How the Internet Changed Writing in the 2000s

44 Comments

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

44 Comments

mace

Good stuff, i’d love to read more on this. Jacques Derrida has something in Paper Machine. I’ve wondered the impact of modern day text processing on text formulation. I mean the actual process of authoring. It seems that old-school writing has to be planned out beforehand, and modern text editing makes us build our texts from the inside out. I’m imagining some sort of a steaming soup, where more mature passages eventually of bubble up. Something tasty, some good (udon) ramen at a small stall in Tokyo, preferably :-P”’ :)

On a larger scale, in a society where all sorts of texts, both public and private are absolutely everywhere, things get nicely complicated. I mean, what has been the effect of the ability to insert and re-arrange words on our politics, f.ex.?

I’m sure there’s been research on this. Pointers to literature, anyone?

Pamela

The impact I’ve seen is how much less handwriting I’m doing these days… and when I do pick up a pen it’s like a foreign object I have to get comfortable with again!

Jeff Dickey

I’m much worse than that…. after thirty years of banging away on often-dodgy keyboards, I’ve got RSI badly enough that I can’t hold a pen or pencil for more than a couple of minutes without needing to flex and unlock my hand. Makes me wonder what I’m going to do for the next 20 years – or what my hands will be like after that time. Ugh.

Greg

Fantastic post! And we’re just at the beginning, really. As the internet evolves, the way we read and the way it reflects our language will only improve.

Jeff Dickey

Yes, practice helps. But what helps much, much more is practice that receives constructive criticism. It seems to me as though those bloggers who create the most interesting blog posts are generally those who’ve had some experience writing for (at least potential) publication offline. The skills you pick up there – concise, clear writing within limits of space and time for reporters, a different but no less imperative view of structure for most other prose – improve your writing more than a hundred blog posts with a half-dozen thoughtful responses. Most bloggers don’t get THAT much feedback.

Sherrilynne Starkie

Despite all the technology the fundamentals remain the same. People learn to write well with practice. The more they practice, the better the writing gets.

Jeffrey Pillow

Much truth to this article, Kevin.

For writers such as myself, the internet has created a segue from the post-post-modern (or whatever the hell it’s called in literary circles nowadays) to the here & now.

In the past, writing was a waiting game. It still is when it comes to print publishing. That’s fine. It should be that way in my opinion mostly. If you’re good, you’re good. You’ll get your due. The internet provides the “meantime.” While you’re waiting, boom, show others your talent. Your ability. Your unique style in constructing prose.

Words constructed in concise, clever, and intelligent ways.

Always? No.

Sometimes sloppy, yes.

But there are some excellent humorists on the web today. And the web is what it is, a web, an interconnected highway. What is going on now between writers and readers and the ability to easily communicate with one another has never happened before.

It should be applauded if only for that.

Kim

The only real negative part of this article is that it is only an article, and not the all-out book I’d like it to be…

Brian Darvell

Good brief article on how the Internet has approached the topic of writing. In truth however this topic could be a whole university course rather than a 1000 word article.

I’d like to think that the Internet has brought better literacy to people but I’m concerned with how the balance between short topics (tweets and articles like this) and long topics (novels) is highly skewed. The average 20-something likely reads (“scans” is a better word) tons of short Internet stuff such as this article, instant messages, text messages, RSS and wikipedia snippets but how much time do those same individuals spend reading a novel without distraction. Like all things there is a balance to be had between the two but I think today it is highly, and unhealthily, skewed.

danny bloom

Nate, above, in his comments, makes a very important point: that writers learn to write by reading a lot in their childhood years and as teenagers and college students. Reading makes writers. And with a new generation now doing most of their “reading” (I call it “screening” since it is absolutely NOT reading, Google me), it will turn out a generation of people who do not know how to write, the language of wordsmithing. This is what you missed in an otherwise great article, Kevin. If we lose readers, ie, people who read deeply and probingly on paper surfaces, then the culture will lose its people who know the power of words to touch people. Reading on a screen will never teach future artists how to write. Screening is just for scanning, skimming, emails, comments. It’s good. I love all this. But to turn out writers in the future, we need to preserve the paper book and the paper newspaper and paper magazines. Ask any writer how she or he learned to love the power of words, and they will tell you: their teachers were books, paper books and magazine articles. This is vital to preserve. But I fear the worst.

nate said : “However, I have been told numerous times throughout my life that the best writers don’t just write a lot, they also READ a lot. Of course, learning to write well through reading more assumes that what is being read is in fact written well. So much of what is out there on the web is written so poorly, I am inclined, personally, to say that most writing on the web is actually making us worse writers.”

