Writing for the Web

Kitty on Keyboard
Contact Information

    Jim Collier
    Office: 433 Shanks
    Office Hours: 1-2 T,H and by appointment
    • E-Mail:
    • Office Phone: 231.8340
    • Cell: On request

"Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live." — John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 1996.

Course Description

We will examine how users read on the web, how authors should write their web pages, and, accordingly, how to design rich, appropriate content for web sites. In so doing, this course offers a practicum in the novice and intermediate use of (X)HTML, HTML editors, graphics, and presentation software. Students will also learn Style Sheets in constructing web sites. By analyzing how on-line communities organize, use, and distribute knowledge and information, we will evaluate and build web sites that communicate simply and effectively.

Learning Goals

    • To conceive, code, develop, test and maintain a well-designed web site in order to convey, reconsider and promote your ideas and interests;

    • To write clearly and to revise concisely for readers in web- and digitally-based environments;

    • To analyze, implement and assess the proper elements of web site usability.

The Story of the Course

I believe academic courses should tell a shared, coherent story. The story of our course will be as multifaceted as each of you and as unique as our gathering at this time and place to study web writing and design. While unique to each of us, the course's story will be shared. The shared structure of our story takes shape from the questions, premises and reasons I bring to designing the course. Discussing course design will help us develop a critical basis for authoring our story more fully and meaningfully. Let me, then, offer some thoughts on a few guiding questions — also posed as questions about learning goals — to help us further develop the story of the course.

What are the purposes of the course? Or, what will you learn?

The course has purposes both practical and philosophical (these purposes are not mutually exclusive). A practical purpose of the course is to provide you with opportunities to learn, and to refine, your abilities as a web designer and a web writer. Our approach to learning the skills associated with web design and writing will be hands-on. You will code, write and test the content for a web site that you propose. Why learn these particular skills? Some of you will take professional positions involving (to a greater or lesser extent) web design and writing so, you need to know this stuff. However, you all participate in web culture. For many of you, the web is an almost exclusive source of information, if not knowledge, and of entertainment. By "going under the hood" of a web site's design and content, you will gain a more sophisticated, critical perspective on the web as a communications medium. A philosophical purpose of the course, then, is to help you analyze and judge web design and content (and their interdependence). Why develop a critical perspective on the web? We know the web changes dramatically and grows rapidly. While one cannot predict the nature and results of these changes, I do know that what you learn in this course will have a very short shelf life. You need a critical perspective on the web in order to keep pace with these changes. Further, a critical perspective enables you to determine how you best learn in a digital environment. Ultimately, the purpose of the course is for you to get a sense of how you best "learn how to learn" beyond the class in order to design media and to interpret digital information.

Who takes this course? Or, who will learn?

The course attracts students with similar web-user experiences and somewhat disparate web-designer experiences. I assume each of you possesses an existing, but varied, knowledge of the Internet, computer platforms and associated software, and computer formatting and programming languages. While a few of you have designed extensive web sites, most of you have little or no experience with site design. Those of you with some design experience generally use an HTML editor (like Notepad or Dreamweaver) to write the source code for you ("what you see is what you get") rather than working with the source code directly. With notable exceptions, then, you are web-design novices.

I assume, with measured certainty, you have a great deal of experience as academic writers — but little or no experience as web writers. Web writing demands a visual sensibility and a concise, personal, active voice easily integrated with various digital media (quite the opposite of academic writing). Given the nature of academic prose, I assume you make limited choices about your writing style. Also, you do not contend often with readers who require constantly updated content, who quickly skim the text (and just as quickly forget what they read), and who link endlessly to media and information outside the text.

On this rough sketch of your background, I designed the course to be as flexible as possible to meet your needs and the course goals. At the beginning of the class I ask that you carefully consider your academic, professional and personal needs and tailor the course resources to those needs. While the main course goal is to introduce you to web design and writing for the web, you may wish to go further — developing advanced web site building skills, for example, or becoming more adept in using software such as Photoshop or Dreamweaver. Try looking beyond the bounds of the class requirements to consider what knowledge and skills you might need or desire. The course structure and philosophy seeks to help you develop and sustain practices that support professional flexibility and personal expression in a digital environment.

When do events take place in the course? Or, when will you learn?

