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