Joined: 18 September 2004
Should you quote the original text when you reply to an email?
This seemingly simple question leads to exceedingly treacherous ground, a minefield where opinions are divided and passions surprisingly intense. That one question gives rise to many others:
There are no hard and fast rules for quoting. Even in the editorial offices of WEE (virtual offices, that is, spanning three continents) you'll find some serious disagreement on what constitutes the ideal way to deal with message replies.
But despite the lack of strict guidelines, there are some definite quoting no-nos.
No-no #1: Replying without quoting at all.
This is all very well if you send only a handful of messages a day. In that case, you may remember what each of those outgoing emails contained and find a reply in a vacuum quite adequate. But that's not how it works for most of us. Most of us deal with email in bulk quantities and a single-line response which fails to include the original message is simply not good enough. Often, we'll be forced, muttering under our breath, to track down the original outgoing message in order to figure out what we said in the first place.
So, make sure you quote the original when you're making a direct response to it. Even if it seems obvious. Just do it.
No-no #2: Failing to prune.
While it's important to quote the original, you don't necessarily have to quote it all. If someone sends you an entire article from an online newspaper, for example, you can usually quite safely lop off most of the story, leave the caption and maybe the first paragraph, and send your reply with that.
On the other hand, if you receive a lengthy message dotted with points you take up in your reply, quote the whole thing. By all means, excise tag lines, long signatures and those "Confidentiality" tags big corporations and legal firms add automatically to all outgoing correspondence. (I hang out with a bunch of lawyers and am always amused when the latest gossip or a quick invite to dinner comes under the seal of attorney-client privilege and dire warnings of what will happen if I disclose the contents. I do not, however, leave these in place when I reply.)
It's really a matter of commonsense: Quote as much of the message as is needed to give your response context.
No-no #3: Weaving the never-ending thread.
A single message and reply is simple enough to deal with, but when a conversation develops into a series of replies to an original message, things can quickly get messy. As soon as a message thread such as this starts to develop, you should start lopping. Prune the old stuff, leaving at least the most recent reply and maybe one or two others if needed for context. Cut out the rest. It's usually unnecessary and places a burden on recipients who are using dial-up connections, where email takes a long time to download.
There are some exceptions, of course. For example, if you're brainstorming an idea it may be useful to maintain the entire flow of ideas. Or perhaps it's important to keep something you've said early on in the conversation prominent in the mind of your correspondents. Fair enough, leave it in. But otherwise, cut. It comes down to context, once again.
Pruning a long exchange of messages is quite simple, just scroll down the reply (a few Page Down keys will do) hold down the Shift key then press End. That should highlight everything from the mid-point of the message and the bottom of the message. then just press Delete to remove the excess.
No-no #4: Replying below the original message.
There are three ways to reply to a message:
- entering your reply above the original
- interspersing your reply with the original;
- and by typing your reply below the original.
I'm usually an above-the-original person myself, but there are sometimes good reasons for interspersing replies.
There are no good reasons for putting your reply beneath the original. First, it forces the recipient to scroll to the bottom, a waste of time. Second, if the recipient habitually replies above the original, as most people do, there's a good chance they'll fail to see your reply altogether and simply assume you hit the Send button before you started typing. You'll look dumb, then they'll look dumb. No-one will be happy. Third, your reply won't show up in the preview pane.
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