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Summary:

With so much discussion about how the Internet is changing journalism and media, there’s surprisingly little said about how writing itself has changed. But as more people have spent more time writing on the Internet this past decade, the way we write has changed significantly.

In a famous passage from “Ulysses,” James Joyce recapitulates the development of the English language in 45 pages — from the archaic and formal (“Deshil Holles Eamus”) to the conversationally casual (“Pflaap! Pflaap! Blaze on”). Over the past decade, as more people have spent more time writing on the Internet, that same evolution has not only continued, it feels like it’s accelerated.

With so much discussion about how the Internet is changing journalism and media, there’s surprisingly little said about how writing itself has transformed. But it has changed in a dramatic if subtle way.

Nine years ago, I remember being one of 100 or so journalists gathered to listen to a veteran writer speak. I don’t remember the topic, just that when he asked how many of us enjoy writing, I was surprised that only a few hands went up. Today, so much of the typical day is taken up with writing emails, tweets, updates, text messages, chat sessions, blog posts and the occasional longer form writing. And few complain how onerous it all is.

On balance, all of that practice is making online writing better. Which is not to say that all online writing is good. Much of it’s terrible – see the average YouTube comment for an example of how bad it can be. But it’s been said that excellent writing is a matter of good thinking – if you’ve got the thinking part down, that’s most of the battle. And many of the thoughtful people I know are producing some great stuff on the web.

The Internet isn’t just prompting us to write more, its open structure pressures us to write in a way that’s at once more concise and flexible. One problem newspapers and magazines never could fix is that articles are assigned arbitrary lengths. Pay writers per word and they’ll write as many as they can. Assign a 12,000-word story and you’ll get just that, even if 1,000 are all that’s necessary.

On the web it’s different. Back in 1997, Jakob Nielsen looked at how people read web content (basically, they scan it) and argued web writing should

- highlight keywords (often using hypertext links)
– use straight, clear headlines and subheads
– deliver one idea per paragraph
– cut word count to half that of conventional writing
– employ bulleted lists.

Many web writers, whether they’ve read Nielsen’s advice or not, use these practices because readers respond to them. The impulse to scan is a good thing because readers’ impatience inspires economy among writers.

At the same time, people are mastering more kinds of writing. Other technologies that grew more popular this decade required a different mode of expression: Instant messaging invited a breezy, fast-thinking tone; blog comments (again, the thoughtful ones) sharpened our debate skills; Twitter enforced even more economy onto our words. In all of these, we were nudged toward something all writers aspire to: a strong, distinct voice.

Having a clear voice has grown more important on the web, where writers worry about brand-building, news sites grow interactive and blog posts resemble conversations. Some don’t regard texting and chat as writing, while others argue that they’re killing longer and more formal prose. Both notions are wrong. The informal writing we do on the web doesn’t supplant formal writing, it complements and influences it — and is influenced in return.

Not all of the Internet’s effects on writing have been positive. Many bloggers tailor headlines and posts so that they’ll surface at the top of search results, making them at once easier to find and less enjoyable to read. And this decade, a lot of other bloggers mistook a strong writing voice for caustic irreverence. But most eventually learned that writing with snark is like cooking with salt — a little goes a long way.

On the other hand, concerns about the Internet hurting writing feel overblown. Some educators worry that the Internet is making teenagers way too casual in their writing, so that they never learn more formal composition. I disagree. The best way to learn good writing is to write a lot.

Besides, language is always evolving, and a more conversational English isn’t a bad thing. “Writing, when properly managed…is but a different name for conversation.” Laurence Sterne wrote that in Tristram Shandy 250 years ago. Thanks to the Internet, it’s more true now than ever.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

  1. What a great post! I’ve especially noticed the need to cut words on my noveling blog, Uninvoked. Many of my chapters are 500 words or under, and none of them go over 1,000. That’s a tiny amount for a book, yet when I changed Uninvoked around to that method my readership grew to enormous proportions.

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  2. Kevin – great piece. I’d come to a similar conclusion after reading Gladwell’s Outliers. With so many more people writing, more of us will hit that 10,000 hour mark earlier – I expect that we are actually at the beginning of a writing renaissance (I explored this idea in a blog post in June of 09). One that will get better and stronger over the coming 5 years.

    Nice work!

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  3. [...] Kelleher of the infamous GigaOm tech blog has a very interesting post on how the internet has changed writing in the 2000s. His main insight is that because readers [...]

