How To Make Your Plain Text Emails Hard to Read and Use

Sometimes it’s good to step back from discussions like what’s new at Gmail and how to add an opt-in form to Facebook and just talk email marketing basics for a bit.

Today, let’s talk about email design. Specifically, plain text email design.

While creating plain text emails seems easy (and it is) there are things you can do to make your plain text emails more reader-friendly.

A recent email I received illustrates this well:

Evernote’s Plain Text Update

Here’s an email I received from the makers of software program Evernote:

Evernote Email Example
(Click image to see full-size)

Now, we could take the easy way out and say that Evernote should be sending HTML emails instead of plain text – so they could more easily present this information in the excellent way they do on their website and blog.

Instead, let’s focus instead on how Evernote could make it easier for subscribers to get the information they want out of this plain text email.

  • For the record, I don’t think this is a bad email overall. It has a great tone and a lot of good content in it. I just think that the format makes it hard for subscribers to use and appreciate that content.

Making This Plain Text Email Usable

While this email isn’t just one big continuous block of text, it does leave a few things to be desired…

No Maximum Character Width

Notice how long the lines are in this email?

(Click to see full-size)

Those are being cut off by my Gmail account when it runs out of room at around 133 characters – about twice what we recommend as a maximum line length. And if Gmail had let them, the lines would have run even longer than that!

Keeping the lines shorter would mean subscribers don’t have to move their eyes so far across the page and back to read the email, making scanning faster and easier.

Headers Aren’t Easily Visible and Scannable

If you’re going to have an email with separate topics/sections, it’s best to use headers (just like you would on a web page) to make those sections easy to find as subscribers scan your email.

This email has headers, but fails to separate them from the corresponding paragraphs.

At the very least there should be another line break between the header and paragraph; I’d probably also try making the header stand out a little more with some hyphens or asterisks.

No Separation of Content Within Paragraphs

Each section of this email has a header and then a single large paragraph of text.

Even at the long line lengths shown here, each paragraph is several lines long. If you were to shorten the lines to 60-70 characters, these would be really long.

This email could be far more readable if you broke the paragraphs apart, maybe used some bulleted lists… you don’t have to follow the old “5-sentence paragraph” structure when writing an email!

No Conclusion or Signoff

This email just abruptly ends after the last content section:

What’s strange about this is that the rest of the email actually has a great friendly, personal tone to it… so a signature or conclusion of some sort seems like a no-brainer.

Leaving the signature off makes it feel less like an email you’re receiving from an actual person at Evernote, and more like a machine-written news summary.

Your conclusion and/or signature need not be elaborate (for example, look at the one in Kayak’s email newsletters) but it should be there to bring everything else in your emails back together.

Just For Fun: My Rewrite Of This Email

Here’s that same email content, with ~3 minutes’ work to format it differently:

(Click image for full-size)

It’s longer since I shortened the lines and broke up the text a bit, but I think it reads a lot more smoothly than the previous version.

I’m of course biased since this rewrite is my creation, so I’ll ask you:

Would you agree that the simple layout changes in this version make the email much easier to scan and read?

I hope so 🙂

Plain Text Doesn’t Have to Be Plain-Jane

It’s perfectly fine to send plain text emails; they might work better for you than HTML.

But if you do go the plain text route, don’t assume that means there’s zero design involved!

How do YOU lay out your plain text emails to make them easy to read?


  1. Joce

    5/22/2011 3:47 pm

    And I’m gonna use the free line-length-shortener tool Kathryn suggested above!!!

  2. Scott

    10/4/2011 12:54 am

    Please don’t shorten lines. Let the e-mail client wrap them. If you shorten them “by hand”, the lines get truncated in wacky places. More and more people are using e-mail clients on their phone, and you never know how long the line is going to actually be, but I can almost guarantee it’ll be smaller than 80 characters (a popular width to put line breaks at).

    In fact, if you use gmail’s plain text editor to compose an email, and pick up a phone running Google’s Android OS, and look at it in gmail, you can easily see the problem, because gmail will insert line breaks every ~80 characters in plaintext emails:

    Plain-text e-mail fail!

  3. Jeremy

    11/15/2011 5:45 pm

    Hi Justin, can you help me write my messages in narrow column text formatting. I have 4-5 hours into trying to fit this style into HTML ( I need to put in hyper-links) today… Tech support gave me a work around but the solution wasn’t very helpful.

    I simply want a newspaper style column that will justify to about 6 words per line. I can’t believe Aweber doesn’t have an easy way to write this kind of followup email? Thanks for your time.

    Thank you

  4. Rebekah Henson

    11/16/2011 9:57 am


    It sounds like you need a designer to help you out. Check out our AWeber ODesk group for a design professional you can hire to help with your layout:

    I’ll also pass your design suggestion along to our design team.

  5. Ryan

    3/28/2013 10:49 am

    Thanks for the info. What about line width for people reading on phones. It should probably less than 60 to fit on phones? Actually, max line widths are best for phones since they will just wrap. However, you need to have them work best on phones and computers so maybe around 40 characters is good. What do you think?