Shirley's Articles / Email Essentials

Subject Line, not Surprise Line

How to create better email subject lines that get your email opened

I have a good friend in Canada who sends me emails about things he finds interesting, and he always types ‘memo’ in the subject line. That’s all – just ‘memo’. I have no idea whether there was a flash mob of sharks off the coast of Australia or aliens landed in New Zealand or a penguin swam to Singapore. It’s frustrating, but also a tiny bit exciting because it’s a surprise that I won’t see until I open the email.

While surprises might be fun at home in personal email, they aren’t much fun at work. You prioritise your work and schedule your day in order to be efficient and productive. If you have to open every single email you receive so you can determine its contents, it can really make a mess of your schedule.

How do I decide what to write?

To keep confusion and misunderstanding to a minimum, you should always think seriously about what you put in your subject lines. Ask yourself, “How can I create a subject line so my audience understands the importance of the contents right away?”

Most business emails will require clarity and polish, with little emphasis on ‘capturing’ your reader’s interest. For example, the subject line of a cover email for a job application probably shouldn’t be too cute or funny. However, a marketing email to clients might actually get more attention with a cute or funny subject line. It still needs to convey information, but it can be done in a captivating way.

Let’s look at some examples

The basic information you need to include in a subject line depends on your topic and what your audience needs to know. You might also think about how you want your audience to react as well. Let’s look at some examples and determine how to get the subject across clearly:

  1. Cover email for a job application. The audience will probably be a human resource employee, so you know they are getting stacks of applications for many different jobs. You want them to know which job and why you are writing. A possible subject line might be, Application for Job 030730 (Marketing Manager). The recipient will be relieved to have all the needed information right there.
  2. Email asking for time off. The audience is your boss so you want to get to the point quickly. Perhaps you would write, Request for time off on 4 Jan 2012. It gives her all the information she needs to know how important the email is.
  3. Request for document review from the editor. Since your audience is a co-worker, you still want to keep the subject line professional, but it can be a bit less formal. Perhaps Draft procedure for review is appropriate. It’s friendly yet informative.
  4. Meeting notes. Since this email will likely go to both co-workers and the boss, you want to maintain that very professional attitude. You need to convey the contents clearly and quickly: Minutes from staff meeting 3 Sept 2011. Not only does it let the recipient know that these are minutes, but it lets them know what meeting and when it was held.
  5. Marketing email to a group of clients. This type of subject line can be fun because you want your audience – the group of clients – to get excited about what’s in the email. You want them curious and ready to be pleasantly surprised. Let’s say your new software will help reduce paperwork, You might write, Is your office a zoo? Or if you are promoting sales of a new method of accounting, your subject line could be, Let the numbers crunch themselves!

The key to creating better email subject lines is to decide what needs to be conveyed and know how you want your audience to react. With these two pieces of information, you can create subject lines that save people time, reduce misunderstandings and confusion, and of course pique their interest. After all, some surprises are nice, but not all day long in your email inbox!

All articles are copyright © Shirley Taylor. All rights reserved. This information may not be distributed, sold, publicly presented, or used in any other manner, except as described here.

Permission to reprint all or part of any article in your magazine, e-zine, website, blog or organisation newsletter is granted, as long as:

  1. The entire credit line below is included*.
  2. The website link to is clickable (live)**.
  3. You send a copy, PDF, or link of the work in which the article is used when published.

This credit line must be reprinted in its entirety to use any articles by Shirley Taylor:

* Credit line:
© Shirley Taylor.
Shirley is an international bestselling author. She has established herself as a leading authority in email and business writing skills. Her international bestseller Model Business Letters, Emails & Other Business Documents 7th edition sold over half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into 17 languages. Her book Email Essentials reached #2 in the USA for publishers Marshall Cavendish International. Find out more about Shirley at

** The website link to must be clickable to receive permission to reprint the article.