Writing for Business and Pleasure
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: August 1, 1997
I made a wonderful discovery this past month: The Internet is a teacher's dream.
I was aware, of course that the Internet was a boundless, if sometimes unwieldy, source of information on just about any topic one could imagine. But it wasn't until I learned how to edit and expand my Web page — rather than pay someone else to do that for me — that I got to thinking in more depth about its limitless instructional possibilities.
I began by noodling around with the most obvious questions. How could I make my Web page an extension of this column? What would you, my reader, find interesting and helpful? I had included an annotated bibliography of recommended reading and writing resources on my original page. What other information might be helpful?
The first thing I thought of was sample columns on important topics such as assessing your writing skills, improving your proofreading skills, distinguishing real rules from bogus rules, avoiding sexist language, and writing according to five elements of style. So I added those. And I must tell you, the first time I fetched a file from my word-processing directory while I was on-line in my Netscape Gold editor, I realized how permeable certain boundaries in cyberspace have become. Believe me, that was a heady, empowering realization.
While I was at it, I decided to post an index to the 265 weekly columns I have written since December 1991. The nice thing about electronic space and "pull" — rather than "push" — technology is that, unlike paper, it doesn't impose itself on the prospective audience. If you have no interest in a particular item, you are under no obligation to view it or even handle it; if you are interested, you just click and have a look. Compare how that feels to the way you react when a 50-page report lands in your in-box.
Next I began to think about creating new material. What about answering common questions? Using the standard frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) format, I posted answers to five questions relating to punctuation and to seven questions relating to salutations.
By now the technical aspects of editing and managing my page were getting easier, so I began thinking about how to make my page more interactive. Here's what I came up with:
Beginning with this column (and perhaps every fourth or fifth column hereafter), I will provide exercises in cyberspace to accompany the lesson I offer here in newsprint.
Let's say my topic is maintaining parallel structure. First I explain the concept of parallelism: Related sentence parts, such as items in a series, must be presented in parallel form. Then I give an example of correct usage, "My boss is conscientious, fair, and generous" (adjective, adjective, adjective), and an example of incorrect usage, "My boss is conscientious, fair, and a really nice guy" (adjective, adjective, noun phrase).
Next I ask you to identify faulty parallelism in these examples:
"I enjoy reading, writing, and the practice of teaching."
"Either you learn to write well in school or it will be necessary to learn to write well later in life."
But as often happens with a newspaper column, I'm nearly out of space. Now you can go to my Web page and continue the lesson. Just click on the highlighted text, Writing exercises linked to columns, and you'll find 10 more examples. After that, if you want more information, click on Related columns, and you can read three additional columns I've written on the topic of parallelism.
The Internet is more than a teacher's dream; it's also a student's dream: You get to decide when the bell rings.