Properly Formatted Email Replies for the Lazy

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If you reply to an email, it should be clear what you are replying to. That's why the text of the original message is usually quoted in a reply. So much is clear, but the best way to quote text in an email is not.

There is a very sensible quasi-standard for doing the right thing. It makes you quote just as much as is needed in a way that lets the recipient of your reply see exactly what you are reacting to. If all email clients (or email users) comply, the messages always look clean and neat, and they are easy to read.

Quoting in the suggested way is the proper thing to do, but it is also some work to trim the quoted text and make it look nice. Is that really necessary for a quick and brief reply? And if you try to quote using proper indentation in an email program like Outlook, you will either sit for an hour over a response or fail miserably (or, most probably, both).

The Way of the Lazy: Easy, Still Correct and Good-Looking

Fortunately, there's always more than one way to do something. Typically, these options are all not perfect, but there can easily be more than one proper approach. Now, here's the more relaxed but still perfectly readable and acceptable and compatible — and proper — way to reply to an email.

To format an email reply properly while being lazy:

  • Start your message right at the top of the reply.
  • Include the original message you are replying to below.
    • Make sure your signature is above the quoted text.
  • Do not make any changes to the quoted material.
    • You can, of course, cut excessive length and (should often remove) inline attachments. Replace them with "[...]".
  • Do repeat, in as few words as possible, questions you are answering.
    • Instead of a mere "Yes.", try "You asked whether we want apples. Yes, we do." or "We want apples, yes.".
  • Make sure the quoted text is not indented, neither using '>' characters nor quotation bars.
  • If you reply to the reply of a reply, you can remove old, now unnecessary messages from the bottom.

In email clients and services like Gmail that automatically archive and thread discussions intelligently, this style of reply works particularly well. Since all the quoted text is in one place, it can be hidden easily and without disturbing the coherence of the message while inter-message context is established through the original emails.

Set Up Your Email Program for Lazy, Correct Replies

To be lazy later, you first may have to do some setup work. Most email programs and services can be configured for lazy but correct replying easily, though: