Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age


640K ought to be enough for anybody.
—Bill Gates, in 1981

As the above quote from Bill Gates demonstrates, things change. On the year that Gates made that now ironic statement, I graduated from college, having handwritten many of my college papers and awkwardly typed the others, using Elmer’s Glue to repair the occasionally wayward letters on my manual Smith Corona. I clearly recall conversations with a college friend, a computer science major, and the banter was always the same: He warned me that computer literacy would one day be essential to the writer, while I urged him to abandon his hope that he would never write another essay after college. Turns out, we were both correct: I now compose at the keyboard and devote most of my days to electronic communication, while my college pal has published dozens of essays and a textbook.

But what price, this change? In a student’s paper, I once ran across a curious misspelling of a technical term common to his field, and when I questioned him about it he innocently replied: "I tried spelling it the way it is in the literature, but my grammar checker didn’t like it.” Too many students forget the value and delight of chasing down an answer between the covers of a book, and they enter college vowing never to set foot in any library outside the walls of the web. The possible consequences are not a mere shift from paper cuts to carpal tunnel—they impact the way we perceive research, perform writing, and measure quality. Clearly, we cannot shove the print medium aside nor assume that computers should do our thinking for us. Rather, as writers, we must grow with the times.

This new electronic edition of Style for Students Online is designed to help you achieve such growth. Having tutored students in technical writing for over 20 years, I’ve found that students crave clear, direct explanations and variegated examples; they respect lessons that are systematized and like to model or improve upon positive examples from their peers; they need to embrace technology without abandoning fundamental principles of learning. This online handbook champions those principles, all of which I co-learned alongside my best students, who were reflective enough to realize that writing impacts their lives well beyond the classroom. For receptive students, writing broadens their outlook, builds their confidence, demonstrates their acumen, and enriches their professional cache. In short, writing changes them, as it has me. And now, with the information age permeating every cranny of our lives, we must learn to channel the ways that writing changes us through the virtual world, and vice versa. No matter how we come to writing, we are all one community of online learners.

Previous editions of this manual enjoyed several generations and various publishers, but upon leaving academia for another career I decided to make the manual available online for free through Penn State’s forward-thinking John A. Dutton e-Education Institute. For me, the online version of the manual is especially appealing because it helps me reach a greater number of students and allows for easy updates and revisions. Also, readers can search for a lesson in the manual just by typing keywords into the "Search” box, and with most lessons I provide "Self-Study” boxes linking readers to recommended and related pages at the click of a mouse. As an online text, Style for Students Online is a work in progress, so comments and suggestions are always welcome. Feel free to contact me directly with comments at schall@ems.psu.edu.

—Joe Schall, September 2016