The two ways we go awry are “The Mid-Trail Change” and the “The Two-Trail Subject.” Fortunately, you can avoid them and even correct course if one has already happened to you. Here’s how:
“The Mid-Trail Change”
How to steer clear: Don’t change subjects within an email trail. You always want your content to stay true to the original subject line. If an unrelated question comes up, resist the urge to include it in the email – even if that email is addressed to the people you want to ask.
Mid-trail subject changes are frustrating because:
1. It’s a pain to hunt down the email later when you or the reader needs to reference it.
2. When the message hits your inbox (and those of your readers), it’s hard to quickly recognize the true subject of the email. Inbox management just got less efficient and your new topic may get glossed over.
If a mid-trail change lands in your inbox and it seems like the conversation will continue, just change the subject of the email when you reply. Be sure to call it out in a friendly way, though. For example, "By the way, I've changed the subject of this email trail to help us stay organized."
“The Two-Trail Subject”
How to steer clear: Don’t start a new email trail if you’re following up to a previous email. Otherwise, you’ll have two email trails on the same topic. If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, then consider:
1. Your readers won’t be able to instantly reference the important information from your previous note. They are either going to miss it (and it will take longer to get what you need), or they are going to be annoyed because now they have to find your other note.
2. When you need to go back and reference the emails on that topic, it will take you longer because part of the conversation will be on one trail and part will be on another.
If you’re on the receiving end of the two-trail subject, you can try to do damage control by only responding to the original note. If any new information was introduced in the second note, be sure to take it into account, though.
In the famous words of Dale Evans Rogers, “Happy trails to you, ‘til we meet again.” May all your email trails be happy this week!