The subject line of an e-mail is an underappreciated writing task.
We knock off dozens daily with little thought. And yet they carry every bit of the challenge and impact of a newspaper headline – a terse explanation of what's to come, with perhaps the added burden of hinting at the sender's personality.
Extend that concept and maybe a case can be made that the e-mail subject lines found on a listserv say something about its members.
I scanned the SEJ-Talk archives for the first six months of 2007 to see if I could draw such a conclusion. Yeah, I know. It's a strange task. But I do have a life. Honest.
I was prompted to take a closer look after reading this SEJTalk subject line written by Joe Davis: "Need Bee Geek."
It's a phrase that word connoisseurs can savor – three terse and powerful syllables with an internal rhyme scheme that succinctly communicates a need. SEJ member Ramona Smith says that line and the thread it prompted reminds her of the last two lines of Alfred Tennyson's "Come Down, O Maid:"
"The moan of doves in immemorial elms
"And murmuring of innumerable bees."
Smith recalls a college instructor citing those lines as fine examples of assonance, with the vowels carrying the sound, and also consonance in the repetition of the "m" sounds.
Well…I'm not yet convinced that e-mail subject lines represent a new branch of literature.
But they may say a little about an organization. SEJ-Talk's archive reveals a shorthand that outsiders are sure to find bizarre. Our subject lines tend to be the same phrases that make spouses and friends roll their eyes when we talk about a hot story. But within the confines of a listserv of like-minded people, the best ones not only communicate, they entertain and demand that the contents they advertise be read.
Literary gems are tucked amid the pleas for sources, data, story ideas and help with stubborn bureaucrats.
There are the subject lines with a juxtaposition of unlikely elements such as "Carbon credits and adultery" by Robert McClure. Another comes from Bill Kovarik: "Lead, crime and Iraq." Both could be mysterious titles of international thrillers.
There are those that seem to pose philosophical questions. "Why is recycling good?" is the deep query posed by Rob Davis. And Roger Archibald ventures into some heavy stuff with "Nature Taking Revenge – Some Kind of Pattern Here?" Then there is Amy Gahran, who leaves us wanting to read more with three cryptic words and a question mark: "Recycling plastic islands?"
There are religious references such as "Satan is behind global warming debate" by Tom Yulsman and "Climate Change Meets the Spanish Inquisition" by Peter Dykstra.
And there are numerous nods to pop culture: "Ask a ninja: Global Warming" was posted by Gahran - though she quickly notes that it is the title of a video-cast and not something she made up. Other pop references include "Env impact of Paris Hilton interview?" by Allen Salzberg and "Anyone know anything about Global Green USA and Brad Pitt?" by Elizabeth Weiss.
Some subject lines are intriguing, even if impenetrable. Try to figure out what's behind "Toxic home request" by Tony Davis and "TCE AND NOT SO ICY PIO" by Chuck Quirmbach. Other are just strange, like these: "Glamour on the poop beat" by Merritt Clifton and "Get your lawn off drugs" by Dan Sullivan.
There's sex, too. My favorite is Mark Schleifstein's "GAO has LUST in its heart." Outsiders might take it as a reference to an oversexed town in China. Those in the know realize it refers to a federal report on Leaking Underground Storage Tanks.
Some subject lines are noteworthy because of their rhythm and alliteration. Hear the poetry when you read aloud Judith Robinson's "Pesticides and Parkinson's."
But if they gave out Pulitzers for e-mail subject lines, Joe Davis has to be SEJ's frontrunner. That's not just because of his quest for an apiary expert.
Davis has given careful thought to subject lines and their power to jumpstart provocative threads after too many days of spotty listserv traffic.
"Subject lines are really just an opportunity to develop and practice headline-writing skills," he says. "Media change, but communication principles don't change all that much.
"Cleverness is nice ... sometimes. But if it obscures what the story is about, then it had better arouse a lot of curiosity. The really bigger challenge is telling a complicated story in four words - or telling the first part of the story so that the reader wants to read the remainder."
Davis recently admitted on SEJ-Talk that he is a "nerdo- American" with a penchant for geeks. But he's no one-trick pony. So far this year he's used a vigorous writing style to create subjects that appear to touch on philosophy, crime, celebrity and voyeurism.
Consider these others that he's scored for the first half of 2007: "Journalistic Moment of Zen," "Green Celebrity Crime Update" and "Lurid Peek for the Climate Geek."
Now that sets the bar high for subject line literature for the rest of the year. SEJ members are sure to rise to the challenge.
David Poulson teaches computer-assisted, investigative and environmental reporting at Michigan State University.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2007 issue.