make sure your responses are clearly separated from their original text, to avoid confusion.
  • You may think you're being funny (or serious) in your writing, but it may come across differently to the reader. If you want to ensure their understanding, use an emoticon or two. They are also known as smileys . . . and there are thousands of possible combinations. The two major ones are :) and :( - do you see anything there? Turn this book sideways and look at them again. The colon and parenthesis (when placed next to each other) form a "face." If you're trying to be funny, inserting a smiley face can convey your intent, preventing misunderstandings or hurt feelings. Likewise, if your writing isn't indicative of your foul mood, perhaps a frowning emoticon should be dropped in at the end of a sentence.
  • If you use abbreviations or acronyms, be sure your audience already knows what they stand for. You want to make your readers feel welcome. If you're unsure, use the abbreviation with an explanation immediately behind it. You might even design an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document that they can retrieve via a Web page, an FTP download, or e-mail message.
  • Check with sources before distributing information. If something sounds too good to be true, it just might be. The last thing you want to do is broadcast to the world that the next 100 people to visit flyingteddybearaglets.com will get a free pair of shoes . . . only to find out later that it was a hoax.
  • Personal computers are like fingerprints-no two are exactly alike. Everyone has different hardware and software installed, resulting in different system capabilities. Even if you have a fancy e-mail program that can generate beautifully formatted messages with HTML, you should not rely on your recipients having the capability of reading such messages. A fancy HTML-formatted message might come across like gobbledygook to people with noncompatible e-mail programs. I strongly suggest using text (ASCII) as your default message format-that way, you're pretty much guaranteed compatibility with everyone else's mail reader.
  • Nobody likes reading run-on sentences because they're not very easy to read, and besides, readers' brains might get tired of thinking about the words by the time their eyes finish with the sentence a few minutes later before having to move on to the next sentence, which might be part of a bigger paragraph that seems to be lumped together without any signs of visible separation.
  • Use blank lines (hard carriage returns) to separate your paragraphs. Steer clear of tabs, because different e-mail programs can show tab stops differently onscreen. Use spaces if you need to indent something, but indenting the first line of each paragraph is largely unnecessary and should be avoided if possible.
  • In multiline paragraphs, keep the line length under 76 characters. The reason: not all e-mail clients will format your message correctly if you go beyond that number. In the recipient's Inbox, your paragraphs might appear choppier than you intended them to be. To ensure no problems with formatting on the other end, set the character wrap between 60 and 65. (Most e-mail programs allow you to set this option.)
  • You can attach items (documents, pictures, compressed archives, etc.) to an e-mail message. This feature is great . . . but don't abuse it. Mailing a simple 30K attachment is harmless enough, but when you need to send files much larger than that, ask the receiver's permission first. I was once locked out of my mailbox because a user mailed me a 7.2M attachment! I was livid because he wasted my time, stopped productivity, and sent something that large without my consent. If you're unsure of the file's size, don't send it. NOTE An e-mail provider may place restrictions on the size of messages a user is able to receive. When someone sends a "large" attachment, the receiver may be locked out of his mailbox.
  • It's also important to understand that users in your discussion lists probably don't want anything more than text-based messages. Don't use attachments or post messages in HTML format to a discussion list.
  • Your writing style says more about you than you realize. While e-mail might be viewed as an informal means of communication, your e-composition skills are still quite reflective of your knowledge and abilities. Yes, everybody is allowed to make a few typos, but if you're consistently not capitalizing words that should be capitalized, using unconventional punctuation (i.e., putting 15 periods in a row instead of just three), spelling words incorrectly, and so on, you will not come across as a person who knows what he's doing. Neatness counts.
  • Use a relatively descriptive subject line. I find it really annoying when someone sends me a message with just the word "Hi" in it. That tells me absolutely nothing about the message's content. I'm not suggesting that you sum up your life's story in one sentence, but I do recommend that you use words that will describe the general purpose of your e-mail.
  • When you interact with others on an unmoderated mailing list, don't post small, vague messages. Messages such as "Me too!" or "Can someone help me?", without any further description or qualification, do nothing to contribute to the conversation. Posting such trivial messages is considered very rude (and is a major waste of resources).
  • In a similar vein, don't reply to e-mails with one-word answers or questions. "What?" "What what?" "What?" It's another fantastic time waster.
  • When you have an e-mail address link set up on your Web site, that means you're ready for people to contact you via e-mail. Try to get back to people who write to you within a couple of days (and if you can't offer an extended reply, at least inform them of your situation). I've turned down several potentially good deals because people were extremely tardy in their e-mail responses. Big businesses are the worst offenders-don't be like them in this respect, please.
  • Don't forward forwarded messages on to your friends and co-workers. Yes, I realize that someone else forwarded them to you, but that doesn't mean you have to pass them along to even more people. I don't care if you thought it was funny. When I want to laugh, I'll find something funny to read on my own. I'm not the only one who's sick and tired of receiving chain letters on a daily basis. E-mail can be fun, but don't take it to the extreme.
Don't Rewrite the Rules

You may be new to the electronic publishing game, and a fresh perspective is typically a positive trait. But don't get too far ahead of yourself-e-mail has been around for decades. Chances are, you're not going to rewrite the book on effective communication tactics. Just because a method may seem smart to you doesn't mean that it's electronically savvy. There's a reason this chapter was written: to stop you from making a potentially damaging or offending mistake. "When in doubt, take the safer route."

Now you'll be minding your Ps and Qs, but do you understand why e-mail is a better means for your service or product? It isn't just for keeping in touch with your folks. .

© 1999 Chris Pirillo. All Rights Reserved. Excerpt reprinted from Poor Richard's E-mail Publishing with permission from the publisher. Any copying or reproduction is specifically prohibited.

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