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 quoting a message in your email reply. 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. Sometimes, it can be unnecessary to take this time to format and trim the text. If you try to quote using proper indentation in an email program like Outlook, it may take an hour to form a response.

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, acceptable, and compatible way to reply to an email.

To format an email reply properly while being a little 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 the inter-message context is established through the original emails.