Much has been said about internet etiquette (or "netiquette"), but less often discussed is the general art of writing a decent forum post. An internet forum is a unique form of communication with its own set of ways to best present ideas.
This guide offers basic rules on how to present your message in a forum post. Some of these rules are somewhat particular to an internet forum, while others are good rules of thumb for all written communication.
People do not tend to say that a post has problems unless it has so many that it is difficult to read, blatantly incorrect, or offensive. Instead, the normal reaction to a poorly constructed post is to skim or skip over it, generally missing the message you intended to communicate. If you think it is worth making the post, then presumably, you would like people to read and react to it. Minding the rules in this guide will lead to better, more reader-friendly posts, such that your ideas may be better communicated on an internet forum.
Rule #1: Yes, spelling and grammar really are that important.
Misspellings and incorrect grammar are annoying to the reader, even if it does not actually make your post difficult to read.
There is no good excuse for misspelling words, as most modern browsers have a built in spell-check which will highlight misspellings. The best way to catch grammatical errors is to take the extra time to reread your post before you make it – rereading aloud, if possible, tends to be an especially good way to catch mistakes.
Still, even the best grammar-Nazis have mistakes slip through. After you've posted, there's no shame in rereading what you've written and hitting the edit button to correct syntax.
Rule #2: Use short paragraphs.
This applies to all writing generally, but it is particularly important on an internet forum: people hate reading walls of text. Frankly, when people see a block of text, even a relatively short block, it looks daunting and they start skimming.
Forget everything you learned in grade school about the "five-paragraph essay", wherein paragraphs should be at least five sentences and everything you can think of for a topic should go into one paragraph; this is the exactly wrong way to write. Instead, each idea within a topic should have its own paragraph. As soon as you come to another idea which supports a topic, start a new paragraph.
As an example, just look at what I'm doing that right now in this article. Presenting an example is a new idea which supports my overall topic (use short paragraphs), so I started a new paragraph to present it. In fact, if you look up and down at this article, you'll see that I consistently start short, new paragraphs whenever I shift focus even in the slightest.
It is wrong to question if your paragraph is too short because it is only a 1-4 sentences long. Rather, you should be asking if your paragraph could be shortened or divided once it gets to 5+ sentences and starts looking in the slightest bit block-ish.
Rule #3: Use spacing to your advantage.
It is convention to put spaces between each paragraph. Do this and your writing will be easier to read.
Use double spaces between paragraphs to signal a new, but related topic. Use triple spaces or larger to denote any large shift in focus.
Rule #4: A forum's tone is of casual, but precise, conversation.
Don't be uptight when you write – feel free to use contractions, copious personal pronouns, and put things in parentheses. You are allowed to address other people directly, so long as you do it in a respectful way. You can use idiom and cliché. You can use sarcasm, clearly intentional misspellings and dialect to make a reasonable point, and generally be creative in the way you present text.
Bold text and italics are both suitable for implying a tone of voice in your posts. Bold text implies strong, serious statements while italics are used to place an emphasizing stress on a particular word or phrase.
The line is drawn, however, at the need for complete sentences and words, rather than text-speak. A forum is a place where thoughts which generally take at least a few sentences are presented, and it becomes quickly tiresome for readers to decipher improper syntax past the second sentence. You don't need to and shouldn't write formally on an internet forum, but you do still have to write in reasonable English in order to be understood.
Rule #5: Use links, images, and videos to support and illustrate your points.
Reading text becomes quickly tiresome, so whenever you have the opportunity to offer a reader something beyond mere words in a box, it is wise to do so.
Between curiosity and desire to break up the monotony of reading text, people will happily click links, look at pictures, and watch videos. You sate their appetites, strengthen your case, and communicate your idea through another medium; it's win-win-win.
(See how your attention is instantly drawn to the picture amongst the text?)
In a venue where text dominates, as in the case of an internet forum, everything that isn't text is interesting and will cause people to pay more attention to the text which describes it. A relevant link, picture, or video, is synergistic with your text, because both together will get your message across better than either one would do individually.
Rule #6: Present a logically sound argument.
You won't always be trying to demonstrate something when you post; often you'll simply be relating an experience or fact. At times, however, reasonable people have intelligent disagreements, and in those situations, it's helpful to know a bit about how to make a sound argument.
It's actually very hard to adequately prove a point. Generally, the best you can do is to simply present a large amount of evidence which is in line with your point. Feel free to bring in relevant facts, figures, and outside sources.
There are a large number of logical fallacies to avoid. Some of the most common ones found in forum arguments include:
-Straw Man: Providing evidence that demonstrates something that sounds relevant, but actually is not.
-Ad Hominem: Attacking the character of the person making an argument rather than the argument itself.
-False Dilemma: Presenting something as an either-or or yes-or-no situation when other possibilities exist.
-Questionable Cause: Assuming that correlation equals causation.
-Slippery Slope: Claiming that one event inevitably leads down some path to more extreme events.
Rule #7: Use quotes often but precisely.
When someone makes a point worth responding to, either to agree or disagree with it, quote only the specific part of the post to which you are responding.
If I read this post:
…and I just wanted to claim that roses are actually red, I would quote only the part about roses…Originally Posted by Example 1
…and then respond that roses are actually red.Originally Posted by Example 1
If you want to respond to multiple parts of a quote, then quote each section separately before you respond to it.
If I read this post:
…and I wanted to claim that roses are actually red and that violets are actually blue, I would first quote only the part about roses…Originally Posted by Example 2
…respond that roses are actually red, and then quote only the part about violets…Originally Posted by Example 2
…and then respond that violets are actually blue.Originally Posted by Example
Rule #8: Always attack the argument, never the person.
In a casual conversation, direct address and use of the word "you" when responding to posts is entirely reasonable. It is necessary, however, to be very careful when doing so. It is surprisingly common how often posters inadvertently sleight other posters when addressing them.
"You just don't get it, do you?""Liberals/Conservatives/Communists/Young people not paying taxes/Extremists/Radicals/Crazy people like you would say X."Always be careful when you directly address another poster that you avoid in any way attacking them or their character. If the poster is wrong, then prove that they are wrong by attacking their argument with good counterarguments. It keeps your post more succinct, on topic, and at a level of maturity that better transmits your message."You'd have to be crazy/dumb/stupid/daft to say X."