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Regularly I find myself writing emails to my colleagues which include some form of "column explanation". Which is the best way to format a HTML email for readability?

Example: I send out a link to an online table (created by someone else) in which you have to report the status of a complex process. The name of table columns is not self explanatory. Usually I write an email with the following structure:

Greeting

Explanation of background, deadline, link to table

column1: Please fill out this column if [...]

column2: This column is only applicable if [...]

columnX: 5-10 further columns [...]

Wishes

Further thoughts: Is a list in the email the best approach? Should I use a bullet in front of the column names? Should I emphasise (bold) the column names or does this detract from the “deadline” in bold?

  • I think the deadline should be stated first, or otherwise people may skip over the background stuff until they find the link, and miss the deadline that is hidden in between. – celtschk Jan 3 at 11:35
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A few suggestions.

  1. For starters, I'd put the deadline in the email subject as well (and keep it in the email body too), e.g.

    Monthly report summary - DEADLINE: 3 March 2018

  2. I'd try to edit the table so that column titles are clearer to the user. If that is not possible, I'd try to to have an explanation of the column titles in the spreadsheet as well. For instance, I have seen many instances of excel files having one additional spreadsheet with such information.

  3. The formatting you proposed should work. Make sure that the link between column numbering and information needed is very clear. Bold face is a good way to remind the reader of the important information.

  4. When and if you collapse multiple columns together in the explanation, make sure that the reader can quickly understand that they can skip reading that line. They probably will anyway, just try to make sure that they know when they should not.

  • +1 for putting the deadline in the email subject AND in the email body. – Sara Costa Jan 3 at 16:31
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I would recommend a PDF. I normally believe in converting files to text (marked or unmarked) for emails because so many times that Word file or whatever is just a couple paragraphs that don't need to be in a separate file.

In this case though, the precise formatting matters a lot. No matter how perfect you get an HTML table or plain-text tabs, it's going to look different in different email programs. With no way to predict how.

So I'd create your table in Excel (or whatever spreadsheet program you prefer), or use a word processing program with table support if it's a simple table (so Word or something similar).

Next, tell the program to print the document. When the dialogue screen comes up, choose PDF. In Word, this will be a dropdown menu at the bottom left of the screen. Click the popup and choose "mail as PDF" (or similar wording).

This way you can also keep all the bold formatting, column headers, and so on. If you have the proper formatting, you won't need all the explanations. Just a short introduction.

If the explanations are required, use footnotes. A superscript number after each header. Then at the bottom, put each number on its own line, with the extra text.

Doing this in one file is the best way to go. That way the reader can print it out and have the explanations together with the table. Unless the reader needs to fill it out and return it in email, a PDF really is your best choice because formatting never changes. (You can also make it an editable PDF, but that is a lot more complex.)

  • +1 A PDF guide is a nice idea. I understood however that the table to be filled is some sort of online form. – NofP Jan 3 at 9:43
  • That's a good idea which i will use in other cicumstances. Unfortunatly as NofP correctly noted in this case i send out a link to a online (SharePoint) table. So an attatched offline document is not really a solution. – Sebastian Schmitz Jan 3 at 16:09
  • Looking at the question again, I'm honestly not seeing that. Could you please edit the question to make it clear? – Cyn Jan 3 at 16:27

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