Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

5 Words to Include in Your Email Subject Lines (and 4 to Avoid at All Costs)

Sending an email is the easiest and least intrusive method for making requests within teams. But it’s precisely because email is so effortless that it can be a complete waste of time. Firing off a vague email that doesn’t clearly tell recipients what they should do or why your ask is important will only create more work for everyone.

The most effective emails treat the subject line like a caller ID and use words that get to the point immediately.

Here are some dos and don’ts for word choice that will get your message across clearly and keep you from annoying (or confusing) your co-workers:

1. When There Are Tasks to Complete

Don’t Write: Etc.

Do Write: The, This, or These

Your teachers in grammar school were right—be specific! Even if your email is following a recent conversation or meeting, it’s likely going to get filed as something to do later. When your recipient is ready to read it, seeing “Staff meeting follow-up etc.” won’t be helpful. Instead, be clear about what you need and write: “Please resolve these questions from staff meeting” or “The report discussed in staff meeting.” Think of your subject like pre-writing a to-do list item so it’s easy for that box to get checked.

2. When You’re Sharing Another Email

Don’t Write: “FWD:”

Do Write: Help

This one always makes me think of the ’90s, when it was common to see emails that went something like this: “Fwd: fwd: fwd: fw: Send this to 10 people and this will be your lucky day!” Unless you really are sending chain letters at work (seriously, don’t), you’re probably just sharing something that someone else wrote that you want your co-worker to read or do something about. In that case, do her a favor and write “Could you help me decipher this?” or “Looks like the client needs help.” Sure, you may have planned to write that message in the body of the email, but the subject is a much better place if you want it to get noticed quickly.

3. When You’re Trying to Be Personal

Don’t Write: Hey

Do Write: You

Sending a “Hey” in an email subject line is the same thing as texting “We need to talk” to a friend or someone you’re dating. Don’t do it! You’ll make the recipient suspicious of whatever will come next, and you may end up waiting a while for a response because it may never get opened. Since you might actually need to chat about something personal or private, try “When do you have time for a 15-minute chat?” This approach takes the edge off and puts the power in the recipient’s hands to choose a time that works for him.

4. When You Need it Now

Don’t Write: Urgent

Do Write: Today

When time is short and the pressure is high, “urgent” is a word that can only produce panic. And panicking is the last thing a person responsible for a task should do. If you have enough time to recognize the need and send an email, you also have the time to give advance notice that “This needs to be your first priority today.” If it truly is urgent, make a phone call or in-person visit instead.

5. And One More Bonus Phrase

Last but not least is a phrase that we all say to end our emails but may rarely use to directly address our co-workers: “Thank you.” A short, simple message of appreciation will go a long way in strengthening the bonds between you and your team members. It says that you recognize their efforts and value their roles. And it sure beats a trust fall.

Photo of word game courtesy of Shutterstock.

A logo with "the muse" in white text.