Did you read the subject line?

By Joe Diorio

I hate writing email subject lines. I know they are important, but I find writing them to be a soul-draining exercise. Just once I’d like to write, “Read this, dang it” and see what happens.

I know, I know. The subject line is the most important part of your email. It draws the reader in, right? Make them want to click “open,” right?

Yeah, yeah. I still hate doing it.

That said it is with a bit of hesitation that I cite some subject lines from political fundraising emails that caught the attention of a journalist colleague. Not because they’re good, but because their writers probably have my mindset about writing subject lines.

  • “A hard e-mail to write.”
  • “Don’t freak out”
  • “I quit”
  • “coming to you directly”
  • “We need to do something drastic and ambitious”
  • “unacceptable”
  • “This email is just four sentences” (Translation: Please read this.)
  • “genuine risk of losing”
  • “please”

Because we all write so many emails, I’m going to go out on a limb and say we are all guilty of writing a bad subject line now and then. That said, what makes for a good subject line?

“You need to appeal directly to your reader’s interests,” explains Holly Wexler, senior associate director, Wharton External Affairs, at the University of Pennsylvania. “Your subject line should reflect the content and be relevant; an update or an important message from a recognizable person.”

Recognizability indeed works. The University of Georgia’s Development and Alumni Relations team finds that solicitation messages from Kirby Smart, head football coach at Georgia, have very robust responses. Ashley Crain, a communications coordinator in Development and Alumni Relations for UGA, said the emails from Coach Smart generate some of the best responses.

Wexler shared a handy “to do” list of what to keep in mind when writing subject lines, such as utilize personalization, use recipient-specific words (be meaningful to the reader), use caps sparingly so your email doesn’t get marked as spam, and limit your use of exclamation points. (Note: Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English, advises that one should use no more than 12 exclamation points in a lifetime. Not a bad goal to keep in mind if you ask me.) Before leaving this subject, here is a shout out to Jadrian Wooten, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech, who wrote an email to his students in the style of a political fundraising email:

SUBJECT: Kiss your THURSDAY goodbye

I posted about it in the syllabus.

I reminded you in class all week long.

I posted an announcement in Canvas about it.

And now I’m emailing you – AGAIN – because with twelve hours left before the deadline for your assignment, things have gotten more serious.

I’ve just learned that half of the class STILL hasn’t start (sic) the assignment due tonight and this could potentially DESTROY your ability to enjoy your Thursday night. This is absolutely unbelievable.

We’ve tried setting all the due dates in advance. We’ve tried keeping the due dates consistent during the semester. But now we need you to act. Please, this is a make-or-break moment. Will you start your homework now before we get too close to the deadline?

Literal interpretations

Loved this exchange captured on the Twitter feed for @kctorawrites:

Me: (cooking with 9yo) Okay, pour in the evaporated milk.

9yo: If it was evaporated, it wouldn’t be here.

Me: …

Writing to be understood can be harder than you think. An elementary school teacher in Southwest Florida recently asked her students to write out instructions on how to make a sandwich with Nutella. One student diligently wrote, take a slice of bread and put the Nutella on it. So, the teacher placed a slice of bread on a plate, then placed the jar of Nutella on the bread. She followed directions, right?

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Fort Myers, Florida. His TRIPLE award-winning first book, A Few Words About Words, is available now.

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