Hints on Writing Style for Usenet

History (1997):

I first wrote this essay as a posting to a newsgroup way back in the early 80s, when I was a PhD student at Georgia Tech. I don't even remember what newsgroup, or exactly when. I was simply trying to be helpful to a large wave of newcomers to the net by passing on some wisdom that those of us who had been on the net for awhile already had. The primary point was that writing is different on the net.

This was about the time the net was growing from around 50 sites to several hundred sites. Thus, the number of new users was increasing dramatically.

It seemed to be well received in its initial posting, and for a time many usenet posters referred to this essay, and criticized other posters for not following these suggestions. Several months after posting this, I was surprised to get a request to include this as a regular posting to the "news.announce.newusers" newsgroup. Of course, I was honored, and immediately said yes. I am still surprised that after 15 years, this article still appears regularly in that newsgroup!

It has also been referenced in books (I have "Unix Papers for Unix Developers and Power Users", edited by Mitchell Waite, on my shelf), and has appeared in at least two campus manuals for students. Unfortunately, I haven't kept careful track of the references and reprints -- I never expected this to have staying power! Of course, the most surprising thing has been the proliferation of this essay on the web. A casual search through the web (using Alta Vista, 3/6/97) shows the following eleven references. I have seen at least two more that do not have my name attached (which means I couldn't locate them in the search).


In addition, I noted a number of places on the web where this essay is referenced:


Because this essay was posted to a moderated newsgroup, it has also become associated with two other individuals. In some of the above references, one or both of them are incorrectly listed as authors.

Update, 2002: I had a discussion about this article with my wife and we decided to do a search with Google. We found 150 references, the bulk of which are archived copies, but also found half a dozen citations in research papers about the web and translations in Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian, and Macedonian, German, Swedish, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

I am very happy to have this article distributed as widely as possible (in 1984 I did not imagine how widely the web would make such distribution possible!). I only ask that my name be included as part of the article. Also, if you see a version without my name, or with other authors incorrectly listed, please let me know so I can try to correct the mistake.

The complete original essay is below . . .

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.


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 composition classes. Other ideas here come from my own experience on the net and hints from other people.

This is a "long article." The rest of it is simply a list of pointers.

Writing style:

Net style:

Enough said.

These suggestions are all easily supported by arguments and research. There's a lot more to say, but....

Jeff Offutt
Copyright ~1984, 1985..2007, all rights reserved.