One of the biggest reasons people do not read email messages is because writers are careless about subject lines and, as a result, fail to pull the reader in.

The subject line is the first place you are communicating with a reader, the first time you are saying to the reader, “Here is why you need to read this.” Stop sending messages with a one or two-word subject line because those words will be too general and vague to be of any use to the reader. Instead, be sure the subject line carries substantive information, and if you need seven or eight words to achieve that, use them.

Instead of “Meeting,” write “Schedule for Wed. lunch meeting” or “3 things to bring to Wed. lunch meeting.” Be as specific as possible; it tells the reader why this is worth her time.

Using the same subject line is an easy trap to fall into because when we click on the “reply” button, the message box flips open with a subject line already in that box, so we ignore it and start writing. We are focused on what we want to say in our response, but the reader might never see it because the subject line will not give the reader a reason to open it.

When several emails are traded back and forth about the same topic, change the subject line to reflect changes in the content. Using the original subject line is lazy, and it creates work for the reader, who cannot see how this message is different from all the others that were sent under the same subject line.

Additionally, using the same subject line makes it difficult for someone to look for specific details. If a person has 14 messages all labeled “Tuesday meeting,” it is a chore to find the one that has Sarah Ford’s notes in it. Try to keep one or two keywords so that the reader can search later, but change other words to reflect your new information.

If you are the meeting planner for your next team meeting, subject lines in a few messages in sequence might look like this:

Team meeting: planning session agenda

Team meeting: announcement letter-please review

Team meeting: CEO’s talking points (attached)

Team meeting: refreshment arrangements

An effectively written subject line helps to ensure that you didn’t waste your time writing an elaborate message that everyone missed because the subject line failed to communicate that it was worthwhile.


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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at

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