Consider this: the only thing anyone knows about you on the Internet comes from what you write, or what others write about you. You may be brilliant, perceptive, and charismatic in person—but if your emails are rambling and unstructured, people will assume that’s the real you. Or perhaps you really are rambling and unstructured in person, but no one need ever know it, if your posts are lucid and informative.
Devoting some care to your writing will pay off hugely. Long-time free software hacker Jim Blandy tells the following story:
Back in 1993, I was working for the Free Software Foundation, and we were betatesting version 19 of GNU Emacs. We’d make a beta release every week or so, and people would try it out and send us bug reports. There was this one guy whom none of us had met in person but who did great work: his bug reports were always clear and led us straight to the problem, and when he provided a fix himself, it was almost always right. He was top-notch.
Now, before the FSF can use code written by someone else, we have them do some legal paperwork to assign their copyright interest to that code to the FSF. Just taking code from complete strangers and dropping it in is a recipe for legal disaster.
So I emailed the guy the forms, saying, “Here’s some paperwork we need, here’s what it means, you sign this one, have your employer sign that one, and then we can start putting in your fixes. Thanks very much.”
He sent me back a message saying, “I don’t have an employer.”
So I said, “Okay, that’s fine, just have your university sign it and send it back.”
After a bit, he wrote me back again, and said, “Well, actually… I’m thirteen years old and I live with my parents.”