Searching for a Web Resource Guide
A review by Michael D. Berndt, University of Minnesota
Hale, Constance, ed. Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age. San Francisco: Hardwired, 1996. 176 pp. $17.95. ISBN: 1-888869-01-1.

Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The Everyday Writer: A Brief Reference. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 384 pp. $20.50. ISBN: 0312095694.

Harnack, Andrew and Eugene Kleppinger. Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Sources. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. 192 pp. $10.00. ISBN: 0312179049.

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Like many composition instructors, I wanted my students to appreciate the Internet as a writing and research tool. Consequently, I had them read Harnack's and Kleppinger's Online!, a comprehensive guide to using Internet sources. After two quarters of lukewarm student reviews, however, I realized that no matter how good a guide is, it won't be used effectively unless instructors first consider how the Web fits into their classrooms.

In response to the growing social importance of the Internet, writing instructors have been trying to negotiate the relationship between digital and print mediums. This negotiation is healthy because it encourages us to reexamine how we teach research and writing. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for the Internet may outpace our established pedagogies, especially when assigning an Internet resource guide.

My problems with Online! were not the text's fault but my own. The students in my class used online databases, like Lexis-Nexis, and CD-ROM indexes, like Newspaper Abstracts, both of which directed them to print journals and books. They used e-mail to submit drafts and discuss their writing, but they wanted comments handwritten on printouts. They even used subject-directory search tools, like Yahoo!, and reviewed the homepages of businesses and professional organizations, but they usually printed the sites' documents, bringing thick stacks of paper to class. They had learned to negotiate Web resources by translating digital materials into print, but in my enthusiasm for the Web's research possibilities, I was requiring them to read about MOOs and MUDs, Archie and Veronica, and writing in HTML. All they wanted to know, and all my assignments required them to know, was how to locate and document Internet sources, information they could have gotten from traditional grammar texts.

Composition instructors could effectively structure their courses around cyberspace; they could also integrate Internet sources into traditional writing and research strategies. The point is to decide before requiring students to purchase a Web resources guide. Envisioning how the Internet can be integrated into existing assignments and classroom procedures will help instructors use the guides effectively. The alternative is to spend the semester justifying an expensive but little-used book or fielding questions on material another book doesn't cover.

In my own search for an appropriate Web resource guide, I examined three candidates that integrate the Internet into the classroom in different ways. The first, Wired Style, by the editors of Wired magazine, initiates writers into the "anarchic, fluid, and rule-averse" language of the digital community (2). The second, The Everyday Writer, incorporates pragmatic suggestions from Wired Style and Online! into a traditional writing reference. The third, Online!, aims between the first two, offering a comprehensive guide to Internet resources in an accessible reference format.

Wired Style is a style book in the richest sense. It addresses the conventions of usage--punctuation, spelling, capitalization, but it also promotes a distinctive manner of expression characteristic of the digital community. "The digiculture has its own language and sublanguages," argues the text (62). Consequently, writers interested in writing about the Internet must understand the history, technology, and cultural landscape. Wired Style is more a cultural primer than a writing guide. Besides defining Web slang like "grok," "grrl," and "bang," it includes entries on science fiction classics like William Gibson's Neuromancer, television shows like Star Trek, cultural figures like the Unabomber, and computer games like Pong and Myst. It also describes prominent figures in the field like Bill Gates, corporate players like Intel, and influential events like the development of ENIAC in the 1940s. This strategy promotes the Web as a unique communication situation requiring "a whole new approach" to writing (96).

Like The Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Handbook, Wired Style functions as an authority for the Internet writing community, but it differs from the other style guides in its spirited approach to writing. Reflecting the dynamic, evolving nature of the medium, it privileges flexibility and individual voice, encouraging writers to "screw the rules" when the rules limit their ability to write authentically (95). The guide does give a number of usage suggestions, like how to quote email postings and print URLs, but it contextualizes these suggestions as pragmatic solutions to changing communication needs. For example, if an e-mail quote calls attention to itself as a digital message, students are encouraged to preserve its idiosyncratic spellings and punctuation.