Catherine Hibbard

Thank you for posting this excellent article. I plan to tweet it so others can read this. I like to use bullet points and lists to call attention to important sections of Web copy. They are visually appealing and make it easy to quickly find pertinent information.

danny bloom

well said, sir. see my rant on the need for a new word for reading on screens i call it “screening” since it really is NOT reading per se, and maybe writing needs a new term too? why does the email screen say COMPOSE our enail messages reather than WRITE?

Nate

This is a good piece. I agree with most sentiments here, although I do question one in particular.

The second to last paragraph ends with the statement: “The best way to learn good writing is to write a lot.” I suppose there is a some truth to that statement. However, I have been told numerous times throughout my life that the best writers don’t just write a lot, they also READ a lot. Of course, learning to write well through reading more assumes that what is being read is in fact written well. So much of what is out there on the web is written so poorly, I am inclined, personally, to say that most writing on the web is actually making us worse writers.

Then again, a good chunk of the sentiment in this article seems to echo the old adage that writing on the web might not be worse, just different.

I’m not so sure.

Cosmin

Unfortunately I tend to agree that reading has become more than occasionally superficial [and web writers tend to adapt to that, sadly].

Well, we did it to ourselves, we democratized publishing and now we’re getting hit by the tornado of junk and mediocre writing. Let’s see you work this out now, humankind!

Ani

Thought-provoking article! For writers with a newspaper background, the transition has not been so great. News desk copywriters and reporters are masters at slam-banging their stories out. When that byline brands their work, being concise is imperative and becomes second nature.

In regard to SEO and copy: a seasoned writer knows how to work with the subtleties of incorporating key words with key ideas. And if the writer isn’t able to perfect that technique, then a savvy editor should be able to mentor.

In the end, effective communication is an art–and most folks are not wordsmiths. That’s a good thing. Those professionals amongst us will stay employed, lol.

Ani

Johnnythedetective

Nice article. In fact I believe all the economised texting has triggered confidence in the ones who were insecure about their writing. Now the thinking ones not only text but have started setting up their own blogs as well. Pushing them to focus on their language skills too.

cheese

Well, for sure the internet has changed writing in the last decade. And Kevin, like always, not all change is for the better.

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that there are a number of positive changes in writing – thanks to the internet.

But then again there are a number of negatives that have crept in – due only to the internet in the last decade. And it is not only the youtube comments you refer to. There is more and several other kinds of trash on the internet. And a lot of it passes as “good” content. Think of SEO driven writing. Think of the majority of the blogs that would never have been “written”, let alone published, if not for the ease of blogging.

In summary – there has been a lot of new writing that emerged, thanks to the internet. This obviously implies that there is a lot of new, good quality content that has emerged. However, the percentage of good quality writing to trash remains the same as in the pre-internet days.

Wendell Cochran

Surprise & consternation.

In nearly all my reading, in ink on paper or pixels on screen, I find a strong tendency to use long words rather than short — & needless words where economy would serve better.

Wendell Cochran
West Seattle

kpaulmedia

good stuff. thanks for taking the time to write it. although i feel bad for dashing this sentence off without cap letters… smile.

Jeff Dickey

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.

Neal

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

Markus Göbel's Tech News Comments

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.

Jason Francis Kraft

“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?

Anonymous

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

Patrick

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.

Jeff Dickey

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.

Michael Holloway

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

isabellapprpse treasure

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

jonathangheller

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

Dave Hibshman

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

Why the Mobile

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.

David Eaves

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!

uninvoked

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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