Crawford Kilian, Writing for the Web, 4th ed., Self-Counsel Press: Bellingham, WA, 2009.

I just finished reading Kilian’s Webwriting guide. I would enjoy teaching English from this text. Kilian does a good job of putting communication into our clickety-quick context.

Kilian maintains a good Webwriting blog with lots of useful resources. Here’s my summary of key points and resources from the text:

  1. The Interactive/Constructivist Communication Model: When you write online, you need to think beyond the standard instrumentalist model of communication. That model says your sender transmits a message to a receiver, with the intent of making the receiver do something. Kilian says nuts to that: online, you’re having a conversation. Sender and receiver constantly change roles, interacting to jointly construct message and meaning. Corporate writers often have a hard time getting this (see Chapter 6).
  2. 25% Slower: that’s the oft-quoted stat from Jakob Nielsen on how much more slowly we read online. Paper has better resolution than computer screens. Our screens are getting sharper, but even on the iPad and Kindle, Nielsen found reading speeds 6% to 10% slower than in printed books. Write acordingly online: keep it short (Kilian says 100 words max!).
  3. Orientation, Information, Action: These three principles should guide all writing. Online, first orient your readers: make it clear to them where they are and how to get around your site. Inform them: be clear and correct (spell things right!). Then direct them toward action, whether it’s leaving a comment, contacting Congress, donating money….
  4. Advocacy and Marketing: Chapter 8 concisely summarizes tips for persuasive writing. The section on propaganda types, myths, and devices could make nice bite-size handouts and classroom activities.

Some online style guides cited:

Wired’s Clive Thompson (via Rafe Colburn) cites a study finding all this blogging, Twittering, and texting may actually be good for our writing skills. Stanford researcher Andrea Lunsford dares call it a “literacy revolution”:

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago [Clive Thompson, “Clive Thompson on the New Literacy,” Wired, 2009.08.24].

Kairos, audience… that’s what communication is all about, connecting to the community, finding and building what we have in common. Lunsford finds that student writers recognize the importance of community to communication: they don’t get enthusiastic about in-class writing because they know their class essays and term papers usually have an audience of one and serve little purpose beyond getting the grade. That sounds to me like all the more reason to move classroom writing online: always have students write for an audience beyond themselves and the teacher’s grammar pen. Always make them think about how their words will withstand public scrutiny. Always make them take public responsibility for their thoughts and language.

Hmm… maybe we should do that with speeches, too: tell kids they’re going face a potential audience of six billion viewers, and YouTube ’em!

Thompson also notes that the Internet expands our writing ability with different formats. The strict limits of Twittering and text can foster conciseness, while blogs allow writers the freedom to write grand opi on their favorite topics.

We still have work to do on the consumer side of literacy, teaching kids how to critically evaluate and synthesize sources into coherent, reliable, workable understandings. But on the producer side (and remember: those sides are merging!), I’m excited to see what literacy will look like in 20 and 50 years.

I had an e-mail conversation with a new enrollee in our doctoral program last week. Along with answers to her questions about courses and exams, I offered this bit of advice about writing and blogging. It certainly applies to my experience here at DSU; I think it may generalize to all graduate programs where students have to crank out lots of scholarly prose. (more…)