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From the Editors' Association of Canada

Managing Millions of Messages

By Susan Bridges

You may already know that electronic mailing lists, or E-lists, are a speedy way to find experts, no matter where they live, and to stay abreast of current opinion on almost any subject. But do you hesitate to subscribe because you've heard that some lists generate hundreds of messages daily? Perhaps you have already tried and failed to keep up with one of these lists.

How can you avoid drowning in an E-mail tidal wave? I benefit from the 300-400 messages I receive daily while running my busy office - and if you follow my advice, you can manage your own daily deluge, wringing the value out of it with time left to apply all you've learned.

My advice will work with recent E-mail software. If you have old software, upgrade - the program should do much of your work for you. Read your help file to learn how to create the folders and mail filters I describe below.


The first principle of successful E-list participation is to know why you are subscribing: what you want from this investment and time and energy. Is the list living up to expectations? If not, unsubscribe.

The next principle is to get organized. Many E-lists let you choose between receiving individual messages and multiple-message "digests." The first impulse is to subscribe to digests; fewer E-mails arrive and they seem more manageable. But you can't organize them and they're time-consuming to review. I've deleted dozens without opening them. Go for individual messages that can be grouped, ranked, and selectively trashed.
Print the E-list's rules. Some have agreed-upon keywords to use in the subject line (e.g., BIZ, CHAT, QUERY). These will help you to get organized.

Use your software to sort and categorize your mail before you even see it:

1) Make a folder for each E-list. Create mail filters to direct incoming E-mail to the correct folders. With E-list messages automatically filed away, your inbox folder will contain only urgent messages and those addressed to you personally - a few each day if you're like me.

2) Also create mail filters based on the subject line of incoming E-mail. Entire categories that don't meet your needs can be trashed. (That's where I send CHAT). Many E-lists become less fearsome once you've narrowed your focus. Even E-lists that don't use keyword tags can be filtered by subject once you get to know them.


Don't process E-list E-mail more than once or twice a day (but check your inbox as often as you like, of course). Schedule a half-hour to deal with it, so that you won't feel it's taking over your life. I do it in the afternoon when I'm less productive.

1) Inbox first. Try to empty it every time. Once you've read a message, delete it, or if it's too important, file it in an electronic folder (I have one called "Mom").

2) One by one, go into the other folders with new mail. Before reading any messages, group them by topic (click the "Subject" bar at the column head). Scroll to find subjects you don't want to read. Twenty-seven messages on "BIZ: Y2K Compliance"? Select them all using the shift key and down arrow, and press delete once to send them to oblivion (unless you're fascinated, of course).

3) Once you've done this review, you're left with messages that might interest you, ordered by subject. Next, look at the first message in the first subject. If it's enthralling, peruse any and all messages in that group. If not, trash all related E-mail immediately.

4) After reading a message, boon or bane, delete it at once! It may seem valuable, but don't fall for "I might need this sometime." That's how closets get crowded.
If it's priceless, print and file it. Why do I say this? I love trees and I know there's too much paper in your office. But if it's the last word on a subject, you'll be sure to find it next time. If you just save it in an electronic folder, you'll never see it again. Of the thousands of E-mails I get every month, I file half a dozen by project or subject.


1) Should you chime in or just lurk? I advise caution about contributing you contributing your two cents' worth to list subscribers, particularly if you're not a subject expert. Make sure you say something of value to that community of subscribers.

2) When to submit a query? I recommend silence until you're familiar with the list; then you'll avoid gaffes like raising off-limits topics. Make questions brief, identify yourself fully, and state why you need the information. Basic netiquette almost always generates results.

3) If it's 1:00 a.m. on a deadline and you don't know how you'll ever find the answer to your obscure question about 16th-century lute tablature, somebody, perhaps thousands of miles away (perhaps in an earlier time-zone!) may well weigh in as the world's expert. Contact your expert off-list to continue your discussion. (Start by verifying your new source's identity and qualifications. E-mail correspondence can be misleading.)


If you will be away for more than a day or two, postpone subscriptions until you return. Otherwise, you may be swamped by a thousand e-mails when next you sign on - not a happy thought. You will never receive what you have missed, but most lists have archives you can peruse if you feel you must get caught up.

This system may break down if you aren't able to maintain your E-mail frequently.

When very busy, I've had to delete batches that I had no time to read. However, with some preparation and self-discipline, E-lists become invaluable tools that can reduce research time dramatically and put you in touch with globe-spanning networks of knowledgeable people. Considering these benefits, how can you afford not to take the plunge?

Susan Bridges, a corporate editor and project manager in Toronto, has served as directory chair for the Editors' Association of Canada/Association canadienne des rédacteurs-réviseurs.

Published in Sources, Number 44, Summer 1999.


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