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In 1971, the first ever email was sent from one computer to another. Now, 269 billion emails are sent each and every day.
It’s impossible to imagine just how many of these emails are unnecessary. How many serve only to cause more confusion. To burn up even more attention and patience of their recipients.
The most obvious solution here is not just “inline replying,” but inline replying properly. Inline replying is where you reply within the main body of the email, rather than writing your own email from scratch.
Inline replying is something most of us already do from time to time. But we should be replying inline far more often. And we should be doing so with a few rules in mind to keep those complicated email threads organized and easy-to-follow.
We’re Replying to Email Wrong
The opposite of inline replying is what’s often called “top posting.” This is where you hit reply to an email, and just start typing at the top of the text box. This is how the majority of email today is composed. But unless you’re dealing with extremely simple email conversations, top posting can cause all sorts of problems.
First off, when top posting, referring back to the original email becomes a huge hassle, which involves scouring through email after email to find what you’re looking for. You then have to scroll back down to the email you’re composing to perhaps paraphrase what you just found, out of context, and often missing salient points.
Sometimes, a recipient may reply to your email in an entirely new email thread, meaning your conversation is now happening in two or more separate threads.
If you’re in a group conversation, things get even messier. Keeping track of who replies to what, when, and what the responses were to those replies becomes an almost impossible feat.
Inline Replying Is the Solution
Instead of top posting then, we should be replying inline — that is, within the body of the original email message. In Outlook and Apple Mail, you can see the original message as soon as you hit reply. In Gmail, just press the three dots at the bottom of the compose screen to show the conversation.
Tip: To remove the vertical “quote” line from your reply in Gmail, highlight the entire email, then click the indent less button.
Inline replying solves the problem of needing to scroll through masses of messages because the original email is included and searchable in the most recent message you receive in that conversation. This means everything is kept in context.
Plus, you don’t have to waste time summing up other people’s replies, or copy-pasting snippets of emails just to make your own replies make sense. With inline replies, everything is there for everyone to refer back to at any time.
And for threads involving multiple people, distinguishing who said what, and in reply to whom, is easy (if done properly).
Inline Replying Properly
When most people reply inline, they simply write their replies alongside the text they want to respond to, and they make this bold or red.
This is far from ideal. As soon as someone opens an email in plain text, they can’t see this formatting. And as soon as there’s more than a couple of people in a thread, things can get messy fast.
So, here’s a quick guide on properly inline replying that’s scalable and will keep confusion to a minimum.
1. Don’t Rely on Formatting
As mentioned, in some cases a recipient may not be able to see the formatting you include in an email (e.g. they may prefer plain text). If someone is color-blind, they may find it difficult to follow threads containing multiple colors.
By all means, use formatting to make replies easier to find when scanning an email. But don’t rely solely on it.
2. Preface Replies With Your Name
Rather than relying on formatting, get into the habit of prefacing all of your replies with your name and, if you need to be especially organized, the date. Ask all recipients to do the same.
Currently, in Gmail, you have no choice but to type your name manually. The same is true for the ever-bland Apple Mail app.
If you use Outlook, however, there’s a feature to automatically preface your replies with your name. To do this go to File > Options > Mail. Then go to Replies & Forward, check the Preface comments with box, and type your name into the text box. When you reply in the body of an email, your name will appear in brackets automatically.
Mailbird also has this option by default.
3. Use Line Breaks, Please
Whenever you leave an inline reply, this should be on a new line, rather than inserted mid-sentence or at the end of a paragraph.
This makes it far easier for other people to reply to your comments and makes scanning the conversation happening around each point much more streamlined.
4. Indent Multi-Level Replies
When multiple points are being addressed in one email, you’ll have multiple threads happening within a single message.
To keep these organized, you should indent threaded replies so it’s obvious which comments relate to each point. I personally find using angle brackets (>) the most intuitive characters here, as bullet points may not show up in plain-text emails.
This will save you a lot of effort trying to figure out which part of the conversation you need to be paying attention to.
5. Last Resort: Use a Better Tool
No one is pretending inline replies are the perfect solution here. But if you have no choice but to use email, take the time to write emails that are efficient, and effective. Based on the reasons above, inline replying is the best way to keep projects progressing. It also helps everyone keep up with multiple conversations within email threads without needing to waste time looking through long lists of past emails.
If you find even inline replies becoming too complex, or if your colleagues can’t get into the habit of inline replying properly, however, it may be time to look for a different tool.
Spread the Word
When you adopt these simple inline reply rules, many recipients will appreciate how efficient this email behavior is and start to mimic your approach naturally.
If they don’t naturally copy your thoughtful emailing etiquette, though, pull them up on it. Send them this article. Describe how you want them to reply, and explain that it’ll save tons of misunderstood messages, wasted time, and loss of context.
There’s really no downside.
Do you think these rules will help you stay on top of complex email threads? Are there any other inline replying tips you think would be helpful?
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