Tips for Writing in Online Courses

As a college student in an online degree program, you will do a wide variety of writing from the formal research paper to informal discussions boards with other students. Here are a few things to remember when you write online:

Know When Formal Rules of Writing Are Important (and When They Are Less So)

In online college courses, it is important to remember to tailor your formality to the type of written communication you are engaging in. When writing research papers use correct capitalization, spelling, grammar, sentence construction, and proper source citation. But, for online chats and discussion forums, many teachers will not grade you on your spelling or grammar, and APA citations are usually not required for online posts. The purpose of chats and discussion forums is for you to think critically and exchange ideas with your classmates. The goal is communication, not correct grammatical structure, spelling and citations. The rules of writing are far less important in discussions than in formal writing assignments. It is mindful, however, not to use colloquialisms or slangs like you would in an informal text message, for example.

writing in online courses

Think of Your Audience

Thinking of your audience will help you know when rules of writing are important. If you're writing an email to an English teacher, spelling and grammar will probably matter a lot. But will your online study group care if your spelling and grammar are not that of an English major? Maybe not… Understand your audience and their needs, desires, and expectations, and write to them.

Considering your audience is called "you” attitude -- as opposed to "I” attitude, where the focus is yourself. You attitude may be as simple as phrasing sentences in first person, or it can involve more complicated strategies such as emphasizing the benefits your fellow classmates will gain from thinking or doing what you want them to.

Know Your Purpose

Knowing the purpose of your writing will help you organize your thoughts into words. Are you stating facts or making a simple request? Then get to the point up front. Are you trying to persuade someone of something that they may not immediately believe? Then begin with an attention getter or establish a common ground with your audience before you begin your argument. How do you know your purpose? Be sure to read assignment or essay instructions, where the purpose is directly stated or implied then plan your structure accordingly.

Be Yourself

Your purpose of online writing should never be to impress. Your goal should be to communicate your ideas to your audience, and you'll do that best by being yourself. Trying to impress usually backfires -- you could come off as intimidating, pompous, or rash.

Your writing—whether in a forum or assignment—should be linked to facts and augmented by educated opinions. Link your online assignment or discussion post to past discussion posts, course readings, or research—all the while staying true to yourself.

Remember that Online Writing is More Accessible and Permanent than Paper

Words written on paper can be discarded, lost, or forgotten. But words written online can be accessed, retrieved, and thus remembered indefinitely. So be careful not to say something that you may regret. There is a tendency to feel comfortable saying negative things about other people in email and chats. Don't! An email can be forwarded on to a person you never intended to see your thoughts, and negative statements in discussions will have a much longer impact than the seconds it took to write them. When writing online, be aware that what you say could last forever.

About the author

Joan Saliskas

Joan Saliskas, Ph.D., is an instructional designer at Rasmussen University Online, where she develops content for nursing, allied health, and online business degree programs. Her Ph.D. is in English, and she has experience teaching a wide variety of writing and communication courses.

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