I assume courses work better when there is a particular rhythm — you know what to expect and when to expect it. The web site seeks to establish and to maintain the course's rhythm. Take a look at the course calendar. You should get an overall sense of when things happen in the course. Additionally, I want your work load to be even as possible throughout the semester. However, the final versions of the biggest projects are due toward the semester's end. In this course in particular, you can get trapped trying to design or overhaul a web site at the last minute. Web design takes time. And if I may offer an unoriginal reformulation of Hofstadter's law: It always takes longer than it takes. So, a secret to this course: Get rhythm.

Give yourself time for trial and error. The iterative process of trial and error is a great way to learn. But it's frustrating and time consuming. Gauge your patience and frustration tolerance. Give yourself time to try things, to make mistakes, to get angry, to walk away and to fix things. I believe you can learn the material in this, or any other course, when you give yourself time to work through error and frustration.

How will the course material be taught? Or, how will you learn?

I trust you will learn the course material in at least five related ways.

    1) I encourage you to work together. To that end, I have put you in "design groups" on Scholar and enabled the group communication functions. The design groups exist for you to help each other out when you have questions about web design. Design groups will come in especially handy when we get to usability testing. Please help each other out when possible. If you have questions, please ask your teammates or me.

    2) I have linked online tutorials available through W3Schools to the course calendar. W3Schools offers a wonderful resource for those of you who benefit from asynchronous on-line instruction.

    3) Synchronous interactive tutorials on all of the topics presented in the course, and related topics in which you may be interested, are available through Element K. While I am not requiring that you use these tutorials, I urge you to consider your professional goals and the software tools necessary to pursue them. If you have questions regarding professional areas about which I have some knowledge, I would be happy to advise you about desired software skills.

    4) I have linked the course calendar to texts that offer tutorials and reference resources that you can consult throughout the class. Some of you learn best when having a text to consult.

    5) As we proceed with the course, I want you to consider the teaching and learning methods provided in the class in order to reflect on the ways in which you best learn the material presented. The cutting edge knowledge and skills you possess upon graduation — from this, and all, courses you take — will become dulled in a matter of months. During the course, I want you to reflect on how you best learn how to learn the ideas and information presented. If you can identify what methods — working collectively, working alone, trial and error, through interactive tutorials, using texts — work best for you, then you can begin to develop strategies for keeping current with the technical dimensions of the digital environments in which we write.

Where will the course take place? Or, where will you learn?

You are in, what the distance learning gurus call, a "mixed" class — course content is delivered both on-line and in the traditional classroom. I see the classroom as a place where we can get our hands dirty and share our design, writing and usability issues.

In a digital environment the question of where a course, or academic learning, takes place is difficult to answer. Digital classrooms, as represented by this web site or by course management systems like Scholar appear similar to traditional classrooms as a "place" for learning. Still, how the digital learning process is similar to, or unique from, the classroom learning process remains a bit of a mystery to me. I wonder, for example, if how one thinks, reads and comprehends in a digital environment is qualitatively better, worse or the same as in more traditional settings. For example many students tell me, and I share their view, that reading comprehension is more difficult on the web. In order to read closely, or grasp a difficult concept, many of you print on-line documents. Still, you work and thrive in the omnipresent digital environment.

In the digital world, the boundaries that once separated many physical tasks have been redefined. Put less atmospherically this course, in part, will take place on your computer. On your computer you will work through the trial and error process of web design and writing. In working through the course assignments, I would ask you to consider how you work best and learn in the unanchored space and time of a digital environment I confess that I learn best by being in a designated space for learning. The computer, indeed, is an example of such space. Nevertheless, like many of you, I require an ambient space for academic learning — a room or desk reserved for study. In the context of the course, take a moment to investigate how place, physical and digital, affects how you learn.

Our Story

I hope by providing the who, what where, when, how you have a better sense of the course structure. For a course to remain vibrant, students and instructors need to challenge routine expectations and performances— that's what makes for a good story. Let's challenge one another. Let's challenge one another through the joy and fun of meaningful learning.

Materials and Texts


    You need to have access to, or possess, the following:

      • A PID;

      • A Filebox account (all Tech students have one), or alternate host, for your web site;

      • A means for accessing the Internet (a high speed connection would work best.);

      • An Internet browser (e.g., Firefox, Chrome, Safari);

      • An FTP (file transfer protocol) client;
      Dreamweaver has a FTP client. It is clunky, I find, and can run afoul of security protocols. Filebox provides an FTP client for single files less than 10 MB. For larger files, for security reasons, Filebox administrators want you to use software that has Web DAV capability (for PC, WebDrive; for MAC, Goliath; for Unix, Cadaver).

