Dekan's Solace

Formatting Email Replies

Purpose

When one is new to the system of email, and hasn't spent a lot of time conversing with others via mailing lists and such, one may not know the customs and standards for formatting email replies. This document will try to help the reader learn certain techniques and customs to apply when writing email replies.

Writing good email replies is just as important as having good grammar and spelling; it helps the reader keep track of the discussion with greater ease.

While mail readers generally help people write well-formatted replies, users can often mess up this format, not understanding the intentions behind the layout.

Original mail

We'll be using the following mail message as the one our future examples will be replying to. It has a couple of interesting features we'll want to pay attention to later.

Hi, Dad.  Classes went fine this week.  My Philosophy class,
Informal Logic, is getting fairly interesting.

What day did you send those computer parts to me, so I can know when
to expect them?

--
Frank
    

Analysis of original mail

First, before we figure out how to write a reply to this mail, let's analyze its structure. There are two paragraphs, and the last part.

--
Frank
    

… is called a signature. We'll leave the signature out of all of our replies.

Context

The first convention, when replying, is that one should somehow include the body of the message one is replying to. Imagine my dad sent back to me a reply to the original message above that just said this:

I'm glad it's going well.  Yesterday.
    

I'd have no ideawhat he was talking about! If my dad wrote something like this, he'd be writing without context. That is, I wouldn't know the things he is referring to in his mail; his mind knew the context when he wrote it, but given the general lack of ESP in the human population, I'd have a hard time restructuring that context, unless I realized it came in response to the original mail I sent him. And if I send out a dozen or so mails a day, picking out the right mail he was responding to would become very time-consuming.

So, our first goal is to help the reader of the reply realize the context in which the reply was written. While there are several conventions for creating context, we'll start off with the simplest one, which is to put the body of the message one is replying to minus the signature at the bottom of the reply, with a little note saying who wrote the original message. So, for example, my dad could write:

I'm glad it's going well.  Yesterday.

Frank Tobin wrote:

Hi, Dad.  Classes went fine this week.  My Philosophy class,
Informal Logic, is getting fairly interesting.

What day did you send those computer parts to me, so I can know when
to expect them?
    

This is a good first step, but we need to go further. At first glance, it can be hard to tell the difference what my dad is writing in his reply, and my original message. So, a convention has been followed that each line of the original message is prepended with a constant letter, usually " >". Hence, we'd have:

I'm glad it's going well.  Yesterday.

Frank Tobin wrote:

> Hi, Dad.  Classes went fine this week.  My Philosophy class,
> Informal Logic, is getting fairly interesting.

> What day did you send those computer parts to me, so I can
> know when to expect them?
    

This is much more readable now; I can tell what I wrote, what he wrote in response, and I can understand what he is referring to with a little effort by re-reading what I sent him.

Partitioning up the context

We're doing pretty well so far! We've accomplished the main goal, of putting the reader in the right context when reading the reply, so the reader knows what the reply is referring to. However, many original mails have many topics which they cover, and the reply can be divided up into addressing certain parts of the original message, point by point. For example, I have two points in my original mail:

  1. Classes went fine this week. My Philosophy class, Informal Logic, is getting fairly interesting.
  2. What day did you send those computer parts to me, so I can know when to expect them?

It would be really nice if my dad addressed my mail point-by-point, especially if I had originally sent a longer mail. Imagine I had 10 points or paragraphs in my mail that should be addressed separately; for the reader of a reply, keeping all that context in mind is pretty tough. That is, the reader would have to keep in mind all 10 points I originally wrote about.

The standard way to write a point-by-point reply is to take the reply-block that we had before, with lines prepended with " >", and insert our point-by-point replies right below the point being addressed. This is easiest to show by example:

Frank Tobin wrote:

> Hi, Dad.  Classes went fine this week.  My Philosophy class,
> Informal Logic, is getting fairly interesting.

I'm glad it's going well.

> What day did you send those computer parts to me, so I can know when
> to expect them?

Yesterday.
    

Note the spacing around the point-by-point replies; this is done for the reader's sanity.

Here, the reader can easily read the message top-to-bottom, and see the train of thought that the writer had in mind. This sort of layout also gives the sense of a conversation happening; I say something in my original message, and then my dad says something in reply. I say another thing, and my dad says something else.

A badly-formatted reply

An important thing to note is that the reply's lines are never preceded by " >"; this would indicate the line is part of the original message. For example, the following real-life example is impossible to figure out without heavy analysis:

At 07:26 PM 9/14/00 -0500, you wrote:
>I received two shipments today from you; I'm assuming one more is coming,
>as from this, I haven't received the memory chips yet.
>I sent three boxes all first class, all insured
>Also, one of the boxes had the manufacturer's packing slip on it, and one
>did not; did you send all receipts/packing slips?
>The only box I opened was the one that is in a air bag- one small chip
board
>--
>Frank Tobin            http://www.uiuc.edu/~ftobin/
>
>
    

Impossible to grasp, no? Here's what it shouldhave looked like.

At 07:26 PM 9/14/00 -0500, you wrote:
> I received two shipments today from you; I'm assuming one more is coming,
> as from this, I haven't received the memory chips yet.

I sent three boxes all first class, all insured

> Also, one of the boxes had the manufacturer's packing slip on it, and one
> did not; did you send all receipts/packing slips?

The only box I opened was the one that is in a air bag- one small chip board.
    

Muchbetter.

Conclusion

With a little effort, anyone can be writing well-formatted email replies. This effort especially helps readers when one is on mailing lists, while there is a conversation between a couple of users discussing a few points, but thousands of people may be reading. The reader might hop into the discussion at any point, and should be able to pick-up the conversation without checking older messages.

I thank you for taking the time for reading this; in my opinion it's important to learn these techniques, as the Internet is mainly about communication. Communication is about sharing information, presenting points, and replying to them. With formatting email replies properly, we help make them much more useful and understandable, furthering our communication.