Name Files to Maintain Clarity

Digital ChaosToday I’d like to make a request. If you or the people you love actually send and receive emails and files (and I bet you do), then strike a blow for clarity and think about how you NAME them.

I know, I know, naming files and adding descriptive subject lines to emails sounds pretty basic—but I’ve seen misunderstanding suck up enormous amounts of time all too often.

Have you ever been frustrated by computer software designers who seem to create programs for someone other than us mere mortals? Well, now is your chance to put the end-user first and right an ongoing wrong—because it is wrong not to consider the recipient of your messages and the people who have to work with your files when you name them.

Many people take an arbitrary approach, using cryptic names that make sense to them in the moment but are guaranteed to baffle anyone else who has to figure it out later on: “Stuff1.doc”, “vidpic.doc”, “dogate.doc”, etc.

But take heart, naming files is a skill that you can develop without too much effort. If you are sending someone a file or an email, the first step is to think about what they need in a name or subject line.

Here are a few tips on productive naming for those times when you don’t have specific instructions about what to do:


If you are sending an email, include a descriptive subject line. Change the subject line when you change the subject. Don’t ignore the subject line if you reply to an old email. Change it! Enough said.


1. Stick to letters and numbers in your file names. Avoid using a dot “.” in file names except at the end to denote the extension (as in “.pdf”, “.doc”, “.mp4”). If you make a mistake with the file-type extension, your file will appear to be un-readable and panic often ensues (although you can rename it to fix the problem).

2. When you need to separate words to increase readbility, use a “ ” space, “-” hyphen, or “_” underscore.

3. Are the recipients going to get many files of the same type? (This often happens with applications, bios, schedules, and the like.)  If so, include relevant info right in the filename: your full name, type of submission, and a date if it makes sense.  Ex. “Jo Golden bio 2010.doc”

4. Is your document a schedule or anything that will be recreated many times and that you will need to sort by date on your computer? If so, you need a descriptive name for the content as well as a reference date.

Dates can be tricky because people write them differently, but for ease of use (yours and your computer’s) stick to the basic year-month-day structure and separate by hyphens.

Ex. “Schedule 10-05-04.doc” which is the schedule for May 4, 2010

“Schedule 10-05-05.doc” and the schedule for May 5, 2010

“Schedule 10-05-06.doc” and the schedule for May 6, 2010

If you use this pattern and store all the documents in the same file, they can be ordered by date making everyone’s life easier if and when someone must to go back and find information about a particular date after the fact.

5. Are you going to be trading versions of a document back and forth many times or with many people?

In addition to a descriptive name for the content of the file, include information to reflect where you are in the process. Use versions to keep everything straight.

Ex. “D Success Ch 1 draft v1.doc”

then they can send back: “D Success Ch 1 draft v2.doc”

and so on…

Above all, get some up-front agreement on file naming conventions when working with other people. And when it comes to naming files, be clear and it will save everyone time, effort, and aggravation.