I’ve got a whole stack of standard responses that I cut and paste into emails. There are certain requests for information, for instance, that I get on a pretty regular basis. I don’t really have an interest in retyping the same message over and over again, so I have saved my commonly used emails and just cut and paste. Gmail made that whole process much easier this week with the new Canned Response feature available from Google Labs. I have it turned on and I’ve been converting all my saved messages into canned responses. It’s given me an opportunity to take a look at the messages I routinely use, and I figured I’d share them with you.

My Standard Emails

  1. Availability — Whenever someone wants to meet, whether in person, over the phone or online, I find it easiest to just paste in my normal availability and best times for meetings. I do tweak the email after I get my normal availability listed; after all, I might have a non-reoccuring appointment to take into consideration. But, for many of us, a general email about what time of day we are free isn’t going to vary much from week to week.
  2. Forms — I have a couple of reports that I have to send out once a week. I’ve created basic text forms, where I just add the current week’s information. I do something similar with my invoices, but I have to be very careful about making sure that my books and emails match up.
  3. Nagging Emails — There are a whole set of emails that I really hate having to send and I’ve lumped them all into my ‘nagging’ emails pile. I’ve got form emails for reminding clients that payments are late, that someone has violated my copyright and all the other letters that ten years ago I would have just Xeroxed and stuffed in an envelope.
  4. Cover Letters — As a freelancer, I’m pretty much always looking for work. I know a couple of full-time employees who are also on a perpetual hunt, too. We all make a habit of looking for work that will fit us and responding with a cover letter, a resume and some samples. It’s exceedingly rare that I’ll write a cover letter from scratch. I’m pretty confident in my cover letter; it’s already landed me plenty of work. There are some jobs that I don’t do more than change the name at the top before sending out my email.
  5. Websites — I belong to a couple of websites that I routinely receive email from that I have to respond to. One, for instance, is a site that allows me to trade books. I have to email other members to exchange shipping information on a regular basis. This category of emails is one reason I’m particularly excited about Canned Responses: I want to set up filters to handle responding to such emails automatically without my having to do anything except go to the post office. Craigslist is the sort of site that a canned response is especially ideal for.
  6. Projects — When I’m starting a new project, there’s a few general question I like to start with so that everyone involved has a similar idea of what we’re working on. While those questions don’t generally make up a complete email starting a project, I like being able to drop them in easily. I have a few other bits and pieces of text that are useful on emails for a lot of different projects, such as requests for certain types of information necessary to proceed.

The Key is Customization

I have plenty of other standard emails. But I don’t want you to get the idea that I only send out form emails — that I never put thought into the messages I send out. With only a few exceptions, it’s pretty rare that I send out one of my standard responses without adding, tweaking or generally changing it up. My standard responses are more templates than form letters, in most cases.

I started using templates as a way to cut down the amount of time I spent staring at my email inbox. If I have at least a starting point for the most common emails I receive, I can pound out the full email in short order. I can answer a full day’s worth of email in half the time that it would take if I started from scratch on each one. Lately, it seems like it takes more time for me to copy and paste a response than it does for me to tweak that message for its recipient.

If I think I’ve had to answer the same question twice, I generally save my response. I’ve got a pretty healthy file now — even though some of my responses aren’t actually useful on a very regular basis. But I’ve found that, as my stack of standard emails has grown, I’ve got some sort of template response for 90 percent of the email I get.

Canned Response will make those template easier to manage, I think: I’ve used simple text files, TextExpander and even drafts in my Gmail account to try to manage my standard responses. While all of those options are okay, none of them are great — they weren’t really created with such a task in mind. But Canned Response really is made with this approach to email in mind. Those other methods will continue to work, however, if you aren’t interested in using Gmail.

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