Wondering what you wrote?
Web forms — those webpages with fields you fill out and then click Submit or a similar button — have several advantages. I use them myself; my “ask a question” page is an example of a web form.
While it feels a little like sending an email message (and, indeed, may cause email to be sent), your email isn’t involved at all.
And that means your options are limited.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Web form messages
Once you submit information via a web form, you lose all control over it. If you want to save a copy of that message, do so before hitting Submit. Writing it in Notepad, saving it to a file, and then copying/pasting it into the form is one common, easy solution.
Filling out a form
When you fill out an online form, it’s the web server that processes your submission. That means it can do anything it wants with whatever you’ve provided.
- Enter your submission directly into a database.
- Write your submission to a file on the server to be processed later.
- Send an email containing your submission.
- Ignore your submission completely (something I suspect happens more often than we might like).
There’s no way to know which of these techniques are used; it’s all hidden behind the webpage containing the form.
Email? Not really
The web form could cause email to be sent. That’s exactly what happens when you submit a question using my form.
What’s important to realize is that this is not your email. It’s the server sending the email. It’s the server telling me, “Hey, I just got a submission from so-and-so. Here’s everything they entered.”
In my case, even if you supplied an email address, your email was never involved in getting the information to me. It’s my server, not you, sending email to me, so there’s no “sent” copy kept on your end.
Once you hit Submit, the process is entirely out of your control. There’s no way to know what happened, and there’s no way to retrieve what you entered.
If I’m in this situation and I want to keep a record of what I’ve said, I do things slightly differently.
- I compose my message in a different program, such as Word or Notepad.
- I save that message to disk.
- I copy/paste that message into the web form I’m filling out.
- I hit Submit.
An alternative is to compose the message in the web form and before hitting Submit, copy/paste it to a local document that you then save somewhere.
Either way, there’s a copy stored locally.
Why web forms?
Why are web forms used instead of email?
There are a variety of reasons.
- It’s somewhat more difficult to submit spam.
- It’s possible to include required fields, such as email addresses.
- It’s possible to validate some fields, like email addresses and phone numbers, to make sure they’re formed correctly.
- It’s possible to have a series of fields that guide the submitter to provide required information.
In my case, I do both: you can send me email, though I prefer you use the form.
If you think what you’re about to submit via an online form is something you’ll want to refer to in the future, save a copy.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.