Updated: November 13, 2010
Writing articles is more than just putting together a handful of words and images and calling them a piece of journalism. In the olden ages, they forced you to write obituaries and interview dogs before they let you publish anything meaningful on one of the first ten pages of a newspaper. In the modern world, everyone's a journalist, from a geek professing his nerdy philosophy to a teen blogger telling her life story in bad spelling. Anyone with some kind of a web page can spill out their random thoughts and make them instantly available to just about anyone who cares to read them. It can't be more journalistic than that.
The shattering of boundaries makes for a very varied content. Newspapers tend to be boring, formulaic and written in a predictable style. On the other hand, web sites, blog pages, twitter one-liners, and forum threads can be anything - long, short, boring, exciting, educative, make you want to stab your eyes out. Which brings me to my title question.
Web sites articles can be gold - or they can be digital diarrhea. But the worst kind are articles that seem to be gold, but then once you start reading, you feel like early morning seppuku. Today, I will give you an overview of the top writing styles you may come across in your Internet escapades. If nothing else, you will have a joyful moment of reflection. But you may also realize that it is time to change your style. So is your writing productive? Or are you just one big tease? Or worse? Read on.
All-you-need-to-style is typically a domain of geeks, very often Linuxoids. It's a style that infers huge quantities of fore-knowledge when there's none to be had. It's a style also known as connect-the-dots, except you don't even know where the dots are.
All-you-need-to-do sounds simple. However, the reality is a little harsher. When you see the all-you-need-to phrase in a web article, run for your lives. You are looking at countless hours of grisly work ahead of you, hammering the keyboard and wondering why the hell things don't work as that web guy promised.
An example would be any Linux tutorial. Just by reading the three-paragraph piece, you know that the author had no patience, no motivation. They just wrote the article so their blog collection can be one item fatter. But they don't really want to help. Or know how to. In fact, they might not even really know the solution to whatever is being written, so they try to dazzle you with geekology through obscurity.The likelihood of the tutorial really being helpful: not that high, I'm afraid.
Something like this:
First, you need to chmod the root, then you need to emerge the potato so it becomes portage. After that, all you need to do is download the kernel, compile it with udev and that's it! Insert random command line here. Comments at the end where another geek asks about unrelated kernel technology. Reference of a kernel mailing list with no answers to the original question. Or something like that.
What-do-you-think guy or girl is the type of person who would prefer if websites were interactive workshops, where everyone sat in a circle and talked about their opinions. Overall, pretty harmless, but not always useful. You can get away with what-do-you-think articles if you're writing humor or such, but you should avoid this in technical stuff. If your article is trying to deliver a clear and nonequivocal message, whether it's your personal rant on Internet privacy or a howto on majordomo setup, then you don't let your audience have a say. They are a passive receiver of information, and you're their God. Holistic tutorials don't really work.
This is okay, most of the time:
Well, this sums my most memorable VH1 moments. What do you think? Which video clips from 90s is your favorite? Share your thoughts with us? Blah blah blah everyone's happy and cheerful and we love the Web.
Like I mentioned earlier, not bad for general stuff, not good for technical articles. Replace VH1 with MTA. Does not sound as exciting anymore, now does it? In fact, you would probably want to reboot the machine at this point. This is wrong, on all levels, in the entire multiverse:
Well, this sums my most memorable moments working with the M4 macros. What about you? Do you prefer freeform syntax or line-based syntax? Do you use conditional evaluation? Can you speak the Ratfor dialect? Share your finest moments with us!
The Teaser style is probably the worst animal in the bunch. Why? Because it gives you false hope. You end up reading and nodding and feeling buoyant, but if you analyze the positive input you really got from the article, it approaches the fat sum of zero. Teaser articles are all about the briefest overview of products and technology, just licking the surface of an iceberg. They never go into details, because it might upset their Facebook fan club, they never give you real instructions what needs to be done. Writing something like that would take time, and they don't have time for that. Or perhaps knowledge.
Now, the Teaser proponents will tell you that they are not really trying to give people answers, merely point them in the right direction. This is fine, but then you can't really call your website the ultimate source of XYZ. At best, you're like a manpower - sorry, human resources - company. You outsource stuff. You're Mr./Mrs. Compiler Extraordinaire. Not in the programming language sense of compile, that is.
Teaser articles often uses numeric quantifiers (well, as if there can be non-numeric ones, or could they) in the article titles, but without superlatives. Not to be confused with the X-best-of-Y style. Something like this:
Desktop effects in Java. Pretty picture. Fancy feature no.1, a sentence or two. Fancy feature no.2, a sentence or two. Pretty picture. Fancy feature no.5, a sentence or two. Closing note, positive and encouraging. End result, do you know Java? Do you know where to find it, how to install it, how to configure it, how to get those desktop effects to really work? No. But you've been teased.
Now, every technical website sins the Teaser style once in a while. It's okay, as long as this kind of article does not represent the majority of your work. But if you're all about teasing and only teasing, then your one goal is to become rich and fast. You also probably have very big icons on your site.
Glamor is your middle name. X-best-of-Y articles can be useful, but most often, they are not. Except listing a bunch of things of similar nature, like music players, browsers or operating systems, they don't serve any big purpose. You get the entire product summed in one paragraph, a tiny picture, and not much more. It is not uncommon for X-best-of-Y articles to accompany Teaser articles. Sometimes, you get both. In one article!