      • An HTML editor;
      Macromedia products have become the popular design standard. For those of you not familiar with an HTML editor, you may wish to use Dreamweaver. Tutorials for learning Dreamweaver are available through Element K. However, you can use any HTML editor with which you feel comfortable. Microsoft Word, for example, serves as a basic HTML editor. Also, freeware HTML editors can be found on the web. Notepad ++ looks promising. And freeware HTML editors for Windows. Taco HTML Edit for Mac.

      • A program for creating and modifying images;
      Adobe Photoshop is the popular design standard. However, you can use any program you wish to create and modify images. Freeware image editors can be found on the web. GIMP for Windows. For Macintosh.

      • Microsoft PowerPoint.

    Texts: (in the order they appear in the course)

      HTML for the World Wide Web with XHTML and CSS: Visual QuickStart Guide, Sixth Edition, Elizabeth Castro. Peachpit Press; 6th edition, August 2006. ISBN: 0321430840
      HTML, XHTML, and CSS: 6th Edition is the web site supporting this book.
      We will use Castro's book primarily as a reference. Consider whether text reference or on-line references work best for you in the design process.

      Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Ginny Redish. Morgan Kaufmann, 2007. ISBN: 0123694868
      Letting Go of the Words is the blog and web site supporting this book.

      Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems, Steve Krug. New Riders, 2009. ISBN: 0321657292
      Rocket Surgery Made Easy is the web site supporting this book.




    The final grade for the Exercises Assignment (10%) will be based the number of constitutive assignments you complete. Grades will be assigned as follows:

      • 2 exercises: A
      • 1 exercise: C-
      • 0 exercises: F

    Non-Fiction Revision:

    I will grade each part of the revision separately according to a rubric (please see the non-fiction revision assignment). Part I of the non-fiction revision will count 10% of the course grade. Part II of the non-fiction revision will count 10% of the course grade.


    I will formally grade the Proposal Assignment (10%). You may revise the proposal as many times as you wish until the final day of the course. I will average the grades.

    Usability Test Reports:

    I will formally grade the Usability Test Report (15%).

    Web Sites:

    Provisional Uploads (10%): Four (4) times during the semester, I will ask you to upload the work you have completed on your web site. On a case-by-case basis, I will determine the progress you make each time you upload the site. Assuming progress is made, the grade on this assignment will be based on the number of uploads you provide:

      • 4 uploads: A
      • 3 uploads: B
      • 2 uploads: C
      • 1 or 0 uploads: F

    Final Version (20%): I will formally grade your Web Site (20%) at the end of the semester (the end of the scheduled exam time).

    Designer Blog:

    Designer Blog (15%). Four (4) times during the semester, I will provide brief feedback on your blog. My feedback on your blog will correspond with my feedback on your provisional web site upload. Like the provisional web site uploads, much of the grade on this assignment will be based on the number of entries provided (I ask for a total of at least 5 entries, including the final version of the blog). A final version of the blog will be due at the same time as the final version of your web site (the end of the scheduled exam time).

    Presence and Participation:

    "Eighty percent of success is showing up." — Woody Allen

    I will work with each of you, as much or as little as you prefer, to tailor the course to your needs. Still, I need you to lend your experience to the members of the class community — including me! Through my hard work and enthusiasm, I want to convince you of the value of this course and your need to participate fully. Hopefully my efforts will make you want to participate without coercion. And Woody Allen's words speak to a simple truth: A strong correlation exists between consistent performance and performing well.

    As a member of the class community you will be asked to participate in activities not formally graded. These activities include, but are not limited to, on-line posting, group consultation, participation in usability testing and general assistance (especially if you have experience with web design). I will note how frequently or infrequently you contribute to the class and aid in collective activities. At the end of the semester I will "help" students who have fully participated in the course. For example, a 'B+' will become a 'A-'. Students who participate roughly half the time, I will neither "hurt" nor "help." But students who neglect their obligations either entirely, or a great majority of the time, will not receive the benefit of the doubt. For example, a borderline 'B' will become a 'B-'. If you have ANY questions about your standing in this area, I encourage you to consult me.

Honor System

This course follows university policies pertaining to academic honesty and plagiarism. If you have any questions please ask me, or consult the Honor System web site.

Principles of Community

This course adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask me or consult the Principles of Community web site.

Web Writing