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Eric Moore

E-mail Basics

Eric Moore, CUGG

October 13, 2007


In anticipation of this month’s presentation on e-mail basics and etiquette, I thought I would put in my two cents worth on the topic.  This article is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide some tips, tricks, and recommendations for using e-mail safely and more effectively.


What’s an E-mail Client?

An e-mail is any program that allows you to send, receive, and otherwise manage your e-mail and address book.  Examples of common e-mail clients are Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Netscape Communicator.  At the very least, an e-mail client will allow you to manage your e-mail by organizing messages in folders, to mark messages as read or unread, to select the sorting order for messages, and to manage more than one mailbox (a useful feature if you need to separate messages from different e-mail accounts).  Some more advanced clients may include a calendar, a management tool for newsgroup subscriptions, and/or built-in spam and phishing filters.


Did You Save That Message?

When composing a message, especially a long one, don’t forget to periodically save your work.  You should see an option under the File menu to save your message.  When you save the draft of your message, it will be placed in a special folder that is usually called Drafts.  The message will remain in the Drafts folder until you send the message or delete it.  If you need to leave a message unfinished until another time, save it and then close it.  You can later pick up where you left off by going to the Drafts folder and double-clicking to open the message.


DON’T USE ALL CAPS or Excessive Punctuation!!!!!

Typing a message in all capital letters is frowned upon by many recipients as the text is harder to read.  The recommendation is that you follow the standard rules for the use of upper and lower case text as you would for business correspondence.

For reasons of clarity, you should also follow the standard rules of punctuation.  For example, use only one exclamation mark if one is warranted at all.  Anything more may give the recipient the impression that your concern is exaggerated and not worth their immediate attention.


Enter a Descriptive Subject

The subject line provides the recipient a quick summary of what the message is about.  I heartily recommend using it regularly, as the recipient may need to know whether it is a message that demands immediate attention or can be put off for another day.  The recipient may also rely on message rules to automatically sort and prioritize incoming messages according to subject matter.  A well-phrased subject can quickly get your concern across.

The trick is to find the proper balance between specificity and brevity.  Ideally, the entire subject line should be visible from the preview list of mail headers.  I usually try to include a few keywords regarding the subject of my message in a five- to ten-word phrase.  A subject line such as My computer will not connect to Comcast is more descriptive and helpful to the recipient than Help!


Don’t Send That Message Yet!

A common mistake is to send an e-mail before it’s finished.  There are ways to protect against this common mistake.  One way is to customize the e-mail editor so the Send button is not displayed by default on the toolbar.  The location of the customization feature on the menu will depend on the e-mail client that you use.  Typical places to look would be Tools > Customize… or Options > Customize…

Another technique that I frequently use is to enter nonsensical text such as oawiejfwoi in the CC or BCC field.  My logic for doing so is that the e-mail clients I use—Thunderbird at home and Outlook at work—will immediately flag the nonsensical text as an invalid e-mail address and ask me to correct it.  Until I remove the text, either program will refuse to send the message.



Since the tone of your voice does not carry over in an e-mail, you may be misunderstood when making a statement that could be interpreted negatively, such as a critical or cynical remark.   Emoticons are simple pictorial hints that inform the recipient your intent when making a statement in your message.  They incorporate the various characters of a keyboard to form a facial expression.  A commonly used one is the smiley, used to indicate a message is intended to be funny or tongue in cheek:  :-).  When viewed sideways, the colon forms the eyes, the hyphen the nose, and the left parenthesis the smiling mouth.  Other examples include:

You can find many more emoticons to choose from by searching the web for emoticons.

Some e-mail clients such Microsoft Outlook may change an emoticon into single graphical character.  For instance, the smiley is changed into a single character representation of a smiling face.  This may be acceptable if the recipient uses the same e-mail client as you do.  Otherwise, the character may be reinterpreted as something else such as letter L.  If you send e-mail to users who may use a variety of e-mail clients, look for an autocorrect setting that you can disable.

You may have seen products advertised on the Internet that provide you with hundreds of graphical emoticons.  Aside from the fact that some of these products may come with spyware, using graphics increases the total size of your message.  When sending e-mail, try to keep it as small as possible (especially when sending to a user with a slow Internet connection).


