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Email Subjects: Think Forward

After a Writing Tune-Up I led yesterday, Gordon, an attendee, sent this suggestion, which I edited slightly for your understanding:

I have one thought I believe worth passing along having to do with subject lines. A test for a subject line is “Will readers be able to find an email when they need it, even if it’s weeks or months after they receive it?” Emailing out a policy is a good example. No one is going to commit the policy to memory when they receive the email. But people may remember receiving the policy and would like to find it quickly when they need it.

With Gordon’s excellent suggestion in mind, think long term when you create email subjects.

Here are four subject lines in my email inbox. Which would work for the long term?

  1. A Little Help Please
  2. Bid Request: Better Business Writing
  3. Don’t Ignore Your Hometown Media
  4. From Marshall Management

If I were to keep these messages for several months, I believe 2 and 3 would still be easy to identify. (Number 3 is an ezine from publicity expert Nancy Juetten.) Number 1 could be any request for help. Number 4 identifies only its sender.

Before sending out your next email, think of the future. Especially if you are forwarding a policy, procedure, presentation, list of resources, or other documents you want readers to keep, choose an email subject that will make sense in a week, a month, or a year.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Email Subjects: Think Forward”

  • I second Gordon’s idea! I always appreciate subject headings that are clear what the content is about. Here’s another suggestion.

    As a remote technologist for small business clients, I send via email how-to instructions, complete with screenshots. I always put the how-to-guide’s title in the subject heading. Here are examples:

    1. OUTLOOK: How to change your email signature
    2. EXCEL: How to create a PivotTable
    3. WORD: How to create a template

    Some clients are too busy to save them to the desktop so I try to make it easy to find these how-tos in their inbox.


  • Amy, thanks for these excellent examples.

    I clearly remember responding to your comment when I read it, but somehow my comment disappeared, so I am posting this one again. Maybe I clicked the BACK button by mistake!

    In any case, these are very useful examples.

    TITLE: Think of the future
    BLOG NAME: Manage Your Writing
    DATE: 08/15/2007 07:57:37 AM
    I once heard an historian of business communication (please forgive me for not remembering who) report that subject lines in memos were created not to inform the reader but to guide the filing clerk. Subject lines reportedly were born at

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