ProfHack: Using Find “?” to cut through the crap in a rambling document


I’ve been meaning to do an irregular series of posts on “Profhacks”, little productivity tips and hacks that I’ve found useful in the academic world. Here’s the first, which I just discovered.

I was sent an email from someone who was asking me to do something. But instead of coming straight out and giving me the request, the actual request is buried inside a lengthy, rambling email full of stuff, a small fraction of which is pertinent to the thing I am being asked to do. People in academia are notoriously long-winded and loath to come to the point on anything, and so this happens a lot more often than it should. Once I perceive that I am being asked to do something, how do I keep from wasting time trying to find the needle-like request in the haystack of verbiage?

Solution: Do a search for the question mark symbol (“?”). In my Entourage and in most Mac apps, that’s done by just hitting Option-F (for “Find”) and entering in ? . As advertised, the cursor jumps right to the next instance of the question mark symbol; then just read back over the sentence that it ends. If the question needs more context, you can keep reading backwards, but usually requests are pretty straightforward and do not need the overabundance of context that the writer gives.

The converse of this hack is, if you are writing an email to ask somebody a question, put the question up front and THEN give the context if possible. Chances are the reader knows more than you think.

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1 Comment

Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Profhacks

One response to “ProfHack: Using Find “?” to cut through the crap in a rambling document

  1. Simply writing short might do it. I would never put the question before a line or so of greeting. It’s the longwinded ones that bury the question.

    Sometimes I put the question, or a short version, in the subject line. That helps cut to the chase as well.

    I do not think I would send a naked question as an e-mail, though.