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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Replying to Email

Daring Fireball (John Gruber) has been talking about email reply styles, lately, and now lots of other people are, too. (Including me!)

What I haven't yet seen mentioned is that "top posters" are notorious for only replying to one part — possibly even just one line or sentence — in a longer email. Many times over the years I have written a long-ish message to a client, explaining how I would do something (and for how much), only to receive back a copy of my entire message with a question at the top like, "How would that part work, exactly?" or "Could you send me a sketch of how you think that part would look?"

See, I've sent a message with twelve paragraphs explaining the overall flow of an application, and the question I get back could refer to almost any of it.

Even better (worse) is that my original message probably included a few questions which have gone completely unanswered.

That, to me, is the biggest benefit of the inline-reply style. You have to pay attention to what you're doing! You start your reply by quoting the entire message. As you go through the original message, you delete the stuff which needs no reply and which isn't needed for context, and then insert your own comments immediately after the relevant parts that remain. Since most email programs show different levels of quoting in different colors, it's very easy to follow the conversation.

Recently someone sent me a "breath of fresh air." It was another software developer, and we've been talking about me helping him out with the next version of his (only) application. Our conversation has stretched out over three months, but we're both sticklers for the inline-reply style so reading back through these email messages is just wonderful. Trying to have a conversation like this with a "top-poster" (someone who always quotes everything that came before, and only puts replies at the top) would be awkward, if not impossible.

Unfortunately, some email clients make inline-replying a little difficult. Gmail, MobileMail (Apple's Mail on the iPhone), and Outlook/Entourage are all good (bad) examples. They can all make very "pretty" email with bolds, colors, fonts, links and pictures, but those things are secondary (or tertiary) to good communication. At the opposite end of the spectrum are apps like Mailsmith, which *can't* create fancy-schmancy bold/colored/linked/imaged messages, but which provide tools to make inline-replying even easier than it is already. (There are other apps like that, but Mailsmith is the one I use. Claris Emailer was another great example of this type of app, back in its day.)

July, 2007
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