Creating, sending, and receiving email

Christopher Breen
2 April, 2013
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Yesterday we began our exploration of Apple’s Mail application. Having read through that lesson, you’re familiar with the makeup of the Mail window. This time we’ll turn from geography to communication – creating, sending, and retrieving email. Taking it from the top …

The New Message window

Click the toolbar’s New Message button, or press Command-N, and the New Message window appears. It has its own toolbar that contains, by default, the following buttons: Send Message, Attach Document, Show Format Bar, Show/Hide Photo Browser, and Show/Hide Stationery Pane. Like Mail’s toolbar, this one is also customisable. Just Control-click (right-click) the toolbar, choose Customize Toolbar, and from the sheet that appears drag the tools you want to the toolbar. From this moment forward, those buttons will appear in every New Message window (or at least until you hold down the Command key and drag them out). We’ll explore these buttons further later in the lesson.

Below the toolbar are the To, Cc, and Subject fields. They shake out this way.

The To field: This is where you enter the email addresses of those you wish to send the message to. You can do this in a couple of ways. The first is to simply click in the field and type the address –, for instance. To enter multiple email addresses in this manual way, place a comma after each recipient (except the last one, of course).

The To field also supports autofill, meaning that if the person you’re intending to send a message to is in your list of contacts or you’ve received a message from this person in the not-too-distant past, all you have to do is start typing their name and a list of matching contacts will appear. Select the one you want, press Return, and the complete address will appear in the field.

Alternatively you can expose the Address panel (select Window > Address Panel or press Command-Option-A) and double-click on contacts you want to add. (If the contact has more than one email address, double-click the one you want to use.) If you’d like to add a group, it’s the same idea – double-click on the group to add all its members who have email addresses to the To field. (Stay tuned for a tip on why you might not want to do this.) To remove a recipient from the To field, just select the email address and press the Mac’s Delete key.

The Cc field: Seasoned readers will know that Cc stands for Courtesy Copy (some also refer to it as Carbon Copy) and is the email way of indicating “This message isn’t really directed at you, but it’s something you should be aware of.” You might, for example, use the To field for people you’re collaborating with on a work project and Cc the boss so she’s aware of your progress.

Before we get to the Subject field, here’s that promised tip about the To and Cc fields. There will be times when it’s unwise to use either. Suppose, for example, you’ve composed a somewhat delicate message with 25 recipients. If you place those 25 addresses in the To field (or split some of them out to the Cc field), everyone who receives that message is now aware of every email address you’ve exposed. This can be a Bad Thing, because some people prefer that such an address not be shared with every Tom, Dick, and Mary you know.

The Bcc field: It’s for this reason that the Bcc (Blind Courtesy Copy) field exists. Any addresses placed in the Bcc field are not exposed to your recipients. A helpful technique many people use is to put their own address in the To field (because you have to put something there) and place all other addresses in the Bcc field.

And where is this alleged field? Just choose View > Bcc Address Field (or press Command-Option-B), and it will appear below the Cc field. Once you’ve enabled this option, Bcc will appear in every New Message window you create.

The Subject field: Every message you send should have a Subject field. And, as its name implies, this field is where you put a word or short phrase that describes what your message is about.

When composing a subject try to avoid generic words and phrases such as “Hi!” “How’s it going?” or “You’ve Won 8 Million Dollars!!!!” Part of this is simple courtesy. Some people receive a lot of email and its helpful to them to know whether your message is worth reading immediately or not. Also, the least-discerning spam filters will often flag such messages as junk because of their commonly-used-by-spammers subjects. (The better grade of spam filters will look at the message body as well, so you won’t always lose such messages.)

The From menu: If you have multiple email accounts configured in Mail, you can choose which account to send from via this menu. Why? Suppose you have both work and personal email accounts configured on your Mac. For work-related messages you’ll want to send from your work address. For messages complaining to your friends about your work, you’ll use your personal address.

The Customize menu: To the left of the From pop-up menu is the Customize menu. Click it and you have options for showing or hiding the Cc, Bcc, Reply-To, and Priority fields. As I explained when discussing Bcc, once you enable one of these fields, it will appear in every New Message window. When you choose Customize from this menu, the top of the New Message window expands and shows you every possible field. Tick the checkbox next to those fields that you always want to see when composing a new message.

The Reply-To field: Like Bcc, this is another field that’s hidden by default. There may be times when you want to send a message from one account, but receive any replies to it with a different account. For example, you’ve sent a message from your iCloud account but want replies to go to your Gmail account. Place your Gmail account’s address in the Reply-To field, and when people receiving your message press Reply, their messages will be sent to that Gmail account.

The Priority menu: It’s possible to mark messages you create as Low, Normal, or High priority using this menu. Recipients will see your message marked with two exclamation marks (!!) if it’s sent as high priority.

A word of caution about assigning a priority to messages. If all of your messages are high priority, none of them are. And by that I mean that you should save high priority for only those occasions when something is really, really important – as in, we’re-all-going-to-be-fired-if-you-don’t-reply-immediately or Timmy-fell-down-the-well important. Mark each of your kid’s softball game announcements or an entirely uninteresting press release as high priority, and the people you communicate with will learn to ignore your messages. In short: Don’t cry wolf.

