Thursday, April 10, 2008

Writing for the Internet: conversations, short documents, and collaborative writing

I will write 42 pages for class this semester ... and over 500 pages of email. Student quote, 2008.

Probably the most important thing and probably one of the surprises is you have to work with people who are good writers, Jason Fried, 2005.

Being able to write clearly, to write English clearly is more important to developing useful software than almost anything else and that's something you’re more likely to learn in the English department than in the computer science department
, Joel Spolsky, 2009.

I would not have made this so long except that I do not have the leisure to make it shorter, Pascal, letter, 1656.

Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written, Thoreau, Walden, 1854.

Students often wonder what potential employers are looking for. Jason Fried of 37Signals lists his five hiring criteria in this short audio. He singles out good writing as the most important criteria:
And finally, and probably the most important thing and probably one of the surprises is you have to work with people who are good writers. Everybody has to be a good writer. The programmer has to be a good writer. The designer has to be a good writer. The business guy has to be a good writer That's how people communicate now. People don't talk as much as they used to. They IM all the time. They email all the time. They're hopefully posting messages to Basecamp all the time. And you have to find people who can communicate by writing. Its very very important. If there is any miscommunication going on, its just a chink in the armor and you're going to have a real problem with that. You have to make sure that people can write.
Fried is not referring to people who can write excellent essays or term papers with properly formatted bibliographies, but to people who can read and write in the concise, unambiguous, focused, conversational style used on the Internet. Much Internet writing takes the form of a conversation, for example, a blog post with comments, a response to an email or listserve post with quoted snippets, or posts to a threaded discussion.

Over twenty years ago, Terry Winograd defined a four-category taxonomy for conversations that seems to cover much of today's Internet writing:
  • Conversations for action: a request or offer which is subsequently confirmed or dropped
  • Conversations for clarification: obtaining more information about something said earlier or in a prior conversation
  • Conversations for possibilities: creating ideas and selecting one or more for future discussion
  • Conversations for orientation: exchanging information about themselves or a situation (bilateral or unilateral)
The possibilities for the unfolding of a conversation for action are illustrated in the following figure from Winograd and Flores (page 65).

Party A makes a request Party B. B can accept, decline, or make a counter offer. Each of these in turn has follow-on possibilities until the conversation ends in one of the bold face end points. If, for example, the conversation reaches node 5, B has asserted that their agreed upon action is complete and A confirms that.

Winograd and his colleagues developed a software product called The Coordinator which imposed the formal structure illustrated above on top of email. With The Coordinator, one did not merely send an unstructured email message, one initiated a formal conversation with a request, and the recipient either accepted, rejected or negotiated a commitment with a date. Once a commitment was made, the system generated messages to keep the action on track.

The Coordinator failed commercially because it was overly complex and rigid, and users could do much the same thing using email with to-do lists and milestones as found today in a program like 37Signal's Basecamp. However, The Coordinator foreshadowed the sort of writing we do today on the Internet -- the sort of writing our students need to practice.

Our students should also learn to write (and read) short documents like Web pages and blog posts. Students often ask how long a term paper or other written assignment must be, hoping it will not be too long. But Google, large fonts and wide margins make it easy to pad and lengthen a paper. Given the short attention span of people reading from a screen, today's students should learn to write short, focused documents. User interface consultant and researcher Jakob Nielsen offers guidelines for writing for blogs and the Web on his usability blog.

Nielsen's guidelines are based on research showing that people scan Web pages, taking time to read about 20 percent of the words. The problem is exacerbated by the ease with which students can "multi-task" while online. But, careful reading, not scanning, is required for online conversation and concise, link-filled documents. Our students must learn to read carefully, in the manner of Thoreau.

Today's student will also be expected to write collaboratively on the Internet, typically using a wiki or shared document. The simplest form of collaborative writing is creating a compiled document, where each author's contribution is independent of the others. A good way to introduce compiled writing is to have students build a list of something -- a class roster, recommended restaurants near campus, recommended Web sites, etc.

With a co-authored document, the division of labor is less clear. A lead author may begin with an outline and invite others to flesh the content out. Another possibility is that the lead author writes a first draft, then invites others to modify it. Perhaps the authors can meet face-to-face to plan their work before writing, perhaps not. Regardless, all authors are free to edit any portion of the evolving document. The Wikipedia includes a page on writing better articles.

There is a gray area between compiling and co-authoring -- one person may revise another person's contribution to a compilation. One thing all collaborative writing has in common -- when one edits a common document, their goal should be to improve it.

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