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Efficient Update of an Email Subject Line

The other day I emailed a request for writing class prework to a team of seven people. I used this subject:

Prework for Writing Tune-Up Session on Sept. 21–Action Requested by Sept. 12

Two people who responded to my request updated the subject when they replied, like this:

Prework for Writing Tune-Up Session on Sept. 21–Action Requested by Sept. 12 – Michael

Prework for Writing Tune-Up Session on Sept. 21–Action Requested by Sept. 12 – Karen Smith input

I appreciate their efficiency. At a glance, I now know who each message is from without having to look at the return address. And my replies to Michael and Karen are quick to identify. 

I recommend that type of subject update. I use it when someone requests information about business writing courses, and it is clear the person has sent the request to more than one company. My updated subject might look like this one, with my company name added:

Information on Business Writing Classes – From Syntax Training

Do you appreciate email subject updates?

Syntax Training

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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.

16 comments on “Efficient Update of an Email Subject Line”

  • Hi, Matt. Thanks for weighing in.
    I appreciate your point. Let’s see what others think.


  • Is it really that efficient to update a subject line? In most inboxes, you see the From e-mail address on the same line as the subject.

    Also, when someone changes the subject line, it complicates the ability to sort by subject line & date.

    I’d rather folks leave the subject line alone.

  • Personally, I like the idea, Lynn. To offer an extreme example (that is all too common), how often has an email with one subject gone off in a totally different direction? Try to find the email on the second topic when the subject line has never been changed from the original.

    I like the updates a lot and think I will see how I can incorporate them. My 2 cents. 🙂

  • I agree with Matt on this one. I’d add that subject lines are often cut short, depending on the size of the email program’s window.

    But I have seen others, including an author of a college textbook on Business Writing, recommend changing the subject line. Clearly, some recipients appreciate the revision, so that’s something to consider even if I think it’s less efficient that leaving it as it is.

  • Many (most?) email clients group messages into conversations based on the subject lines. Considering this, I think the best guidance is to change the subject line when you are changing topics.

    Some may consider the shift from a generic request for information to a reply about your specific services to be changing the topic. I probably would prefer the response to group with the original inquiry though.

    When gathering input from several people, I would definitely want those responses to be grouped together for easy reference. It is common in my workplace for this to be handled with the noisy Reply To All feature.

  • Updating a subject line is critically important and efficient. Sometimes I have to search multiple e-mails from the same person to find the information he/she has provided. A customer may write to me under the heading “Textile tour of Timor,” and in our correspondence within several months period, we may have as many as 15 to 25 e-mails about this tour. Buried within one of these e-mails may be flight information or other important information I may need or provided. Or she may have specific questions regarding the tour. In my answers to her, I always try to keep the key words from the main subject line and add: “Textile tour to Timor – hotel recommendations,” or “Textile tour to Timor – Your requested gluten-free diet.” This will help the recipient quickly search for my e-mail with answers to her questions.

  • I work with a group of people who rarely change subjects even with topic changes and an e-mail program which groups messages by conversation. I also work with another group that uses appropriate subjects and understands conversation grouping. I find myself changing subject lines regularly with the first group, but I often use a short name for the project and end up searching for detail as Chee mentions. So I think that where possible, and an appropriate subject is used, leaving them alone is best, but adding something for critical details is an excellent idea. I wouldn’t do it for everything, but I certainly will in some cases.

  • What an interesting discussion! It looks like I am not the only struggling with exactly how to handle email subject lines. This is an issue I come across almost daily.

    I do organize my Outlook email by conversations, so when someone changes a subject line, it kind of messes with my whole system. Then again, I don’t appreciate it when an email thread derails entirely from the original subject and no one changes the subject line- that’s just plain confusing.

    A few comments have mentioned that updating subject lines eases searching. I don’t really see that as necessary, since today’s email clients allow you to search the body of an email as well as the subject line (and the search still takes only a few seconds.) For this reason, Chee Choy’s example of updating an email subject line of “Textile tour to Timor” with details like “hotel reservations” and “flight information” would not helpful to me- I would rather have one conversation with all the information I need about the tour, and when I need to know flight information or other details, I can just perform a search of the body of the email.

    Of course, the biggest issue I face is really just totally inefficient subject lines that are much too general and make it difficult for me to organize my emails, like “ACME Company Order” and “When will this ship?” But that’s another subject entirely;-)

  • Thanks, everyone, for this enlightening discussion.

    Thanks to the views of Matt, Alfredo, and Chuck, I will think twice about changing the subject line. I had not thought sufficiently about people grouping their messages by conversation. Indeed, when I grouped my request for prework into a conversation, the responses from Michael and Karen dropped off.

    I prefer to work the way Chee recommends in the “Textile tour to Timor” example. Although it is possible to search by key word in the body of emails, I find it so much easier to see what I need in the subject.

    It goes back to knowing your readers. If you work in a team, you may want to talk with your coworkers about how to make your emails most efficient.

    Again, thanks for sharing!


  • I must say I actually dislike people changing the subject line! At least when the topic of the email is still related to the original email. I very much rely on emails being grouped and find it very unhelpful if an email drops out of the conversation.

    At the same time, I agree: It is necessary that the subject line reflects the subject of the message. It does not make much sense using an old subject line and ending up with 20 mails from 12 months in one grouped email.

    So, just to confirm what you said summing up the comments: Make sure the subject line reflects the content but don’t change it too often.

  • I like to change subjects, and don’t have anything new to add on that apart from my vote. However, I would like to extend this discussion. I would like to be able to edit the subject in the incoming message, as I use my Inbox for long term storage of messages.


  • Hi, Geoff. In Outlook, you can edit the subject of a message you save. Just open the message, change the subject, and save the message.

    Were you asking HOW to do it, or were you looking for another type of response?


  • Hi
    I have spent sometime trying to find webmail and email clients that will allow editing the subject of incoming mails. I have always used Outlook for Windows which allows this function. I recently changed to Mac and found Outlook for Mac doesn’t have this function. I cant find any other email clients or any webmail that will allow this function. In my business we generate about 100 new incidents/topics per week and keep track of emails about each topic by adding a reference to each. Clients invariably use the same ref when they start a new subject – so this function is vital.

    Is there a better way to reference email I wonder?


  • Paul, have you tried to forward the message to yourself? Doing so allows you to change the message, including the subject.

    I don’t know a better way to reference email. Perhaps someone else will join the discussion.


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