Online communities: How high-quality writing makes private workspaces work

by | Jan 13, 2012 | Writing Matters Blog | 1 comment


I’d like to introduce guest blogger Michelle Bishop, Vice President at  Collaborative Communications Group. Among the many things she does at Collaborative, Michelle helps clients such as United Way Worldwide and the College Board develop and maintain online “communities of practice.” These online communities enable people to work together even when they’re separated by distance, time zone, affiliation, expertise, or employer. Online communities help people continue the work they’ve launched at conferences or other meetings.

I recently had a great discussion with Michelle about how the quality and types of writing in these online communities can determine whether the community achieves its goals. Here’s some advice about writing in online communities – in Michelle’s own words:

“Online communities provide private spaces for groups to share information, deepen relationships, collaborate, and conduct business across distances. What people are trying to achieve in these online communities influences the tone, pace, and approach of their writing. In our work with online communities of practice, writing has three main purposes:

  1. Writing to build community
  2. Writing to provide value
  3. Writing for reference


Writing to build community

Community-building writing focuses on strengthening interpersonal relationships or offering personal advice on a shared issue. This type of writing often takes place in a discussion area or via social networking. When writing to build community, the writing should be informal, conversational, and personal. 

Writing to provide value

Writing to provide value to the community is more formal. It might take the form of an email blast to the entire community. A community facilitator may send out a message about a news article, recently posted resource, or new research finding. The key to success is to clearly communicate the value of the message quickly and succinctly. Writers should use a clear, value-oriented subject line; bullets to summarize the information; and visible links to the item of interest. The recipient must be able to scan the information and understand its value immediately. 

Writing for reference

Writing for reference happens when a community member or facilitator posts a document, tool, or resource to a library or document repository. In this case, the key aspect of the writing will be the use of keywords and tags, so members can retrieve the resource at a later date. If a summary or brief synopsis is included, it should include the key descriptors that a member would use to search for the item in the future. The tone members use when writing for reference may be more formal and the text more detailed than when writing to build community or provide value.”

Do you participate in an online community of practice? If so, please comment here to share your thoughts about the writing that goes on in your community.

Tags: Writing

1 Comment

  1. This is a nice piece that covers most of the kinds of writing I’ve always engaged in on my communities. I suppose another distinction is between public and private writing. I was always told that a big part of the community managers job was done in private, behind the scenes.

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