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ENGL 4169/5169: Web Content Writing

Spring 2017

Prof M C Morgan
HS 314 | 755 2814
mmorgan@bemidjistate.edu • twitter: @mcmorgan @thisisonline
Course url: http://erhetoric.org/WebWritingAndDesign/

Required Text

Lynch and Horton. Web Style Guide, 3rd ed. online at http://webstyleguide.com/wsg3/. This is the Elements of Style when it comes to web design and content writing. You can buy it in print on Amazon or elsewhere.


Writing: Medium.com is designed as an online text editor, and works very well. But if you want to work offline, I recommend a markdown editor (google markdown editor +[your operating system]), but any text editor will do. You can also use the wiki for drafting. Do not use MS Word. Please. It adds code to the text files that make formatting on the web a mess.

Rule 1 of Writing for the Web is to use a text editor rather than a word processor. Google "text editor"+ your computing platform of choice.

Course Statement

This course gives you the opportunity to learn and practice some of the fundamentals of web content writing by writing and publishing web content.

Web Content Writing as it is typically taught has become industrial - formulaic, centered on commercial aims and returns - and shaped as mass communication to mass audiences. The watchword is Don't Make Me Think. But web content writing does not need to follow mass communication models of writing of one-to-many. The web is a publishing platform that can stand outside of mass comm interests as a many-to-many network. It can be a one-to-one medium, where writers (professionals, amateurs, others) can address readers individually, and where writers can take alternative approaches to their work, think of audiences in alternative ways, employ the affordances of web writing in ways that challenge both themselves and readers.

This course takes as its subject its own practice of web content writing. You will be reading and writing about writing on the web, and in doing so looking at the principles and practices of writing on the web. The guiding principle of the course is Make Me Think. It will ask you to look at and consider the normative and prescriptive positions of web writing by actively and systematically exploring what those positions entail - and how else they can be addressed.

In this way, the course gives you the opportunity to gain experience in writing and editing web content based on rhetorical principles rather than normative ones.

So, it's is a course in practice. It's a course designed to help you develop both hands-on skills in writing for the web and larger rhetorical strategies for text editing, management, and content creation.

Aims of the Course

This course gives you the opportunity

The course will not make you an expert in web content writing - no course will. It will give you a chance to practice writing web content so that

Focus on Rhetorical Problems

The course takes a problem-centered approach to learning web writing. Every two weeks or so, I will set a challenge based on one or two aspects of writing and reading web content. Your task is to find ways to address the challenge while following the criteria I set. In doing so, you will be reading / researching the matter at hand, taking notes, making lists, experimenting with alternatives, discussing the matters at hand, .... That's in preparation to addressing the problem with an article on Medium.

This preliminary work leads to an article drafted, edited, and published to Medium.com in which you address the problem. As a further aspect of the challenge, I will define a set reading length and a contemporary or classical rhetorical genre. Contemporary genres are such things as a FAQ, a memo, a meme .... Classical rhetorical genres include the narrative, fable, essay of praise or blame. (There's a list over here.

Here's a rough sketch of the workflow. The workflow may change as we refine it during the course.
- You request placement in the TIO Labs Collection. When the work is accepted for the class, it appears in the collection.
- You draft and circulate 500 words of reflection on your rhetorical choices in handling the challenge. This reflection will likely reside as published but unlisted on your Medium.com account.

Here's a draft of what a challenge might look like:
Doug Englebart, the computer scientist who invented the mouse, used to illustrate how the tool shapes the work that can be done by attaching a brick to a pencil and asking people to write with the contraption. Another way of thinking about this is to imagine how you would handle writing and reading if we used crayons rather than pencils, pens, typewriters, and now computers. The idea is that the tools shape the work: there is no neutral, natural, intuitive space to work in. Each space has its affordances and its constraints.

For this challenge, investigate the affordances for reading and writing that the Medium interface makes available, and consider how these affordances shape and constrain writing and reading. For the affordances, consider such things as the drafting space, comments and how they are handled, how links work, limits on image placement, how image enlargement works for readers, page color, icons for reading and writing .… Just as importantly, consider what is missing.