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  4. Great post! It’s true – I do despair some times when I see the state of some of the commenting on the internet. But at the same time I guess the sheer volume of writing must be seen as a good thing. I wonder if tailoring posts to suit a readers attention span will over time have a wider impact on our ability to read for longer and more demanding pieces.

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  5. jonathangheller Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Of course, this in turns changes the way we read. The internet is consumed by scanning and skimming content. For example, Twitter 140 character limit thrives on this newly acquired habit of quickly jumping from small pieces of info to the other.
    I invite you all to check “Is Google making us stupid?”; a classic written by Nicholas Carr and published on The Atlantic that addresses this issue from a very unique and interesting perspective:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

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    1. That article was too long for me to read, I skimmed it:)

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  6. isabellapprpse treasure Sunday, January 3, 2010

    My lit teacher once said: keep it succinct, interesting and above all descriptive. Your wondeful blog brought that back to me today. Thanks

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  7. At the link to Jakob Nielsen s’ “How Users Read on the Web”, in the experiment that showed ‘usability’ increased on web pages that used “concise, scannable, and objective.” style – I was thinking this will also create better search results. Concise writing is far likelier to bring the ‘right’ eyes to your page. The words that catch the eye in ad writing, don’t catch the google bot. :)

    The searcher doesn’t search in ad speak! A lesson perhaps for copyrighters to scan, especially Twitter for keywords people Really use (if they don’t already).

    Michael Holloway

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  8. You are so wrong. As there are no restrictions by paper anymore, blog posts have become longer and longer, more boring and less relevant. Not necessarily on Gigaom, but on other websites. After 15 years of daily Internet use I have come to this conclusion.

    Google rewards longer texts and frequent blog posts with more pageviews because they contain more search words. I whish all these authors had to write on paper. But more and more microserfs have to compete for Google’s attention and blog for their life. So if they find something about Twitter, Foursquare or Facebook or other hot topic they write whatever they can because they know it brings pageviews.

    It will be worse as soon as AOL introduces its algorithm-generated news stories and topics. I see a big wave of junk stories coming up that makes the web unusable. That’s the disadvantage of people writing for machines instead of people.

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    1. “the disadvantage of people writing for machines instead of people.”

      What constitutes writing for the people? Every well-employed reporter/editor I ever met at major publications I worked for were implicitly directed to regurgitate press releases – especially the ones that represented the products or services of their bread-and-butter advertisers ( Press means pay for play ). I believe it’s at the heart of the problem of journalism: the hidden motives of the old publishing model have been uncovered by way of the new (blogging) cannibalizing it. That seems a positive development.

      But your point is interesting. Search engine popularity and generated news is perhaps the same issue realized in a new medium, since those mechanized agents are entirely monetized via advertising as well…

      How to incentivize real investigative journalism?

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    2. Reply to Markus

      I’m not sure if you were referring to my comment, but what I was getting at was the Relevance of search enquiries returned.

      SEO is important for selling things – but Google specifically changes the algorithm to prevent people from top listing cynical posts. Coincidently that allows Google to top-list specific keywords as part of a pay relationship they have with an entity.

      A million pages come back on any search; is what your looking for on the first page or the second? When I’m at a loss in finding a specific thread I find myself just typing a whole sentence/question into my browser, it often does the trick! That’s a function of the way the algorithm connects links that WE make relevant when we choose links.

      The human finger print is all over the technology. Google is constantly enabling a good understanding of how the three-word-search algorithm works. It’s key to the success of their business model.

      Making it easier to find content we want.

      Michael Holloway

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    3. I am not so sure it IS a problem. If people use those news filters then yes, they’ll find crap. If they find other type of semi-editorialized aggregators for discovery then it’s less of a problem. If they aggregate themselves they can even be more selective.

      In other words: as the onslaught of data grows there will be more and more sophisticated applications that filter for you either human based or algorithm based or both. Whether’s its some variation of google wave where friends I trust share relevant news or if it’s a new application I run on my desktop that filters correctly.

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      1. That sort of thing is exactly what I, as a reader, a writer, and a citizen of a more-or-less democratic society, am deathly afraid of. For if our only exposure to outside information is filtered to our specifications, then it will be highly unlikely that any significant number of people will learn about anything they don’t already know. This has disturbing implications for the defense of any form of liberty.

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  9. restriction by paper is gone, information float around wirelessly and google try to find its way around fat lands

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  10. Kevin, add me to the ‘Attaboy!’ contingent. I’ve read Nielsen before; I’ve worked in both print and online; you’d think I’d remember. Looking back on my early blogging in particular, I’m not sure that I always have. A good New Year’s resolution – write more effectively.

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