Plain text email accessibility and usability

Plain text emails are just that, a text-only version of an email. These emails are very common, like the ones you might send on a daily basis. Depending on your email program, these are often unformatted, but some allow for design options (aka: rich HTML formatting) like bold text or embedding links.

In order to help the reader understand your intended message, consider crafting your email with these tips in mind.  

On this page:

Writing email copy
Formatting email copy

You might also be looking for:

HTML email accessibility and usability
Creating accessible audio and video content
Creating engaging email content

Writing your email copy

1. Create an outline

Ask yourself, “what are the essential topics you want to address?” Then see if you can break those topics down into 3-5 words each. This can help structure your ideas succinctly. How to create outlines.

2. Shorter is better

Use as few words as possible because email copy should not be an essay. Support your readers with scannable shorter paragraphs that can be broken up with bullet points. Overloading users with excessive text increases the chances that information will be misinterpreted. How to write shorter copy.

3. Use clear calls-to-action

Make sure they contain action verbs, active language, and make it very clear what the benefit is by clicking through. A call-to-action should specifically link to what your copy says it will link to. How to write clear calls-to-action.

4. Use plain language

Your readers should be able to understand your message the first time they read it. It’s respectful of their time and increases comprehension.  Plain language means:

Learn more on plain language.

4. Use descriptive link text

People who are blind or have low vision often navigate with screen readers by going from link to link. Providing users with descriptive link text is vital, because it tells them what is being clicked on, and where it will take them. Understand descriptive link text.

5. Provide alternative text for images and graphics (if an available option)

Alt text (alternative text) describes the image visually and explains how the image is related to the content on the page. Images and graphics that require longer alt text instead get a caption or text description beneath the image. Learn more about text descriptions and captioning.

Formatting your email copy

1. Chunk your content

Chunking is a strategy to layout content in small digestible pieces, with headings that describe what can be expected from the following paragraph(s), which has shown to improve comprehension. It calls for shorter paragraphs, or breaking up your paragraphs with bullet points. Examples of chunking content.

2. Using headings and lists to organize 

Help users read and understand your content better by organizing content structurally using headings and ordered/unordered lists. The Heading 1 (H1) should be your main point. Subheadings should follow in chronological order (H2, H3, H4, etc..) with each section heading beginning with Heading 2 (H2).

How to structure accessible headings and create bulleted or numbered lists for accessibility.

3. Tables

In general, try not to use tables in plain text emails.  See guidance on tables in HTML emails.

4. Caption videos, add transcripts for audio content

Make your content accessible by adding captions and transcripts. That should include punctuation, who is speaking, and ambient sound or emotional tone when applicable. How to create accessible video and audio content.

5. Make documents accessible.

Any attachments or linked documents should be accessible for students with disabilities. See resources for making accessible PDFs, word docs, and PowerPoint presentations.