Many students have experience of writing online, on social networking sites like Facebook, blogs and microblogging sites like Twitter, discussion boards, or other types of forum. There are probably three general points to consider before moving on to the individual skills detailed in this section.
The great advantage of online writing is being able to link to other online information, whether that’s websites, videos, downloadable files, or other forms of data.
It can be a more public form of writing because, depending on where it is, you might have more or less idea about who the audience is. This will, of course, affect what and how you write.
Finally, there might be an emphasis on writing concisely; for example, it’s often suggested that blog posts should stick to a maximum of 500 words.
Writing online indicates a wide range of forms of writing but because this resource is about academic skills, we’ll concentrate on three that are more commonly used in an educational context: Online Discussion Fora, websites, and blogs.
Online Discussion Fora
We don't need to tell you that sitting at your desk in Sheffield you can connect instantly with people all over the world to share knowledge, experiences, and ideas.
On discussion boards conversation is organised by topic (or “thread”), and there may be a large number of people trying to take part in the discussion – on the Sheffield Forum right now there are 657 users, all chattering away. Trying to make your voice heard can be a challenge, and many fora have (written or unwritten) rules and social hierarchies about whose voices take priority. One rule that’s fairly standard is against flaming, or being provocative and offensive – as my mother says, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Another form is instant messaging, a cross between emailing and talking to someone – it’s a textual form, like email, but has the pace of spoken conversation. Here, one issue of online discussion is most obvious – the challenge of expressing context. Without clues from tone of voice, body language, facial expression and so on, it’s hard to be certain of how a statement is intended. So you need to be clear about saying what you mean.
The University’s virtual learning environment, MOLE, has facilities for both discussion boards and instant messaging. Similarly, the official environment for academic collaboration, called uSpace, has threaded discussion boards, blogs, and spaces for collaborative writing.
Writing a website isn’t rocket science; the website you’re currently reading was written by monkeys hitting random keys until something coherent came out. Eririewr fhfuhewurfh fdgeuspw. However, it does require particular skills, most obviously in concision, accuracy, and clarity.
On the other hand, publishing materials on websites does offer a range of opportunities which may not be available in other media – for example, the possibility of combining text with animated images or links.
You will develop all these skills through your academic writing and other forms of communication. Putting them into practice on a website, however, is a distinctive task, and requires particular resources and support.
“Blog” is a shortened version of “weblog”, which essentially means an online diary. This makes it a series of short entries (most style guides suggest a maximum of 500 words), which are all written by one person, or a number of different contributors. Blogs can be publicly available (to different degrees), and within the University of Sheffield’s MOLE and uSpace software, there is a blogging tool.
Blog posts are often intended to start a discussion, reflect someone’s thoughts on a topic, provide up-to-date information, or gather together resources. As with other forms of online writing, one of the strengths of blogs is to link to other online resources and the richness of the browsing experience these can introduce.
Blogs tend to be written forms of communication, with quite discursive posts. However, a couple of developments have challenged that. First, "microblogging" has emerged – like updating your Facebook status or “tweeting” on Twitter; you’re expected to say what you’re doing, feeling, or thinking in a sentence or two. Second, multi-media blogging has taken off – mixing together videos, photos, text, links, and music, all in the same stream of virtual stuff. This opens up potential for rich communication with friends, colleagues, and strangers, and deepens what is possible with a blog.
Academics at the University of Murgatroyd have proved that Fridays are officially the happiest day of the week. Professor John Hurfenfurfen told our reporter ‘It’s the day that’s nearly the weekend – but not quite. Who wouldn’t be happy on a Friday?’”
Presenting academic information in a popular manner is a real challenge; it involves conveying complex data in a simplified manner, creating an easy “hook” for a story, and engaging with readers’ preconceptions about what you have to say. This difficulty makes it crucial to engage with the challenge, particularly when there are more and more ways to get your message across.
One of these is writing a newsletter, often for a target audience, and with a clear brief to update them with the latest news. The writing needs to be concise and snappy; and there are great opportunities for conveying information through images and graphs. There needs to be a connection between you and your audience which the flexible medium of the newsletter makes easy to achieve. TASH has resources to help: but just remember always to be careful to do justice to your original material; and that there are four ‘f’s in Hurffenfurfen.
Writing an email is different to writing a letter or talking to someone in person. You can give more information than in speech, and in a range of more formal and informal ways than in a letter. You can also pepper your writing with links to online materials, making your email only one point in a network of information.
Because it’s a more flexible form, it can be harder to judge if you’re pitching it at the right level. The key thing here is to know your audience and to meet their expectations. Would you (or should you) really email your lecturer in the same way as you email your friends, for example? What do you think they’re expecting from you? What seems to best fit the situation?
Email is still developing as a written form, and to some extent is being overtaken by other ways of writing (micro-blogging, for example). So maybe part of knowing your audience here involves tuning in to how they use email, and responding in ways that are comfortable for you both.