Before drafting, start with notes. Go to your wiki page, start a new page for your notes. Then make an extensive list of affordances and other elements you see in the Medium interface - this should be   20-30 items, with some thoughts on each. Do some research. A pattern or two will start to develop.

Now, write an invective or encomium to the interface. 3 to 5 min reading. Use one image  -  your own or one repurposed. Incorporate links.

See Also: epideictic oratory.


Each challenge will draw on something that might be new to you. Each challenge will demand some reading and some preliminary writing in the form of notes, lists, sketches - generally extensive notes - and discussion. Each challenge will introduce a different set of rhetorical criteria to address in your finished work: a classical form such as invective, fable, or maxim, or a contemporary form such as travelogue, memo, or refrigerator note; as well as a length, and will typically require that you some use of web writing affordances such as links, headings, images, or lists.

Each challenge has tight constraints but each challenge leaves a lot for you to decide and work with. You might be asked to "use links" as part of the challenge, but it is up to you to decide how to use them to meet the task.

In my own practice with this kind of work, each challenge requires some extensive background work in writing - much of which won't make it into the published work. I find that none of these challenges can be met very well with off-the-cuff, un-worked exposition. It requires more work to challenge convention than to follow it. I'm asking that you take up the challenges in the spirit intended: that as a challenge, each gives you the opportunity to make people think.

This Wiki

The exercises, my notes and whatever else we need to look at will show up on this wiki. You'll also be using the wiki for your notes and trials for each exercise.


We'll be using Medium.Com as a drafting and publishing space this semester. It's free, and it's an interesting environment to work in.


You will need a Twitter account to use Medium.Com. Get an account if you don't have one already. Or get a second one if you want to keep your work with this course separate from your personal account.


Attendance is voluntary, but wise. If you're here, you'll probably gain something. If you're here and active, you'll definitely gain something. You'll be able to ask questions and get answers right then and there. You'll be able to talk about an assignment. If you miss the face to face class, you miss whatever we did in class that session. Much of what we're doing will be facilitated online, so it's possible to take part in the class without attending face to face.

When you attend, put the phones on silent, stay part of the whole class discussion when we're having it and when we're on the computers.

And take notes.

Assignments and Deadlines

Whether you attend or not, assignments and deadlines are not negotiable. Assignments are done on time in order to be accepted as part of your grade. Late means a zero, and there's no make up: the course marches on. For an A, you must meet every deadline. Miss too many deadlines and you will be advised to drop the course. Slapdash work may result in negative points. [added 19 Jan 2017]

Assessment and Grading

I'm using D2L not as a grade book but as a way of giving you feedback on how you are doing, so please don't look for grades or points. Look under Assessments > User Progress for comments on your work and advice for the next round. I will issue you a mid-term grade, and if you are in danger of getting a D or E, I'll let you know individually.

A = all deadlines met, superlative work by the end of the semester
B = most or all deadlines met, excellent work by the end of the semester
C = most or all deadlines met, competent but standard, pedestrian work
D = many deadlines missed, work below standard
E = many or most of the deadlines missed.

Grad Student Requirements

Grad students in ENGL 5169 are expected to demonstrate more mastery of the concepts we're working with, be more forward in offering your input grounded in those concepts, and take on leadership in groups. We'll discuss further grad requirements for projects and exercises as we approach them. My advice: Get out in front.

Privacy and Sharing

This wiki is fishbowl wiki. It can be read and searched by anyone, but it is editable only by those with a password. This means that your work in this class is visible to the world. At the end of the course you may remove or revise material you created on this wiki. I will remind you of this clean up at the end of the semester.

English Dept Communications

The department’s webpage (http://www.bemidjistate.edu/academics/departments/english/) has information about the department, current and future classes and other stuff for majors and non-majors.

For majors and interested students, we maintain a listserv for announcements about jobs, careers, publishing opportunities, news, and information. To subscribe to Verb_L, send an email with “Subscribe” in the subject line to


A confirmation email will be sent to you. Simply follow those directions. Also look for us on Facebook: BSU English.

Alternative Formats

This syllabus is available in alternate formats. Talk to me, or contact the Office for Students with Disabilities at 755-3883. Contact the Office for Students with Disabilities if you need accommodations in the class.

If I change anything on this syllabus, I'll let you know.


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