March 2, 2010

Idea: The Email Abstract Field

Sometimes I write too-long emails. Before I hit send, it occasionally occurs to me that if I got an email that long I would probably dread reading it. But there are times when a long email is necessary. For example, sometimes you need to tell a company every detail of how awful your experience with their product was before you ask for a refund. Or you need to explain to your boss how much money and resources your company is wasting by not recycling before you pitch your idea to help the environment and the bottom line.

If they can only get through my first nine paragraphs, they’ll get to the part where where you explain why you’re writing.

When I find myself in this situation, I sometimes start the email with the heading: “Short Version:” and then a brief abstract. I give more detail than I could in the subject line, but I still keep it to just a few sentences. I say why I’m writing and what I want from the person I’m writing to.

The I write “Long Version:” and fill in all the gory details in as many paragraphs as I need.

For example, my subject line might say: “I had a terrible time at your hotel.”

The abstract might say: “I stayed at your hotel from January 3-7, 2010 in room 227. It was one awful day after another, the room was filthy, and I think the maid stole my watch. I would like a refund. More details below.”

And then the body would give my long tale of woe about how everything went wrong from the moment I arrived to the moment I checked out. I don’t have to worry that I buried the lede in the last paragraph.

Which gets me to my point: As the occasional recipient of rambling emails, I think this feature should be automatic in email programs. It could be a sometimes-hidden field like the bcc: field is in many email programs, or perhaps a popup abstract field could be triggered when you hit “Send” on an email beyond a certain length. It’s probably too late to make a new field standard in all email, but maybe Google can put it in their Gmail Labs for people like me.


Great idea. I do exactly the same if I end up writing a huge email: include a short version at the top.

Most people would tell you to actually use the subject line for this. It’s larger than you think.

Isn’t that what an introduction and conclusion is for? To tell the person reading what you’re about to say in summary, and then to tell them again what you just said, in summary?

Interesting idea, but I think most people would have to learn what an abstract actually is.

As someone who used to work in customer service, shorter is better. You do not have to tell every little detail of your story, if someone needs or wants more information they will ask. If someone can’t or won’t help you with one or two sentences what makes you think 9 more paragraphs will convince them?

Um, did I recently send you an email?

In all seriousness, this is a fab idea except that people like me (and you, I suppose) would probably try to exceed the abstract limitations as well.

I am sorry this is such a long letter, but I did not have the time to write a short one.

I would use that. It would be a great Labs feature

I agree it’s a good habit to write a short summary before a long email essay. However, it’s easy to do this by hand, so what would be the specific benefit of this Gmail lab feature? Commenter Mike, you say you would use this lab, what’s your motivation for that?

I agree it’s a good habit to write a short summary before a long email essay. However, it’s easy to do this by hand, so what would be the specific benefit of this Gmail lab feature? Commenter Mike, you say you would use this lab, what’s your motivation for that?

I don’t get this idea at all. First of all, you have a “Subject” line. Use it. That’s what it’s there for. You have 200 characters if you want it. Problem solved.

Don’t like the Subject? how about putting it as the first paragraph? “Details follow, but here’s the gist: “

Third, emails have these things called headers before the body of a mail. See RFC 821. “From”, “To”, “Reply-To”, “CC”, “Subject”, etc are all ways you can provide additional information about a particular email. I don’t see any reason why your own “Abstract” header couldn’t be added, just as a spam filter might add an “Spam-Score” header to indicate whether a given letter is likely to be spam. By default, custom headers are hidden, but you can view them in most email programs.

Fourth, every modern email client supports MIME for including multiple parts in a single email. You can use it for including attachments, signatures, or HTML-enhanced text. You could easily add meta-data for your Abstract to your email via a MIME-encoded attachment.

Fifth, if you are interested in structuring your text, I suggest you read up on SGML, which already provides for all kinds of advanced ways to organize your email and make it easily searchable or indexable. XML would do something similar.

Also know that there is software that automatically generates summaries of text— I think I saw this on a TED Talk but don’t have the link in front of me.

In any event— you’re attempting to structure an email by essentially asking the writer to include information superfluous to the message. But why stop there? What about a synopsis to the synopsis? How bout tags for searching or a full-on taxonomy with hemispherical labels and subcategories? Where does it end?


In case you were wondering, “hemispherical labels” was the result of my browser’s creative spellchecking. I meant hierarchical labels… I think.


Entirely tangent, but “Hemispherical labels” sounds like a cool concept in the way of visualisation, at least before trying to apply it to anything specific.

@W: “By default custom headers are hidden.”

So, by using them, you run the risk of no-one reading the content, right?

Despite everything you posted being technically true, it’s really not as handy for the average email user as having a summary paragraph at the beginning, is it?

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Submitted to Gmail. Awesome idea!

@w - I didn’t read your comment, it was too long. Can you please summarise in an abstract?

if someone sent me an abstract field, I would not read the main body. i think this is not a substitute for getting straight to the point.

Great idea. Right On!

It’s because the type of essay’s we’re taught to write in English class are different in purpose than the type of writing we use for the sort of communication you’re thinking of.

This was explained to me by both my business and technical writing professors. In the traditional English essay, you’re building up a case. In most emails, you’re trying to convey a specific request or bit of information. If you break down the structures of the two types of writing, they’re almost the inverse of each other.

I like this concept, but I recently (last week, in fact) learned about the BLUT: Bottom Line Up Top. This means you put the meat of your email in the first line, then all the gory details in the follow-up paragraphs. This is especially useful when dealing with high-ranking executives/officers that don’t have time to read all the details and just want an overview.

i tend to do a lot better with official emails, but still struggle with writing shorter, concise personal emails, especially to a new friend i’m getting to know. a lot of time, the other party seems to be struggling just as same. just now i thought that if emails had a feature of setting up personalized word limit (some thing you can change in your setting), it would work wonders for me.

i am a lot better writing official notes, but still struggle with personal emails. i’ve begun to streamline those too but, at times find it hard to not hit the ‘send’ button after writing a long one to a friend. it would be cool if emails had the option of setting up personalized word limits.