Good email practice for really important messagesFor truly important messages such as job applications and mass mail-outs, don’t compose the message in the email client itself. The habit of hitting “send” as soon as you finish typing but before you check for errors and omissions is too ingrained. Instead, write the message in a text editor or word processor, spell-check it, proofread it (if it’s a really important message, print it out and proofread it on paper, and get someone else to read it too), and then copy and paste it into the email client. In fact, if you’re really serious about getting it right, use a checklist to make sure that the email contains the right information, is addressed to all the appropriate people, and has all the necessary attachments.
Moderately important emailsFor messages that aren’t of the highest importance—for instance, messages to business associates who will forgive the odd typo but whom you generally want to impress—I have a lower level of email vigilance. Here’s what I usually do:
- Leave the address field blank. An addressed email is like a gun with a bullet in the chamber: one little slip and it’ll go off, whether you’re ready or not.
- Attach the attachments first, or as soon as you see yourself writing the words “I am attaching.”
- Write the body of the message as usual.
- When you hit “send” and find that the message won’t go because there’s nothing in the address field, use this as your reminder to check the message for errors before you fill in the address and send for real.
A useful Gmail feature: undo sendOne day, when I was working for the Ministry of Forests, I accidentally sent a personal email to the entire Columbia Forest District distribution list. My friend’s email address contained the word “columbia” and the system’s autocomplete kicked in and made this something I didn’t intend. I clicked “ok” without checking what I was agreeing to, and voilà! I watched in horror as a long list of sent-mail notifications for complete strangers scrolled down my screen.
I galloped down the hall to the system administrator’s office. “Kelly!” I gasped, “Is there any way to get an email back?”
Well no, there isn’t. Once you send your message out into the wide world, you can’t get it back. However, some of the people at Google have decided to take a crack at this problem, and one of the developers has created an experimental feature called “Undo Send.” You may have noticed that 99% of the times that you send something that shouldn’t have been sent, you realize it within seconds (which is part of the reason it’s so infuriating). With the undo send feature enabled, you’ll see a “cancel” option for a few seconds after you hit “send.” If you do nothing, the message goes out as usual. But if you have a last-second change of heart and cancel, the message will appear back in its editing textbox, where you choose whether to edit and re-send it or discard the message altogether.
You can find this feature among the Google Labs features by clicking on the green flask icon or going to “Settings -> Labs.” Once you’ve turned the feature on you can choose a 5-, 10-, or 20-second delay in the configuration options under “Settings -> General.”
As for the time I spammed the Columbia Forest District, there was a happy ending. My administrator friend explained calmly—I don't think I was the first jittering person he’d explained this to—that in fact, the MoF system wasn’t true internet email but rather a proprietary intranet system, and it was possible to recall a message as long as the receiver hadn’t opened it yet. To my relief, I got back almost all of my mis-sent messages.