Outlook 2007 Best Practices: Write great e-mail

By Melissa MacBeth

This article is part of a sequence of articles derived from Melissa MacBeth's Best practices for Outlook 2007.

 Note    For details on applying these principles, follow the links in the list and inline below to additional articles.

ShowSee links to the rest of the articles in this sequence.

In this article


The dos

The following rules will help you look professional and get your message across.

  1. Read your message before you send it.
  2. Make your subject descriptive and action-oriented. For example: "UCEF: Please send your Board Retreat Dates," where UCEF is the name of the group, and "Please send…" is the action. Other useful prefixes include "FYI:" and "Action Required."
  3. If action is required, state what you want on the Subject line.
  4. Change the subject of the message if the topic of the conversation changes.
  5. Keep all messages short and to the point.
  6. Organize the content of your message from most important to least.
  7. Consider bolding important information.
  8. Put action items or questions on separate lines so that they stand out and get noticed.
  9. Bold people's names when asking questions. For example: “Ryan: What is the status of the project?”
  10. Limit the number of people to whom you send a message to those who need to read it.
  • Put people who need to be informed on the Cc line.
  • Put people who need to respond or take action on the To line.
  1. Use a signature when appropriate, but keep your signature simple, short, professional, and if possible, free of graphics.
  2. If you want an immediate response, don't send e-mail. Phone or send an instant message.
  3. If you are on an e-mail conversation that has more than 10 messages without a resolution, consider calling or setting up a meeting to discuss the issue. E-mail is not always an efficient medium for resolving complex issues.
  4. Acknowledge messages that require a more extensive response. If you are too busy to respond with a full answer right away, let the sender know that you are looking into the issue and will respond by a certain time or date. Flag it for yourself to do later.
  5. Use High Importance ( High Importance icon in Outlook ) sparingly.

 Note    Even if you have set up the delayed send rule described in the Frequently asked questions article, marking a message with High Importance will cause it to be sent immediately.

  1. If you are asking a question and there are several people who could respond, choose just one person rather than sending your question to a group.

The key to writing good e-mail is to empathize with your recipients. For a deeper look at e-mail etiquette, see this article.

Follow up: Flagging on send

When you are sending a message to someone from whom you need a response, do the following:

  1. Flag it for yourself on send.
  2. Change the name of the flagged e-mail task in the To-Do Bar to start with Follow Up.
  3. Mark it with the @Waiting category.

When you take these three steps, you know that your next action is to send another message or look for a response.

Tip    Reminding yourself to send another message is often more effective than flagging the message for your recipient. Similarly, when you promise to do something in a message, flag it for yourself so that you have a task in your To-Do Bar to remind you.

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The don’ts

  1. Don't use stationery.
  2. Don't include your manager on every message you send.
  3. Don't send a message when you are angry. Better to write it, save it to your drafts folder, and come back to it later.
  4. Don't expect a quick response when sending long messages (more than two paragraphs).
  5. Don't send a follow-up message less than a day after the first message. If you don't hear back in a timely manner, try using the phone or instant messaging.
  6. Don't use read receipts or delivery receipts on every message you send. Use them only if you are unsure whether your recipients will receive the message.
  7. Don't attach flags or High Importance icon in Outlook to every message you send. Your recipients will learn to ignore them.
  8. Don't use ALL CAPS.
  9. Don't send attachments — send links instead. This rule applies especially to meeting requests, where attachments can contribute significantly to your and your recipients’ server quotas.
  10. Don't expand distribution lists. Expanding distribution lists makes messages harder to read and causes them to go into the wrong mail folders.
  11. Don't use sarcasm. Your humor may be misunderstood.
  12. Don't write something you wouldn't want everyone in your company to read. You never know where your e-mail might end up.
  13. Don't use cursive or "funny" fonts that are hard to read.
  14. Don't use red fonts, because they are hard to read and can be interpreted as being critical.
  15. Don't send a Reply to All to a distribution list asking to be removed. Ever.

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Rules for distribution lists (DLs)

  • If you are responding to a large distribution list, follow all of the e-mail Dos and Don'ts.
  • If you need more information or are investigating the issue separately, respond to the whole distribution list to let everyone know that you are responding and then reply to the individual separately. Be sure to respond to the distribution list after the issue is resolved with the resolution. In this way, the resolution can be referenced by other people on the distribution list.

How to redirect people

If someone sends a message to a distribution list that you are a member of, and the message would be better answered by someone else or another distribution list, do the following:

  1. Reply with the correct distribution list or person on the To line.
  2. Have replies sent to the correct distribution list or person.
  3. Do not put the original distribution list on the Bcc line, because your message will not be filtered by other people's rules. Rather, leave the distribution list on the To or Cc line.

How to be removed from a DL

If you receive mail from a distribution list that you do not want to be on, send a message to your network administrator or to the owner of the distribution list and ask to be removed. Do not reply to the whole distribution list. To find the DL list’s owner, double-click the distribution list name.

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How to use inline comments

Adding inline comments to e-mail you receive is a convenient way to answer questions and respond directly to issues. It is considered a best practice to do the following:

  1. In your message, mention that you are commenting inline. For example, include "See additional comments below."
  2. Differentiate your text from the original message. Some suggestions include:
  • Changing the font color
  • Pre-pending your name or initials in brackets, for example, [Melissa], [MM]
  • Changing the font to italic or bold or both
  1. Do not delete anything you did not write.

Comment marking in Outlook message

Fig. 1  Example of an inline comment in an Outlook message

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When to use Bcc

Use the Bcc feature to remove extra people from an e-mail conversation when you deem that they no longer need the extra e-mail or if the conversation topic has changed.

For example, if you are one of five people who receive a question and you want to answer it, move the other four people to the Bcc line and state something like "Bcc'ing Joe, Jeff, James, and Jennifer. Here's the answer…" Future messages will then be between only you and the original sender.

Do not use Bcc to let a third party (such as your manager) know about a sensitive message. The Bcc recipient may not realize that he or she has received a Bcc and may respond to everyone, exposing that he or she received a Bcc. This may come across as sneaky behavior on your part.

Rather than using Bcc to inform a third party of an issue, forward the message after you send it.

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Preparing for vacation

For the best practice for preparing to go on vacation, see the article Preparing to be away. If you or your administrator has created a shared vacation calendar, be sure to post your vacation there. If everyone is using the shared calendar, you don't need to send a separate meeting request to let everyone know you are away, as the article referenced earlier suggests, but an e-mail message can act as a good reminder.

About the author

Melissa MacBeth photo Melissa MacBeth is a Lead Program Manager in the Office product group at Microsoft. She worked on several time management features for Outlook 2007, including the To-Do Bar, flags, flagging on send, and the Daily Task List. She lives in Seattle and enjoys gardening.

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Applies to:
Outlook 2007