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

Morgan Smith

I disagree with one of the points in this article. The author disagreed that the internet has made students way to casual in their writing, but I actually agree with that statement. Even though this is one example, i feel that it’s important to share. Back in high school I was in a government class where we got assigned a three page paper. After everyone turned in their assignments a few days later the teacher addressed the class about a specific paper. Apparently one of the boys in my class had turned in a paper with a lot of derogatory marks directed towards people of the Indian race. The teacher had asked the boy why he thought it was okay to write such a racist paper and he replied that it was because all of his friends on the internet spoke like that every day. The boy thought that it was no big deal. When online, people think that it’s okay to say whatever they want, even if it’s horrible. And unfortunately, i have seen this idea surface more than once.

Carly Mott

I would agree with this post. When people know what their abriviating then it’s almost the same thing as them writing out the full word or not using the slang. Writing is writing whether it’s in slang or in detailed words, as long as people keep doing it, it is a good thing.

ashleyxxy

Great article. I’m an active user on WordPress, Twitter and Facebook and I believe that maintaining these sites has in fact progressed my writing skills. With Twitter only allowing users to post an update 140 characeters long, I know put more thought than usual into what I have to say, making sure it’s direct and clear. On the other hand, when users are given such a small amount of space to express themselves, they may turn to the “texting slang” to fit more into one post. Facebook has added a new twist to posting updates, though. Now that anyone from your boss to your grandma is using Facebook, there’s added pressure to use correct and formal writing styles when updating. Of course not everyone is going to adapt to internet writing the way that we all hope, but that’s the case with any new style of writing. What we do have here is obvious proof of how progressively writers evolve with each new writing outlet that presents itself.

Usha Sliva

It’s true- sometimes I yearn for the days we actually wrote with paper and pen in full sentences. At least we still remember how to write – It’ll be interesting to see how blogging and the Internet changes the writing of the next few generations.

Farrah J Phoenix

I really appreciated this blog. It was a very straightforward look at how writing has changed! I agree about claims that the internet is ruining writing. I think it’s just simply another platform and actually a quicker, more “real time” way to share your work with others.

Keep up the great work!

Hugs,

Farrah

dan bloom

Yes, Pankaj, but don’t forget the print editions that got us all started with writing: see and hear my SNAILPAPER SONG VIDEO on YoTUbe now: a friendly critic says: “I love this song Danny. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnZKIk1Krp8] A. J. Liebling would love it — it sports with all the personality that the local press largely used to have, even with the corruptions, too, of local owners.
I love it more because it zings to the facts of personality that buoyed all America’s press — even in the face of the corporate ooze.
And I love it most for the singing — hommage to Arlo Guthrie, hommage to all the folkies who kept America a decent place, back in those days when it was still a republic. ” — [thanks Phil, well said!]

Henry

Great post there Kevin. I’m amazed how the Web or Internet have changed so many lives across the country.

Comments are closed.