Composing messages

Finally, to the message body – that large area at the bottom of the New Message window that begs to be filled. You could, of course, simply click in this area and start typing, but there are more interesting ways to fill this void. To see what I mean, let’s return to the toolbar.

Attach Document: This first button is one way to send one or more files along with your message. Click it and a navigation sheet appears, which you use to choose the documents that will be bundled with your message.

Attachments appear inline, meaning that rather than displaying attachments in some kind of field, they appear in the message body. Image and media files display a preview, whereas other kinds of documents – Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages files, for example – appear as document icons. This inline business doesn’t affect how your recipients will see the attachments. Rather, the configuration of their email client determines how attachments are displayed.

You don’t have to use the Attach Document button to add attachments. If you like, just drag attachments into the message body from the Finder.

Also, be aware of the size of your attachments. It’s not unusual for messages that total more than 10MB to be blocked by one of the internet service providers responsible for delivering it. If you have large files to send to someone, find another avenue such as Dropbox or SugarSync for sharing those files.

Show Format Bar: By default, new mail messages are formatted as rich text. Rich text can be formatted using different fonts, sizes, colours, and justification, much like you’d format text in a word processor. Plain text is exactly that – no italics, boldface, or colours.

Speaking of rich text, your message will be more readable (and look more professional) if you keep the formatting to a minimum. Including coloured text and 18 different fonts was cool in 1998, but we’ve moved on. Keep it simple and tasteful.

Show/Hide Photo Browser: Want quick access to your iPhoto library so you can easily attach an image? Click this button, and an Image Browser window appears that includes the contents of your iPhoto library arranged by events, photos, faces, places, and albums you’ve created. (If you’re using Apple’s Aperture, its library will appear here as well, as do the images you’ve captured with Photo Booth.) Browse to the images you desire and drag them into the message body.

Show/Hide Stationery Pane: Apple’s Mail includes stationery templates much like Pages includes templates for creating newsletters and business correspondence. Click this button and you find six stationery categories – Favorites, Birthday, Announcement, Photos, Stationery, and Sentiments. Within the latter five categories are a number of options – Dinner Party and Baby in the Announcements category, for example. Select one, and the template appears in the message body, complete with boilerplate text and, in some cases, images.

Just edit this text to personalise it, drag in images to replace those of the lovely models, and send. How your recipients see these messages depends on the configuration of their email clients. Some will see everything inline as intended, while others will receive the stationery as an attachment.

Another warning regarding taste: For certain kinds of correspondence, these templates may be a little too cute or casual. Be sure your recipient will appreciate them.

Receiving email

Now that you’ve propelled your thoughts into the world, there’s every chance that you’ll receive replies to them. Let’s look at getting the messages that are rightfully yours.

When we talked about the anatomy of the Mail window, I told you that you could check for email any time you liked just by clicking the Get New Mail button on the left side of the Mail window’s toolbar. (Or by clicking and holding on the dock’s Mail icon and choosing Get New Mail.) While this gives you absolute control over when you receive your email, it can keep you from dealing with important messages in a timely manner. Email pros choose, instead, to automatically receive messages on a regular schedule.

You configure that schedule by choosing Mail > Preferences (Command-comma) and clicking the resulting window’s General tab. In this window, you’ll spy the Check For New Messages pop-up menu. From this menu you can choose to check for new mail every 1, 5, 15, 30, or 60 minutes. Or you can choose to receive email only when you issue the Get New Mail command.

With one of these automatic options configured, Mail will do its duty and grab what new email is available. Unless you’ve configured your account to file messages in some other way (a subject we’ll visit in an upcoming column), your new messages will appear in the inbox in the Messages pane. Mail needn’t be the frontmost application to receive email, but it has to be running.

When you receive new messages, by default you’ll hear a new message sound and the Mail icon in the dock will bounce. You’ll also see a badge in that icon’s top-right corner indicating the number of unread messages in your inbox.

Click the inbox and, as I explained in the last lesson, you’ll see a list of your messages in the Messages pane. New messages are marked with a blue dot. Any messages coloured orange are considered by Mail to be junk. Select a message, and its contents will appear in the Message Viewer area.

To reply to a message you’ve received, click the Reply button in the toolbar or press Command-R. If a message was sent to multiple recipients you may be tempted to choose Reply All instead. I will now shout a bit on this subject:


I’ll refer you to my Mac 911 story, Ending Reply All annoyances for the details, but the general idea is this. If some ill-informed person has sent out a message to everyone he or she knows – a “Welcome aboard!” message to a new employee or an invitation to the Keggling Club’s Hummus Cook-Off – clicking Reply All will just further jam up these poor schmoes’ inboxes. If you have something to say to the sender, do it singularly by clicking Reply rather than Reply All.

This may seem obvious and nothing other than good manners, but you’d be amazed at the number of allegedly “professional” people who hit Reply All without a second thought. Avoid this trap, and you’re well on your way to being a model citizen of the internet.


By Christopher Breen. Macworld.

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