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Don’t Pile on the Topics in an Email Reply

Today in “How to Write Email That Gets Read and Gets Results,” which I presented for the Washington Society of CPAs,” we talked about our pet peeves, things that slow us down and drive us nuts as email readers. An auditor shared one of her pet peeves that I’d like to pass on to you. Here is what she said, as I recall it:

“As an auditor, I write to people about very specific topics. I am careful to craft a subject line that is very precise, and I continue to use that subject as we email back and forth on the same topic.

“The problem is that people include all kinds of information on other topics–not what I wrote them about–and they use the same subject. I have the hardest time filing those messages so I can find the information again.”

I couldn’t have described the problem better.

Here is my advice: To avoid driving your readers crazy as they read or attempt to file your messages, limit your messages to just one topic–especially when communicating with an accountant, attorney, project manager, financial advisor, or another person who works on specific projects or issues with you. Whenever you want to introduce a new topic, start a new message.

Happy emailing.


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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.

4 comments on “Don’t Pile on the Topics in an Email Reply”

  • Not to get off topic . . . 🙂

    But on a related note, I think it is essential when replying to an email to include the full thread of email replies up to that point. I once read a business writing textbook that opposed doing so. But when I forward an email to a third party, that third party can lose context if I am forwarding an email that does not include the history of discussion. As a result, I might need to find those other emails and include them as attachments.

  • In Microsoft Outlook you can change the subject line of messages you’ve received, making those messages on topics other than your original subject easy to file and find. Just double click on the message so it opens in its own window, type a new subject line and close the message. You’ll be prompted whether you want to save changes – click YES and you’re done.

  • Hi, Anne. I appreciate your good advice about changing the subject in the email we receive. I still want to encourage writers to limit their topics though. If someone writes to the auditor about three topics, she has to copy the message and rename it at least twice. The three topics create extra work for her and increase the likelihood that she will struggle to find bits of information. From my viewpoint, it’s much easier for the writer to send three short messages.

    Thanks for commenting!

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