Jerz: Writing for the Internet (EL236)

15 September 2004

Before Web Browsers (Panel 1-D)

1. History of E-Mail (Vanessa Kolberg)
2. History of Usenet (Newsgroups) (Dennis G. Jerz)
3. History of the Personal Computer (LeCrisha Mattox)
4. History of Word Processing
5. Feedback on in-class writing exercise (Dennis G. Jerz)

Instead of the History of Word Processing, we'll spend a bit of time on the problem in my instructions for Exercise 1-4.

Feedback on 9/13 Writing Exercise

I enjoyed looking through the brief exercises you wrote in class on Monday, when you wrote a brief paragraph in a style with which you are already familiar, and then revised it based on what you learned from Kilian's book Writing for the Web.

General Observations:

Get to the point. Put your best ideas at the top of your document, since online readers tend to be very impatient, and will click "go back" if they don't immediately see evidence that your page is promising. (You might first type out what you want to say, then post at the top a brief summary. See my handout on writing e-mail.)

Audience: Several of you reflected on online writing as something between the personal writing you do with friends, and the formal writing you do for class. I'm glad to see so many of you already thinking about these distinctions.

Formal vs. informal: There is a place for formal writing online. Formal does not always mean "wordy". Online readers like "jolts," but they also respond well to tight prose.

Hierarchy: Break up your thoughts into small units, with brief informative subheadings. Use short lists (like this one) instead of long blocks of connected paragraphs. Reconsider everything you learned about writing paragraphs with thesis statements and smooth transitions.

Links: When you start spreading your ideas out across several chunks, recognize that somebody who sees one of your ideas may not have read, and may not even know about, your related ideas. Use links to point your reader to background material (whether you wrote it or found it online).

Showing vs. Telling: When you want to engage your reader's emotions, instead of telling them "I heard a really funny joke today," you should instead just tell the joke, and let your reader decide whether it's funny. If you want to write about something sad, rather than tell your reader "This is sad," "This is utterly depressing," or "This event will go down in history as the most utterly dejecting moment of my whole miserable life," you should instead try to make your reader feel sad. (See "Show, Don't (Just) Tell.")

Suggested blog entry: Consult "Show, Don't (Just) Tell" and post two different versions of the same event -- one that relies mostly on telling, and another that relies mostly on showing. Be sure to let your readers know what you are doing, without being so obvious as to say, "This is my show vs tell exercise."
Suggested blog entry: The conflict between "making your point" and "involving the reader". When we are searching for information, we appreciate brevity and clarity. When we are reading for pleasure, we will put up with -- and even enjoy -- digressions and wanderings, so long as the writing is enjoyable. Humorists like Dave Barry appear to be rambling... and, of course, sometimes they are. But like any professional writer, Barry works hard at fine-tuning his prose, cutting out extraneous words, packing in as many jokes as he can within a very short space.

Using some of your own writing, or writing that you find elsewhere on the internet, explore this tension between the brevity you yourself appreciate when you read online, and free-flowing stream-of-consciousness writing typically found in online diaries and on personal blogs.