Email Subject Lines in the Wild: How to Write a Bad One

“Sometimes, the easiest thing to do is just cut loose and be a silly goose.”
Brice Montgomery

Have you ever had an email ruin your day before you even read it? You know what I’m talking about—it’s 3:48 PM, you hear the telltale “ping,” and you see a pop-up email notification with a subject line that says:

“Are you free???”

Your palms begin to sweat, and you wonder why your boss would send you this. Why the sudden urgency? Are you getting fired? Are you getting promoted? There’s a lot of miscommunication that can happen in the space of a few poorly chosen words.

Email continues to be a vital part of workplace communication in businesses, nonprofits, and churches, and it’s crucial to learn the tenets of how to write the perfect email subject line.

“But wait,” you may think, “I have been writing email subject lines since 2004, and I think I’m pretty good at it.”

I’m happy for you. That’s quite an accomplishment, but don’t make the mistake of resting on your laurels and underestimating the danger of a rogue subject line.


Lined with Good Intentions: The Worst Offenders

For your sake, we’ve compiled a list of the four most dangerous subject lines one might spot in the wild.


1. The “Surprise, Surprise”

Arguably the most common and innocuous among maladaptive subject lines, the “Surprise, Surprise” is like a Christmas gift that could turn out to be a dead rat. It usually looks something like this:


“Important update.”

Perhaps there are doughnuts in the break room. Perhaps your entire department is getting laid off. Who can say?

End email roulette today. Don’t use the “Surprise, Surprise.” It’s far from the perfect subject line.


2. The Everything Email

The Everything Email is a classic. It’s preferred by people who are in a hurry because it allows them to skip the process of writing an email and instead put the entirety of the message in the subject line.

For example:

“The meeting that was scheduled for 4:00 PM has been pushed to 4:30 because I’m in another meeting and I’m not sure I will be there on time.”

Before you view this as an economical and creative approach to avoiding misunderstanding, consider how many words are actually displayed in your email app—probably about five. That means that your recipient is only going to see “The meeting that was scheduled. . .“ before the information that is actually important disappears forever into the ether.

This approach might be a perfect email subject line for the writer, but it’s a doozy for the reader.


3. “The Daisy Chain”

This one’s a tricky inclusion because it’s often difficult to spot. From a distance, it looks like an ordinary—maybe even adequate—subject line. That’s why it’s so dangerous in the wild. It sneaks up on you, and by the time you realize it, it’s too late.

The “Daisy Chain” is where an email has drifted away from its subject line through countless replies or forwards. It’s one of those where you scroll endlessly to the top to figure out how everything strayed so far. Often, it occurs when someone thought it would be “simpler” to just include a new announcement in an existing email thread. After all, “everyone is already here.”

It’s never simple. Save the daisy chains for daisies and write a new subject line.


4. The “Silly Goose”

Don’t let the name fool you—this is another high-risk, low-reward subject line. Approach it with as much caution as you would an actual goose. This breed first emerged when our email ancestors realized that sometimes, the easiest thing to do is just cut loose and be a silly goose.

These are the subject lines that knowingly have nothing to do with the body of the email. Consider, for example, the following as a subject line for scheduling a zoom call:

“You won the lottery!”

There’s a lot that can go wrong here. First, the recipient may make some irresponsible and irrevocable purchases because they have a false sense of financial security. Second, and more likely, your flirtation with the spam box will turn into a full-fledged dalliance, and the recipient will never even see the email.


Subject to None

By now, you almost certainly recognize that emails are a dangerous game, and you’re probably wondering what the solution is—how to write the “perfect” email subject line. I recommend that you make a point of always answering the most relevant Wh-questions in the subject line itself. If you’re scheduling a meeting, the most important details are “what?” and “when?”

“Project Meeting at 7:00 (6/27)?”

At other times, you may need to emphasize the “who?,” “where?,” or “why?” At minimum, though, you should ask yourself if readers will be able to read your subject line as a CliffsNotes version of the email itself.

Those are our tips, but what works for you? What are some ways you facilitate productive email communication in your organization? What are some challenges you have when sending emails to your external audience? If you’re interested in discussing strategy with us, or you need a little help, don’t hesitate to reach out!

Brice Montgomery
Creative Director
Brice likes to think through how messages are best translated for different audiences and purposes. He also makes baked goods.


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