Monday, February 22, 2010

Eight or Nine Words About Email

By Donna Andrews

A friend once showed me a letter from the mid-1800s that her pioneer great-great grandmother had written to the family back home. The paper was so brittle that it had broken along many of the folds. A careless touch would have turned it into a dozen fragments; a few more years might reduce it to powder. The paper had browned and the ink faded, and to top it all off, Great-great Grandmother had cross-written--after filling up the page, she had given it a quarter turn and filled it again, sideways. It looked rather like this:

People cross-wrote because both paper and postage were ruinously expensive, but it must have made reading difficult, particularly in a time when spectacles were both harder to come by and less effective than they are in modern times. I was relieved to find that Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in his essay, "Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing," gave the following advice: "When you get to the end of a notesheet, and find you have more to say, take another piece of paper--a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand: but whatever you do, don't cross! Remember the old proverb 'Cross-writing makes cross reading.'"

But I imagine most of the recipients of cross-written letters pored over them for as long as it took to extract every bit of news from friends that they might rarely if ever see again. Aren't we lucky that nowadays, thanks
to email, communication is so much easier, both to send and to receive?

Not necessarily.

Buried in email I'm currently behind on my email. I didn't mean to let it happen, and I am trying to dig myself out of the hole, but the problem is that doing so requires ruthless discipline--the ability to scan an email and either act on it or make a swift decision to delete. Obviously if I had that kind of iron discipline I wouldn't be up to my ears in email to begin with. And the email keeps pouring in, so that as the Red Queen told Alice, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

Typing At time like these, when I am a wee bit cranky about the whole subject of email, I find myself brooding over the issue of email etiquette. I am tempted to write a rant about things people should and shouldn't do in email--but my hands pause over the keyboard as I consider whether I, too, have been guilty of some of these breaches in netiquette. Yes, I probably have. So instead of ranting, I'm going to share a few resolutions I'm trying to follow in my own email life. I might actually come up with eight or nine, and there's even a remote possibility some of them might contain a grain or two of wisdom.

1. I'm determined to stop sending emails with blank subject lines or vague subjects like, "Hey there!" or "Me again," unless it's to someone like my mother, who will stop what she's doing and read anything I send her immediately, with far more attention than it deserves. In fact, I'm going to do my best to send other people the kind of subject lines I'd love to receive. Of course, succinct little subject lines like "Love the books!" or "Congrats!" are always in order, but that last email I sent this evening should have had a subject line of "Update on possible MWA-MA speaker for April 2010," not "April." I'll try harder.

2. I'm also going to try harder to send private messages privately. And I don't just mean making sure I'm talking to one person rather than a list when I say something snarky. (Assuming that of course, I will occasionally fail in my resolution not to be snarky.) I've long believed that the larger the list, the more important it is to take birthday wishes and congratulations off list. Time to start living that.

Delete 3. I'm sticking to my guns about asking before I add anyone to my mailing list. I know some people think it doesn't matter-- "You have a delete key; it only takes a few seconds to use it!" Yes, but those seconds add up--I calculated not long ago that I have probably spent several months of my life scanning and deleting unwanted email. So I'm not going to do unto others what irritates when it's done unto me! Yes, when I get an
enthusiastic email from a reader, I've been tempted to say, "Oh, she loves the books . . . I bet she'd like to be on my mailing list." But that way lies spamming. Even though it's more work. I'll keep sending out the "Would you like to be on my mailing list" invitations.

Facebook_logo 4. When/if I join Facebook, I absolutely will not give it access to my address book. Because I know they wouldn't just use it to notify my friends who are already on Facebook; they'd also send invitations to everyone I've ever emailed since I got my first email account. Right now, hardly a week passes without one or two of those invitations landing in my email inbox, and I figure if someone hasn't joined Facebook by now, it's a decision, not an oversight. (Actually, since studying Facebook in its native habitat requires a Facebook account, I do have one now. But it's for one of my fictional characters. I'm not telling which one.)

Too_Much_Mail 5. I'm going to be more assertive about unsubscribing from email lists I don't want to be on. I figure buying something from a business once or twice doesn't mean I have to stay on their mailing lists till doomsday. I might eventually start unsubscribing from a few author lists, too, but only in cases where I'm already seeing the same message on two or three lists. And since I'm going to be doing more unsubscribing, I promise not to sulk when someone unsubscribes from my email list. Well, only a little.

6. I'm going to work harder at reading to the end of threads before posting on lists. After all, if I'm two days behind on my DorothyL reading, maybe someone has already answered the person who wanted to know what the L in Dorothy L. Sayers stands for. (Leigh, in case you're curious.)

7. I'm going to write a lot more sharp replies when people send me emails or post things on lists that get my
goat. Not just quick little jabs, either, but long, detailed, vicious rants, full of witty invective and biting personal remarks. I'm going to polish them to a fare-thee-well, reread them with great satisfaction, smile to myself . . . and ceremonially press the delete key. Because a well-wrought sharp reply is a wonderful form of catharsis as long as you're smart enough not to send it. (And I will remember never to hit reply when I'm doing this. Always better to start a new email, and address it to my backup email address.)

8. I'm going to stop complaining when someone emails me a question I've answered a hundred times before. If I've had to answer it a hundred times, maybe that's because a hundred people would love to know the answer, and my email correspondents have just helped me come up with a great idea for new content for my website or my blog.

9. And I'm going to work on follow-through. Like answering emails fast enough that I don't have to begin with an apology. Or at least sometime within the same calendar year.

p.s. For authors only. When your book is accepted for publication, please consider getting an email that includes your author name--like or Because your friends may already know who you are, but do you really want to contact editors, bookstores, reviewers, convention organizers, and readers with an email like or

Perhaps I could sum it all up by paraphrasing William Morris, who once said "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." My goal is to have nothing go through my email inbox or outbox that I do not know to be useful or believe to be entertaining.

Donna Andrews is the award-winning author of the Meg Langslow mystery series. Her current book, Swan for the Money, has been nominated for the Agatha Award for best novel 2009.


Sharon Wildwind said...

Oh, please, please, please take birthday greetings and congratulations out of the lists. Even more so the condolences for horrible health problems and deaths. Yes, I am delighted or saddened for all of these people. Yes, I will contact the ones I know well privately and express the same sentiments. But I firmly believe there are some communication that is better done in private.

Re questions I've answered a hundred times. I have a stash of answers I've given before, especially those that I took time to craft. That pre-constructed answer forms the middle of my reply, with some personalization before and after, and away the message goes.

Donna Andrews said...

My thoughts exactly Sharon. If a list really is a purely social list, sharing birthdays and other life events can be a bonding experience. On larger lists with business purposes, it can become a burden. When someone announces great news, I want to be happy for them--not bracing myself to scan and delete dozens of messages that are kind and sincere . . . and bring business to a screeching halt.

And I sound like such a grouch when I say that! Yes, I am definitely in favor of congratulations! But I am training myself to give them PERSONALLY.

And yes, I am also building the stash of answers that contain all the key information I want to convey, ready to be personalized and sent as needed. My Thunderbird template folder is growing.