Making Subject Lines Pay Off


Last week (, we talked about common failings in email correspondence. This week, as promised, we’ll home in on an area where many emailers can easily enhance their skills: the composition of subject lines.

Do you allocate a few seconds to creating a pointed subject line that will go a long way in helping your reader grasp why you are writing, or do you mainly focus on the message? Trick question! I say the subject line is a crucial, interwoven part of your message. Let’s illustrate.

The situation

You work for a community organization that generally draws 75–100 people to its annual meeting, traditionally held at the public library. Invitations have gone out, and you’ve noticed that the number of early RSVPs is much more robust than usual. You want to alert your executive director and your annual meeting chair that the library might not be able to accommodate this year’s crowd. When you alert the two of them to the likely need to change the location, what is the subject of your email?

Typical subject lines

Perhaps because we received no instruction in effective emailing when we were in school, most subject lines fall far short of what we could convey in that commanding space:
Annual meeting
Nov. 22 meeting
Annual meeting RSVPs

Subject lines that pay off

Are any of those lead-ins awful? Not at all. But they’re not as valuable as they could be. How about these?
RSVPs nearing library capacity
Need Nov. 22 venue change?
Annual meeting location: Plan B

You might have thought of a better subject line, but the point is that these immediately put our readers on board. Now the email has a thesis statement. Back in school, letting the reader know right away where we were going was sound practice on an essay, and it’s a sure way to score today with our email recipents.

Two bonus payoffs

But as they say in infomercials, “And wait! There’s more.” Once we’ve taken a few extra moments to compose a truly relevant subject line, we can proceed to the message section with far greater efficiency.

So our one-two punch might look like this:
RSVPs nearing library capacity
With 60 annual meeting reservations already in, I’ve tentatively cleared three potential alternatives (below) in case we need to change our site. When do you have time for a conference call tomorrow to discuss Plan B possibilities and next steps?

Moreover, front-loading the process – thinking briefly about the “thesis statement” before rushing to compose the message – brings more focus to the writing process. We aren’t making as many decisions about the thrust of the message as we write because we already solved a lot of that in determining the subject line.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at

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