Wired Style's approach can be good for writers because it celebrates individual voice, foregrounds audience in the rhetorical situation, and reminds students that writing about technical subjects requires a lot of background research.

The approach also shows how conventions emerge in response to new writing needs. The limited size of a computer screen, for example, and the audience's need for quick and efficient information encourage concise, active writing. Similarly, the global nature of the Web requires a cosmopolitan perspective, illustrated in everything from metric measurements to multicultural sensitivity. The unique communications introduced by the Web can even reshape the writing process. Wired Style, "an experiment in nonlinear, net-worked editing," was created collaboratively in the same spirit and using same the technologies described in the book.

Despite the book's personality, it wouldn't be effective as a reference guide unless students were being prepared to write for and about the digital community. The book's spirit, impatient with conventions and eager for the colloquial, could be misconstrued by students to license technobabble and impromptu expression over careful, critical revision. This is why it is so important to recognize what students need from the Web guide. Instructors hoping to use the book as a supplement to traditional rhetorics and readers would not find the text very useful. There are no sections describing Web resources, locating and evaluating Web documents, or documenting sources. The usage suggestions are helpful but they're a small part of a book largely composed of lexicons aimed at defining the acronyms and jargon of the field.

Of course, the editors did not intend to make Wired Style a traditional usage text. "This manual isn't intended to replace other style and grammar guides," the editors acknowledge, "but it does dig into questions that Chicago and AP--and for that matter Strunk & White--don't even imagine" (2).

Instructors who see the Internet as an extension of existing research methods would be better served by traditional grammar texts like The Everyday Writer by Lunsford and Connors. In the spirit of providing "short and sweet" reference information (xix), the authors concentrate on the basics of locating, evaluating, and documenting Web sources. For example, they borrow style suggestions from Wired Style, and while they acknowledge that digital communication challenges our understanding of language, the style suggestions they borrow--how to print e-mail addresses, how to break URLs across columns, how to quote e-mail messages, and how to use acronyms--are practical. The suggestions are presented not as expressions of a unique cultural phenomena, but as supplements to print-based methods of research and writing.

Traditional grammar texts would have worked well in my classroom, but I wouldn't recommend The Everyday Writer because its information on Internet sources is not effectively presented. For example, the authors identify various research avenues on the Web, like Archie, Telnet, and Wais, but they don't clarify how students can access these systems or provide examples to illustrate the kind of information these sources provide. Consequently, students are not encouraged to explore those avenues of research. Similarly, the authors provide guidelines for evaluating Web resources, encouraging students to use the same critical thinking skills they use to evaluate other sources: who are the author and publisher and what are their credentials, what other sources does the document cite and are they credible, what is the publication date, and so on. Unfortunately, there are no examples and the guidelines are confined to an indistinct, cramped list which students are likely to skip. The authors do borrow MLA, APA, and CBE documentation guidelines from Online! but they restrict the list to ideal scenarios. Students are not told how to handle anomalies, like a missing author or title. Since documentation is so often a matter of reconciling particulars to the general patterns, instructors should be prepared to answer questions about sites that don't conform to the models. Interestingly enough, the text I plan to use for my class is Lunsford's and Connors's EasyWriter, a pocket-sized grammar text which far exceeds its parent version in the depth of its Internet coverage.

Whereas Wired Style describes the digital culture within which students write and Everyday Writer provides concise advice on how to integrate Web sources into traditional research methodologies, Online! encourages students to get comfortable with the Internet by providing a comprehensive, accessible resource guide. In the first chapter, "Finding Internet Sources," Harnack and Kleppinger define the Internet, analyze URLs, and then explain, in clear and straight-forward language, how to use subject directories, like Yahoo! and Inter-Links, and text indexes, like Lycos, AltaVista, and WebCrawler. The spirit is encyclopedic and comforting; students are not encouraged to see the Web as a place of quirky individuality but a rich source of information. A good example of this spirit is in the chapter "Observing Netiquette." To encourage students to go beyond browsing Web sites to use e-mail, listservs, newsgroups, and MOOs and MUDs, the authors provide useful advice on how to participate respectfully and competently. For instance, they encourage students to lurk on listservs before posting messages to get a proper sense of how the group interacts and what topics it discusses. Both the chapters are followed up with a list of Web sites where readers can find out more information. Although Online! is much smaller than other Web resource guides, its numerous bibliographies extend its capabilities, making it a more comprehensive resource.

