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Subject: Hints on writing style for Usenet
This article was archived around: Tue, 28 Dec 1999 09:00:21 GMT
Original-author: email@example.com (A. Jeff Offutt VI)
Comment: maintained until 5/93 by firstname.lastname@example.org (Gene Spafford)
Last-change: 29 Sep 1997 by email@example.com (Mark Moraes)
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.
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
Editor's note: Thanks to Columbia University, Academic Information
Systems, Project Bartleby, Strunk can be accessed on the World-Wide
Other ideas here come from my own experience on the net and hints from
This is a "long article." The rest of it is simply a list of pointers.
* 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
* 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.
* Subtlety is not communicated well in written form - especially over a
computer. Remember, most people who will read your posting do not
* 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
* 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
* 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.
These suggestions are all easily supported by arguments and research.
There's a lot more to say, but....
Copyright 1997, all rights reserved.
Used with permission.