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Email Netiquette - Part 2

This is the second in a series of four. The first can be found at Continuing our discussion from the previous post, I'll expound on points four through six in this post.

  1. Use plain text (preferred) or HTML
  2. Top-post only when forwarding. Bottom-post otherwise.
  3. Trim your replies.
  4. Keep you signature under five lines, and use the signature separator "-- " (dash, dash, space).
  5. Do not attach unnecessary files, keep attachments small, and don't attach proprietary formats.
  6. Keep the width of your message under 80 characters
  7. Use a client that sends threading headers.
  8. Reply only to the necessary people (don't abuse CC: or "reply to all").
  9. Be short and concise. Don't ramble (stay on topic).
  10. Break up your paragraphs.
  11. Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation (avoid CAPS).
  12. Don't answer spam, and don't send out spam.

Keep your signature under five lines and use the signature separator "-- " (dash, dash, space).
Email signatures can be a great way to communicate to your target audience a little bit about yourself. Generally, email signatures are used for contact information, in case someone wants to get in contact with you outside of email. Other email signatures might include some art, or fancy font, or just an abstract representation of something completely off the wall. Whatever the case may be, there are a few things to keep in mind with email signatures.

First, keep your signature short and concise. No one wants to see a lengthy signature, width or length. A good rule of thumb, is to keep the length under five lines. When email signatures get lengthy, they begin to distract the reader from the message. Especially if loud colors and font sizes are used in an HTML signature. Remember, it's the subject of your email, not what's in your signature, that is most important. So, keep the signature light, small and concise. You can use really anything in your signature. That's up to you. It can be contact information, such as cell phone or business fax, it could be a random quote you cherish, or something abstract. I use the first 5 generations of the glider from John Conway's Game of Life. It's plain text, it's not noisy, and it's only 3 lines. Plus, I always get at relpy every so often, asking what the signature means. Great conversation starter.

Second, when using signatures, it's important to use the signature separator, which is been standardized as "-- ", or "dash, dash, space". Most email clients that I'm aware of will prepend this to your signature by default. However, if you are unsure, check your email settings or preferences to make sure this is set appropriately. The reason for this, is some mailing list managers will trunk signatures out of view, so the body of the text is the only thing visible. Some mail clients can be setup in this manner as well. Because it's the body of the text that is important, and not the signature of the one sending the mail, many people just prefer to have their client chop the signature entirely. By making sure "-- " is in configured correctly, you are being considerate to those who wish not to be bothered by the noise a signature can create.

Do not attach unnecessary files, keep attachments small, and don't attach proprietary formats.
On technical mailing lists, email attachments are generally frowned upon. The reason being, is that usually the message can be conveyed without an attachment. If a screenshot is needed to help clarify its meaning, then there are many free image hosting services that would be appropriate for displaying the image. Then, a simple reference to the URL of the hosted image would be provided in the mail. This keeps the email itself light on used bandwidth for those reading your message.

The biggest complaint of email attachments is the size of the attachment. My mother will send me videos she finds hilarious, emotionally moving, or whatever. These videos are usually 10-20 MB in size, so I get to sit for a few minutes, waiting for my email to load, because the attachment is downloading. Rather, if she would provide a URL reference to the video online, I could parse the email much faster. So, if you must provide an email attachment, try to keep the size to a minimum. Zip it up, if necessary, to help decrease the size. I understand this is not always possible, but a good rule of thumb, would be to keep attachments to under 100 KB. This would mean that the email would load up for most people in a second or two. Even those who are still on a dial-up account, the message could be received in 30 seconds at the worst.

Lastly, don't assume that I have a license to view your attachment. While Microsoft Office might be nearly ubiquitous on most computers, sending a DOC or PPT file is usually in bad form. Instead, use standards-based formats, such as PDF, HTML or plain text. I once received an email that contained an XPS attachment. I literally had no clue what that was, and I did not have a program to open it. Going to the Google Machine, I found that this is an "XML Paper Specification" format designed by Microsoft to be the "PDF Killer". I found that it was exported from Microsoft Word 2007, and I needed Microsoft's XPS Viewer to view the utility. But, that utility is only available for Windows operating systems, and at the time, I was using my Debian GNU/Linux laptop. Long story short, I couldn't open the file. So, I had to reply to the sender of the email to please send me a PDF version of the attachment, as I had no ability to open an XPS file. I was polite, and in return, he was polite is accommodating my request.

Keep the width of your message under 80 characters.
This might sound like an odd netiquette rule, but wrapping your message at 80 characters makes it easier for the recipient to read your message. In fact, the psychology department at Witchita State University did a study on this very thing. Which is better for reading text? Long columns of text or shorter columns? The results of the survey showed that people could read faster with greater accuracy and have better comprehension with two-column justified text than three-column (too short) or one-column (too long).

Translating this to email, people don't want to read lengthy columns of text. When you wrap your text to a shorter justification, but not too short, as the study shows, it's easier for the reader to comprehend what you're talking about, and they can read through the text quicker. Major publishers know this as well. Pick up your favorite novel, and count the number of characters on a single line. I have a paperback copy of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and each line is wrapped at exactly 60 characters. I have another paperback copy of Macbeth, by Shakespeare. Each line wraps at exactly 50 characters. Looking through all my novels, I'm actually struggling to find a book that has more than 85 characters on a single line. The Debian System, written by Martin Krafft, wraps at 85 characters.

The standardized accepted practice for email, is to actually wrap your email text at 72-75 columns. This gives enough room for others to reply to your message, which will usually prepend the two characters "> " to your original message, and still keep the length of the mail under 80 characters. As would be expected, Microsoft Outlook seems to struggle with this when writing emails initially, but can be configured to wrap at 80 characters for replies.

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