Why I Am Switching to Interleaved Email Replies and Why You Should Too

Which is more readable and understandable:

Q: How old are you?
A: 28.

or

A: 28.
Q: How old are you?

We read from top to bottom on computers, which leads most people to say it is more helpful to read the question first, then to see the answer first. This is all rather logical — we need the context before the content. Saying ‘28’ could mean far too many things, but by knowing that the 28 is referring to an age gives us the needed context to properly comprehend the answer. Except, apparently, when we deal with email. The typical emailed response looks like this:

message 1.png

In this sequence neither person can easily look back at the email and find what was being replied too. There is loads of confusion with this email. That type of response is called ‘Top Posting’ and it is the most common type of email response you will get and it is the type that you are most likely doing. How often do you end up having to read the entire chain of emails before you figure out what in the hell someone is answering? I find that it is a constant problem.

Top Posting as defined by Wikipedia:

In top-posting style, the original message is included verbatim, with the reply above it. It is sometimes referred to by the term TOFU, an acronym for “Text Over, Fullquote Under”

Recently I found this plugin for Apple’s Mail.app that forces the email client to create ‘Bottom Posted’ responses. Bottom posting in its raw form looks like this:

message 2.png

This method is much easier to read for most people, since we are used to seeing the question first, followed by the response. Even with how short this email is, there still can be a lot of confusion. Many people on Twitter can’t fathom why I would switch to this method — everyone does top posting, why be different?

Well I actually am not trying to be different. I want to copy several of people that I really like, two of which are: Shawn Blanc and John Gruber. Usually when you get a response from either of these people you are going to get a bottom posted reply, but it will not look like the bottom posting you see above. Typically these two use a bottom posting method that is more accurately referred to as: Interleaved Posting. Interleaved posting is the style that I have actually switched to, while keeping some emails Top Posted if the situation doesn’t warrant interleaving. I think most people lump interleaving and bottom posting as one in the same, either way it doesn’t matter much to me what the correct terminology is.

John Gruber says on the subject:

Writing an email is like writing an article. Only quote the relevant parts, interspersing your new remarks between the quoted passages. Don’t quote anything at all from the original message if you don’t have to.

It is a short read, so jump over and read what he has to say on the matter, then come back. Now, if I was actually to respond to the above email example I would do this:

message 3.png

Which is more helpful: top posting, or interleaved posting?

These are extremely short examples, but imagine you got an email that contained multiple things you wanted to respond to — interleaved posting becomes far more efficient than top posting:

message 4.png

This is much more efficient than stacking three answers at the top of the email and leaving the recipient to wonder which answer goes with which question. I have been doing this for less that a week now, but I can say that I have yet to see one person complain, or be confused by this. 1

If you don’t take the time to edit down what you are replying to, then yes, top posting is the best method. For those of us that want to cut out extraneous emails from our day: why wouldn’t you take the extra bit of time to answer the email properly? Better yet, why wouldn’t you spend an extra 30 seconds and put effort into better email responses? The argument I hear from most people is that they don’t have the time to do this — to which I often wonder if they aren’t just lazy.

Daniel R. Tobais on the matter:

This set of characteristics leads naturally toward a preference for the traditional Internet (geek/academic/Usenet) style of using carefully trimmed quotes followed by the reply. This allows point-by-point inline rebuttals, minimizes bandwidth use, is a format well-suited for digesting and archiving, and minimizes the ability of various mail programs to mangle an entire thread.

Well said. I don’t care much how you reply to me, but I do care what all of my outgoing emails look like. Lastly, if you reply top posted to me I won’t think twice about it. If you reply interleaved to me: you bet your ass I will look at who sent me that email.

[Updated: 1-13-11 at 9:36 AM]

Here are some links to get going in Outlook and Gmail.

[Updated: 1-14-11 at 10:32 AM]
Here is one for CLI mail agent users.

[This part of an ongoing series on dealing with email, to see more posts look here.]

  1. Nor has a single person commented to me about this different style: good or bad.
Originally posted for members on: January 13, 2011
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