File Attachments

When sending e-mail attachments, you should consider whether the files are of interest or relevance to the recipient.  Sending and forwarding file attachments may try the recipient’s patience, especially if done frequently with little forethought or if the attachments are large.  When sending one or more attachments that total more than one megabyte or so, you may wish to ask whether the recipient minds receiving the attachment(s).  A user who has a slow Internet connection may decline, so as not have to spend twenty minutes waiting for ten megabytes of attachments to download.

If you are sending a large file or several files at a time, reduce the file size and save your recipient’s time by compressing and archiving the files.  Text-based documents such as word processor files and spreadsheets can especially be reduced in size with a compression program such as WinZip, FreeZip, or 7-Zip.  A large quantity of files can also be compacted into a single Zip archive to save your recipient the time and trouble when saving the attachment to the hard drive.  When sending pictures such as JPEG files which do not compress much or all, you may wish to consider using a program such as Picasa, Adobe Photoshop, or The GIMP  to scale down the image, thus producing a smaller file.

One last thing to remember is, Did you remember the file attachment you promised to send?  Much to my chagrin, I've made this mistake numerous times.  My rule of thumb is to add that attachment as soon as possible, preferably before I begin composing my message.  That way I don’t waste the recipient’s time or worse yet, invite a snide remark about the missing attachment.


Protect Recipients’ Privacy with Blind Carbon Copies

As the treasurer of CUGG, I send out a yearly notice asking our current members to consider renewing their memberships for the coming year.  In order to protect the privacy of the members, I put my address in the To field and every member’s address in the blind carbon copy (BCC) field.  Sending a blind carbon copy is like sending a carbon copy except that each recipient’s address remains private from everyone else’s.  This also has the added benefit of cutting down on needless e-mail traffic.  If a member responds with Reply All, only I will receive the response.  This saves the other members the trouble of receiving and screening out messages that only concern me.


Reply vs. Reply All

There are two ways in which you can reply to a message.  The standard way sends a response only to the sender of the message.  The other way, Reply All, sends a response to everyone who received the original message (except those who received blind carbon copies).  Reply All should only be used if the response is relevant to everyone or of a private nature.  Otherwise, you should refrain from using the feature or at the very least, remove from the To and CC fields those recipients who do not need to receive your response.


Remove the Superfluous When Replying and Forwarding

When replying to or forwarding a message, keep the content of the message to a minimum.  Remove from the body of the original message any text that is not absolutely relevant to your message.  When forwarding a message, remove the e-mail header (subject line, list of recipients, etc.) of the original message.  Not only does this cut down on the amount of clutter, but serves to protect the privacy of the other recipients of the original message.

Some e-mail clients use punctuation or other text to set off the content of the original message.  Your e-mail client may have settings that allow you to cut down or eliminate the use of such extraneous text.  Third party programs are also available that can clean out the extraneous text.  Searching the web for “e-mail stripper” will bring up several products available for this purpose.


Turn off the Preview Window

Some e-mail clients have security weaknesses that allow for malicious software to be executed without you ever opening the message.  There also exist techniques used by spammers to embed pictures that allow them to discover whether a message is viewed by the recipient.  It is for these reasons that I recommend disabling the preview window in your e-mail client.  The steps for disabling the preview window differ from one e-mail client to another, so consult the documentation for directions on how to do so.


Use a Disposable Account as a Defense Against Spam

Once your e-mail address is on a spammer’s list, it is impossible to get off.  The more people you share your address with, the greater the potential it will find its way onto a spammer’s list.  If you are required to provide an e-mail address to validate for some service (such as an account on a tech support site) or to receive an e-mail newsletter, consider using a disposable account.

Your Internet service provider may provide for more than one e-mail address.  While using your primary for regular day-to-day correspondence with people and companies you trust, use one of the alternate addresses for “junk mail.”  If the address becomes overrun with spam, delete or rename it and start from scratch.  You can also sign up for free e-mail through a number of providers.  Windows Live Hotmail, Google Gmail, and Yahoo! Mail are some examples of free e-mail providers that are well suited for setting up disposable accounts.


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