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Subject: Hints on writing style for Usenet

This article was archived around: Tue, 28 Dec 1999 09:00:21 GMT

All FAQs in Directory: usenet/writing-style
All FAQs posted in: news.announce.newusers
Source: Usenet Version

Archive-name: usenet/writing-style/part1 Original-author: ofut@isse.gmu.edu (A. Jeff Offutt VI) Comment: maintained until 5/93 by spaf@cs.purdue.edu (Gene Spafford) Last-change: 29 Sep 1997 by netannounce@deshaw.com (Mark Moraes) Changes-posted-to: news.misc,news.answers
I would like to take a moment to share some of my knowledge of writing style. If you read the suggestions below, remember: it's easy to agree that they make sense but it's much harder to apply them. References: Cunningham and Pearsall, "How to Write For the World of Work" Strunk & White, "Elements of Style" The above references are both excellent books. Cunningham is a standard in tech writing classes and won an award for the best tech writing book from the Association for Teaching of Technical Writing. I was lucky enough to take a class from him as an undergraduate. Strunk is a standard in college composition classes. Editor's note: Thanks to Columbia University, Academic Information Systems, Project Bartleby, Strunk can be accessed on the World-Wide Web as: <http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/strunk/> Other ideas here come from my own experience on the net and hints from other people. This is a "long article." The rest of it is simply a list of pointers. Writing style: * Make your writing easy to read. Keep it simple. * Keep paragraphs short and sweet. Keep sentences shorter and sweeter. This means "concise," not cryptic. * White space is not wasted space -- it greatly improves clarity. A blank line only adds a byte to the article length, so don't be stingy if it will help make your meaning clearer. * Pick your words carefully. Writing with precision is as important here as it is in any other kind of discourse. Consider carefully whether what you have written can be misinterpreted, and whether that is something you wish to have happen. * People can only grasp about seven things at once. This means ideas in a paragraph, major sections, etc.. * Avoid abbreviations and acronyms, if possible, and define the ones you use. * There are several variations on any one sentence. A passive, questioning or negative sentence takes longer to read. * "Cute" misspellings are difficult to read, especially if the reader is not fluent in the language involved. Net style: * Subtlety is not communicated well in written form - especially over a computer. Remember, most people who will read your posting do not know you. * The above applies to humor as well. (rec.humor, of course, not included.) Smileys :-), frowns :-(, winks ;-) can sometimes avoid confusion. * When being especially "flame-boyant", I find it helpful to go to the bathroom before actually sending. Then, I often change the tone considerably. :-) Take a break before posting something in anger or that might hurt or anger others. * Subject lines should be used very carefully. How much time have you wasted reading articles with a misleading subject line? The "Subject:" header line can be edited in all the various posting programs (as can the "Distribution:", "Newsgroups:" and "Followup-To:" header lines). * References need to be made. When you answer mail, you have the original message fresh in your mind. When I receive your answer, I don't. * Do not include the entire article that you are replying to. Cut down the part that you include to the absolute minimum needed to provide context to your reply. * It's *much* easier to read a mixture of upper and lower case letters. * Leaving out articles (such as "the," "a," "an," etc.) for "brevity" mangles the meaning of your sentences and takes longer to read. It saves you time at the expense of your reader. * Be careful of contextual meanings of words. For instance, I used "articles" just now. In the context of netnews, it has a different meaning than I intended. * Make an effort to spell words correctly. Obvious misspellings are jarring and distract the reader. Every news posting program allows you to edit your article before posting, and most systems have some kind of spelling checker program that you can use on your article. * If your article goes over one screenful, use subheadings to organize it. Numbering your paragraphs is rarely helpful. * Just before you post your article, re-read it. This will ensure that you actually wrote what you intended to write. * Remember - this is an international network. * Remember - your current or future employers may be reading your articles. So might your spouse, neighbors, children, and others who will long-remember your gaffes. Enough said. These suggestions are all easily supported by arguments and research. There's a lot more to say, but.... Jeff Offutt Copyright 1997, all rights reserved. Used with permission.