The Fundamental ‘Rule’ for Clear Writing

3 December 2009


Word count:  620

Estimated reading time: 3-4 minutes


Start out clearly. 


Use headings, titles and subject lines that clearly state what is included in the text that follows.


This is vital for two very important reasons.


First, it helps readers process information.  It brings to mind what they already know about that subject and prepares them to take in more information that you include in the content.


Second (and even more important in business situations) it helps busy readers filter documents.  In this age of information overload, business people have to use ways to sort out what they read from what they don’t read – what’s important from what’s not important – what they must read now and what they can read later. 


How NOT to write an email subject line


An example of this is something that happened to my husband recently.  He gets hundreds of emails every day, many that are a waste of his time.  So he decides which emails to open based on the subject lines.  He has to. 


In late September he got an email with this subject line:  “Research Support Network Seminars (2009-2010) – Reminder”. 


He decided to read that one later since it didn’t seem urgent.  Besides, he knew that his schedule was too full to attend another seminar in 2009.


In early November, he got a follow-up email from the writer, asking why he hadn’t shown up to make a presentation at the seminar.


‘What presentation?!’ he wondered.  So he scrolled down to see the first email and found that she had asked him to present information on a research project at that seminar – not just to attend.  Here’s the full email.


Subject:  Research Support Network Seminars (2009-2010) – Reminder


Dear Prof. DeGolyer,


Since our office is working on the schedule for Research Support Network Seminars in AY2009/10, we would like to invite you to share your CERG project "The Hong Kong Transition Project: Constitutional Reforms and the Elections of 2007/2008" at the captioned seminar.  Your presentation will be scheduled for 30 October 2009 around 13:20 - 14:00 (including 20 minutes for presentation and 5-10 minutes for Q & A).   If I do not hear from you on or before 7 October 2009, your acceptance for presentation is presumed. 


Hmmm -- wonder why she was surprised when he didn’t show up!


How to improve that subject line


What was the problem with this subject line?  It didn’t match the content.  The email content was not a reminder; it was an invitation to speak. 


So the subject line should have indicated the email’s real purpose.  For example:  “Invitation to speak at Research Support Network Seminar on 30 Oct”.


Even better, she could have added response dates in the subject line, for example  

Invitation to speak at 30 Oct Seminar–please reply by 7 Oct

Please speak at 30 Oct Seminar–respond by 7 Oct

Dean requests you present at 30 Oct Seminar—reply deadline, 7 Oct


Adding response dates helps busy readers filter email better and take care of important things in a timely manner.  (Thanks to Barbara Leung, one of my blog readers, for this great idea!)


Old Rule – New Rule


The old ‘rule’ for email subject lines was this:  make them short, and use nouns or noun phrases only.  But the writer in the example above followed this rule, and look at the problem it caused. 


That rule doesn’t make sense in today’s world.  So I say – break it! 


Since many readers decide which emails to read based solely on the subject line, go ahead and use verbs – even short sentences.  And be sure to include relevant dates to help your busy readers even more. 

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