X-best-of-Y articles are not really educative. They are compilation lists, advertisement lists and confusion lists. Listing ten best music players will most likely shock the typical user, who merely wanted a simple alternative to his crappy default one. Now, imagine this user forced to download and test ten new programs. There's such a thing as too much choice. Besides, best is usually limited to a single item. Hence, the superlative.
A more conservative version of X-best-of-Y is Must-have. This does not imply top quality. It's merely a recommendation to go wild with your explorations and cram the disk with new stuff. Works best [sic] for younger people and medium-well geeks. Linux and Mac folks lead the charts, followed by Windozers. Completely unsuited for older folks. Something like this:
Ten best video players for Windows. A list of items, delimited by a 400x250px screenshot; click to enlarge. Even if you're reviewing Linux apps, throw in a Windows screenshot and apologize about it. Go through the application wiki for internals or copy & paste the mission statement from the vendor's site. Be extremely positive and hope for a viral distribution on social networks.
Like the Teaser articles, you can get away with a handful of comparative compilations, but you should make sure you don't skimp on the content. If you must lavish your 25 best free disk defragmentation utilities for OS/2, you might as well install all of them and test them. Don't forget to promise a separate tutorial for each one. If you have tutorials ahead of the compilation, it shows you care. Can be done gracefully; it's all about moderation.
Usually reserved for pseudo-technical websites that feature a mugshot of the author in the top right corner. Often affiliated with an anti-virus company or a network technology provider. Misplaced faith in acronyms and backlinks to their own articles rather than any real, credible knowledge or experience. Intended audience: clueless Windows Vista users with eternal cable Internet subscription to an inferior provider.
Doomsday websites must feature the following sentence at least once a week: merely clicking a link will infect your computer. Enough said, right. Doomsday websites are all about intimidating the little man with half-arsed reports provided by money lobbyist, with a clear agenda of replicating sales on an exponential level. Should be avoided at all costs. Best solution, blacklist the entire domain and save yourselves the hassle of accidental clicks.
Let us not forget the fact that fear sells. Nothing like sensational titles and bold, unsubstantiated claims to anger the crowds and draw them into your fold. And if you can throw in politics, then you have the ultimate formula for increasing website traffic. Something like this:
Security company Whatever reveals there's a new version of Kiki the Pink, a Trojan worm. More than three gazillion computers have been infected so far and it's spreading faster than Ebola, John Doe from Whatever confirmed in an interview yesterday. Users should keep their anti-virus software up to date. On a closing note, you get a reference to a vague malware threat against Mac and Linux users. They ain't safe either.
This style is normally reserved to website obsessed with privacy and security and anything related. The author likes to elaborate on potential hazards to our freedom in 2024. But the Big Brother articles are not solely reserved to privacy and security related websites. Sometimes, even ordinary blogs fall victim to their own paranoia and spurt a related piece. And sometimes, if you're unlucky, you get online petitions and email addresses of various United States senators.
The Conspiracist style is all about ultra-futuristic technologies. Ignore the actual angle, because it is not important. We're discussing sci-fi here anyhow. It's about using liquid nitrogen to preserve the contents of memory sticks after the computer is powered off or capturing keyboard strokes using remote 4D audio and electromagnetic emission filtering. Luckily, you won't often find these, unless you frequent security forums.
The Conspiracist style usually stems from fear and lack of knowledge and is kind of an emotional outlet. Pages writing about these would-be hot topics always have comments enabled. Typical comments include a link to an ongoing lawsuit, a technical explanation from a countergeek explaining why it's all impossible, and another three people telling how they have their machines rigged with C4 in case the Feds come after that - or failing that, delete the porn browsing history with CCleaner. A typical example:
P2P sharing dealt another blow. The German GSG 9 raided a house in wherever and confiscated a laptop that belongs to a 89-old lady believed to be the leader of a major gang of pirates. She's suspected of selling peg legs and doggy dugs depicting Jolly Rogers to Polish minors. Usual reference to The Pirate Bay. Unusual reference to an obscure movie recently ripped. Twenty thousand people commenting they will download new stuff just to spite the authorities.
Finally, how it ought to be. Productive style is all about care, attention to detail and well tested work. You will not recommend a product you have not used yourself. You won't talk about any technologies you did not thoroughly examine and make sure it works. Tutorials are long and detailed. Every single step is covered. The high level of detail may create a perception of geekiness, but it is quite the opposite. The uncertainty is reduced to a minimum, allowing people with lesser technical skills to be able to follow the guides through with predictable success.
Now, a typical example would be any Dedoimedo article - or, failing too excessive self-flattery, you may want to take a look at my Greatest sites list and choose among the several technical websites listed, where you will find the right kind of stuff.
There we go, the Internet blogging demystified. Now, let me mock myself and ask you: What is your writing style? It is quite possible you may have several, but which one is the most prevalent? Examine your collection of technical work and try to find a pattern. First, a pattern is good. This probably means you have a style, meaning you have a personality, even if you may aim too low or too high for everyone's taste. Second, if you do know you have a particular style, then you are probably aware of what you do, so you can adapt and fine-tune your work to make it appealing for new audiences. And remember, Content Is The King.
Anyhow, that would be all. Feel free to write - or don't. It all depends on your style.