Online! is also made accessible by excellent examples, visual illustrations, and a tightly integrated presentation of print and digital sources. In Everyday Writer, advice about gathering documentation information on Internet sources is limited to a single, bulletted item. In Online!, the same questions are extended to include examples and different situations. To find authors not identified on a document, Harnack and Kleppinger suggest looking for an e-mail address, checking the Source Information window for the document's owner, or using Internet functions like Finger. To assess an author's knowledge of other sources, they suggest examining how the sources are used in the document and consulting listservs and newsgroups in the author's field to understand the context of the author's work. In fact, Harnack and Kleppinger offer a number of excellent strategies for using the Web's resources more fully.

In addition to numerous examples, the authors of Online! include a variety of helpful illustrations. For example, the section on using frames includes pictures of the Web browser to show where to locate frame information and how to bookmark a frame using Netscape and Internet Explorer. Students can take the book with them to the computer and as they read the text they can try out the examples, seeing if their computer screens match the text illustrations. Online! is also one of the best resource guides I've seen for organizing information visually. Because digital material is so heavily visual, it makes sense for Internet reference guides to follow the Web's success and present information in ways that are easy to scan and visually organize. Online! breaks individual points into manageable sections, highlights words that can be defined in the glossary, and continually cross-references information so someone who isn't willing to wait until later chapters to pursue a particular topic can go directly to the relevant page.

Online! is an excellent classroom guide because it supports a number of different documentation styles and academic subjects. It thoroughly covers MLA, APA, Chicago, and CBE, particularly after the 1998 edition was expanded to include documenting general Web sites, e-journals and online books. The authors also encourage students to use the guide when they begin the research process by providing annotated references to Web sites in a variety of fields. The 1998 edition, for example, has added several new subcategories including agriculture, anthropology, athletics and sports, and nursing. Students can use these addresses to connect with reputable sites which will then link them to a number of others. My only concern with using Online! would be if a course was not designed to make use of all the text's information. For example, having students read "Connecting to the Internet by Direct Access" will be marginally beneficial if they aren't encouraged to explore Usenet or real-time communications as part of the classroom work.

All three of these Web reference guides are supported by online Web sites. Their ostensible purpose is to provide a forum for reader feedback, questions, and further discussion. For example, the people at Wired characterize Wired Style's site as "an ongoing, dynamic, open-to-the public space where the contents of the book are debated and updated." Unfortunately, I saw a great deal of advertising but very little interaction in the sites. The FAQs for Online! appeared staged and the discussion strings at Everyday Writer seemed virtually unused. While the sites certainly mean well, I suspect their lack of development is the result of the uncertain relationship between digital and print mediums. Students are still more likely to consult other grammar books or instructors than post usage questions online. Of the sites, Online! was probably the most comprehensive, including the complete chapters on MLA, APA, Chicago, and CBE documentation styles and hyperlinks to all the URLs listed in the book.

The information at the Online! site raises an interesting question about Web resource guides in general. With all the excellent online resources for finding, evaluating, and documenting Web resources, why would anyone want to buy a reference guide? If students' questions cannot be answered at the above sites, they could consult one of several online guides like Diana Hacker's Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age. Again, the answer goes back to the relationship between digital and print mediums. Teaching in the digital age means being sensitive to how the Internet will function within the context of our courses. I will continue to assign Web resources guides because, in my courses, printed books allow students to consult usage questions in class, read critically with notations, and read the materials at their convenience--meaning they will be more likely to do the readings.

 The web addresses for sites referred to in this review are listed below, and were accurate at time of publication.

Wired Style
The Everyday Writer
Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age