Online Projects: What You Should Know First

Writers who are new to the Internet and cyborgs who are new to writing should carefully consider a few things before choosing to do a web site for a class project.

Creating your first website is not very hard. My freshmen composition students can generally go from zero to creating a basic web site in about two hours. But turning your first hypertext effort into a high-quality class project is not something to begin the weekend before the assignment is due (see "Newbie Web Author Checklist").

  1. Web Authorship is not Programming.
    If you don't know how to write computer code, don't worry -- you won't need to learn programming in order to write for the web. Tools for creating web pages have for many years developed the look and feel of a word processor.
  2. Coding/Designing is not Writing.
    Writing programs in Java or designing Macromedia Flash animations will certainly help you add functionality and style to a website; however, as a writing teacher I expect all my students to write and revise heavily.  
  3. Write for Strangers.
    Random readers from around the world will follow search engines to your pages; you must account for their needs, so you will have to write in a slightly different way. 
  4. Value Substance over Style.
    Don't spend so much time fiddling with the look of your site that you have no time left to write anything new and interesting.

1. Web Authorship is not Programming.

You don't even really need to "know" HTML in order to make a web site. All decent word processors have a "Save as HTML" function, so you can start practicing with hypertext now. Your word processor's "help" feature should help you find instructions on creating links, adding pictures, using color, etc. 

When it comes time to put your web site together, an editor such as MS FrontPage works very much like a word processor.

  • For an entry-level tutorial, read Making a Simple Web Site with FrontPage 2000.  
  • UWEC students may sign up for a web publication workshop; if you're not at UWEC, you can probably find a similar workshop in your organization.
  • Go to the bookstore and buy an introductory book such from a beginner's series such as "...for Dummies" or "Idot's Guide." (The hours of frustration you save will be well worth the cost of the book.)

2. Coding/Designing is not Writing.

Computer science majors may be bored by my early Internet lectures, but that doesn't excuse them from delivering quality writing by the end of the term.  Students with programming skills will have a temporary edge over those who don't know how to send an e-mail attachment (hint: click the paperclip icon).  But nobody who coasts through my class will get above a D without investing significant time revising first drafts so that they meet my expectations.

Your compiler offers you instant feedback -- you know when your program is getting shorter, faster, and more powerful; you can tell instantly if a particular change hurts the quality of your program.  The same is not true of writing (even though there are certain measurements [overall length, ratio of active verbs to passive verbs, ratio of abstract nouns to concrete nouns, ratio of Greek or Latin roots to Anglo-Saxon roots] that can be tied to readability).

When asked to revise, don't hack. CS students will be used to hacking -- making a little change here, and compiling; making another little change, and compiling again. 

But I will only have time to look at your papers once or twice; that means if you make silly mistakes the first time (using spell-check instead of a dictionary; ignoring assignment instructions; missing a deadline) I will bounce your assignment back for corrections.  Even after you make all the corrections I request, your paper might still fall short in its methodology, its depth, or organization -- but since your surface-level mistakes showed me that you weren't yet ready for me to evaluate the overall quality of your critical thinking and problem-solving ability, you won't know about that until you get your final grade. (And even then, you may still have to make additional changes, for which you won't get any credit, until I permit you to go on to the next step.)

3. Write for Random Web Strangers.

Even if you only intend for a small number of people to read what you write, the truth is that search engines will attract random strangers to your web site. Obviously your main goal should be to meet the immediate needs of your intended readers (whoever they may be), but because your site is part of the Internet, you should offer something of value to the unexpected visitors who stumble across your pages.

If you are making a website for a local business, you should provide links to regional and national (and even international) organizations. A local dance studio might, for starters, provide links to online magazines, professional and amateur competitions, the online Encyclopedia Britannica's article on the history of dance, and the arts calendar of a regional newspaper.

It's mildly useful simply to gather a collection of links. It's much more useful if your page not only gathers links, but also describes the contents of each site, and rates each page (by giving one to four stars, for instance).

See also:
Annotated Lists of Links

4. Value Substance over Style

Playing with fancy fonts and colored backgrounds does not count as writing. Neither does scanning in snapshots or linking to your friends' websites -- unless you really have something worthwhile to say about them (and by the way, "These are cool links" doesn't count -- see "Blurbs"). I certainly encourage experimentation and originality for personal web pages, or any page that is intended to be eye candy; further, I applaud everyone who has finally decided to take the plunge... 

Nevertheless, as an instructor, there's only so much credit I can give you just for figuring out how to manipulate your tools properly; your potential readers will probably feel the same way. Everyone who has ever made a web page had to go through the same learning process you did. What really matters is whether you can use those tools to create something of intellectual and/or creative value.

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