Creating Strong Contributions to Electronic Discussions

Regardless of whether you are participating in a listserv (an online discussion distributed by e-mail) or a discussion on an electronic bulletin board (like WebCT), you should consider what will make your contributions useful to readers. Check out some techniques for improving your contributions to online discussions.

Use a meaningful subject line. Don't leave the subject line blank. Worse, don't use a subject line that's so generic that nobody will know what you are going to discuss. In the information age, your ideas will be judged on subject lines. Sometimes, if the subject line isn't intriguing, provocative, or at least informative, your post will never get read. Use the subject line to your advantage.

Take Chances. When offering your ideas in a discussion, brainstorm your idea thoroughly and keep writing. Readers understand that online discussions are "rough drafts" of your ideas. They don't have to be perfect. Use online discussion as opportunity to "test" your ideas.

Use paragraphs. Don't try to get too fancy with formatting your discussion contributions.  When you double-space e-mail or a discussion post, it comes to your readers with really strange line breaks if their screen resolution isn't exactly like yours. So, single-space, but double space between paragraphs. (Keep paragraphs short; ten to twelve sentences at the most.) Look at this page, for example. It's single-spaced, but when I start a new paragraph, I simply hit the "ENTER" key twice. 

Sign your contributions to a discussion. It's always nice to know who wrote a certain contribution to a discussion. Especially when you are part of a large electronic conversation, readers may find it difficult to know who you are. What makes this even more difficult is that some of you have two or three (or ten) different e-mail accounts, so nobody recognizes who you are when your username is

Use the "Reply" function. In a Forum discussion, it's helpful to see the "threads" of the discussion. So, when you are replying to somebody, don't create a "New Message"; instead, use the "Reply to Message" function. (If you are on an e-mail discussion, you may need to use "Reply to All."  Replies result in threaded discussions, which will help readers follow the conversation.

Use names and specifics. Especially when there are lots of people involved in an online discussion, names will help readers make more sense of a discussion. When you say, "I agree with you," we don't know who you are agreeing with. Even if we know who you are agreeing with, we don't know what that person said to make you agree. If, however, you said, "I agree with Joanie that Capitalism does have some problems as an economic system," then readers can follow your ideas.

Invite Participation. Integrate comments to readers that will invite others to participate.  Simple phrases like "I'm anxious to see if you agree with me" or "What do you think about my ideas?  Is it practical enough" can let readers know that you are really interested in their opinions.   

Proofread Your Work. Neither your professor nor your classmates will "nitpick" the grammar, spelling, and punctuation of your ideas. Mechanical correctness is not the point of discussion. But, you can at least proofread your post before hitting send. It won't take long to proofread a contribution, and you can save yourself embarrassment and time by proofreading it now. If you don't proofread now, you may have to clarify later; it's easier to proofread now.

Be Respectful of others' ideas. We show respect for the ideas of others by treating them with seriousness. When you simply dismiss a classmate's ideas without offering criticisms and challenges, you are insulting that classmate. You have an obligation to challenge each other's thinking. You shouldn't insult a class mate, so you'll want to use sound netiquette. (The netiquette home page can help you with this aspect of discussions.) Sometimes, using emoticons can help you clarify your tone.


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