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7 Ways the Internet is Improving Our Writing

internet writing
It’s easy to think that the world’s writing is going to hell via short messages and tweets, but Clive Thompson has an interesting piece in Wired this month (recommended) – based on the work of Stanford professor Andrea Lunsford – suggesting that we may in fact be in the midst of a writing and literacy revolution driven by the Internet.

Here are a few of the points from Lunsford’s work that Clive highlights, with a some added musings of my own:

People are writing more

Think about how much you write now if you engage in any form of social media at all – and, yes, you should include e-mail in that. Facebook, Twitter, short messaging on your phone. If you are doing any of these things, you are almost certainly writing a great deal more than your ancestors. Not that quantity and quality are the same, but writing more can certainly contribute to writing better.

People are writing for an actual audience

This is one of Lunsford’s most important points. In fact, she and her research team see writing as a sort of “performance.” A new generation of writers is now coming up that is very attuned to the fact that writing does not happen in a void – other people are reading, and often responding instantly. Lunsford found that this made the students her team studied highly adept at “assessing their audience and adapting their tone technique to best get their points across.”

People are learning to be concise

140 characters or less. Need I say more? Well, given that Twitter is not as popular among the younger generations, it’s probably worth noting that brevity is a virtue in text messaging as well. And Lunsford maintains that this sort of text speak is not seeping into more “serious” writing,” as cynics may suspect.

People are writing more collaboratively

Clive’s article just barely touches on this point, but all of the tweeting and texting back and forth amounts to a sort of informal writing collaborative, often compelling participants to refine their ideas – even about the most trivial topics – and express them more clearly. And of course, there is plenty of more formal collaboration going on now using tools like wikis.

People have access to more knowledge as they write

I just interviewed Curtis Bonk, author of The World is Open (podcast will be out tomorrow), and one of the concepts he discusses in the book is “fingertip knowledge” – the ability to access huge stores of digital information rapidly. It’s not a given that this kind of access improves writing, but it certainly can, if only by making it much easier to find appropriate examples or verify facts. The ability to access different views on a topic rapidly can also help us refine our own views.

People place higher social value on writing

An extension of writing more, writing for an audience, and writing more collaboratively is that writing starts to take on more social value. Just as education is moving rapidly away from the “sage on the stage” model, writing is moving away from the lone wolf reporter or the tortured genius with a bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer. We all write much more to communicate, and communicating effectively through writing will be ever more important to getting ahead in the world.

People are blending writing with other media

Successful writing on the Web is rarely just text. A writer may pull in a photo from Flickr, embed a YouTube video, or even do something more interactive like insert a poll. You can argue that this doesn’t make the writing better –and, indeed, could make it worse – but I think on the whole that the ability to blend more media can spark more creativity, cause us to reflect more on what text is actually good for, and ultimately allow us to communicate better.

So what do you think? Is all of the above just the wishful thinking of a highly-biased, Web-addicted blogger (aka me), or is the Web really making us better writers?

Jeff

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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6 comments
Jillian C. York says

Carrie,
I am a part of this younger generation and I find such things completely unacceptable. I won’t follow people on Twitter whose languages consist mostly of “b4s” and “2 Us” and I don’t want to see it in my advertising either (I have a suspicion as well that E-Z Pass and UHaul’s names had more to do with ability to brand than anything else).

That said, I recognize that I’m judgemental – I look at people who write that way and I see laziness and a disregard for the rules of the English language. Call me judgemental, but I’m rarely wrong about them, either.

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carrie at umass says

It isn’t a phenomena associated solely with technology. Growing up I remember walking to the Qwik-E Mart for a slurpee or Kev’s Korner Store for a gallon of milk for mum. It’s not just small town store owners, several northeastern states launched the E-Z Pass toll collection system a decade ago. Did anyone get upset when UHaul coined that very apprapo term for what services they offer (you, hauling your own stuff)? Slang, slogans, IMs…we chop up the words we use to make communicating easier, faster, more direct. We speak in terms that are fun, lively and write in terms that are quick, direct and decorative.

If a high school grad today filled out a job application using her day-to-day text chat terminology she wouldn’t likely get a call for an interview. So, yes, she does need to learn traditional American English. Likewise she must learn professional conversational English. But is that because it is the be all, end all of communication in this country? Or is it because the people most likely to be reading her resume and interviewing her don’t speak ‘text’? The generation gap has something to do with acceptance of new words and phrases.

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Jeff Cobb says

Jillian – I think I fall more in the “even imperfect practice is worthwhile” camp, but I understand what you mean. These are, as they say, “interesting times.” I assume that Lunsford will continue the type of research she is doing, as will others. I look forward (I think!) to seeing how things play out over the long haul. – Jeff

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Jillian C. York says

Hi Jeff – Hmm…I see your point, but as a teacher, you’re seeing writing learners (regardless of level) – I’ve taught English too (even worse, EFL!) and the level of mistakes expected is certainly higher than that expected from writers.

That said, I think what I meant is this – I’ve noticed the standard for blogs, online “newspapers” and even online versions of mainstream media (e.g. NYTimes, WSJ) has decreased. It seems that, particularly with the advent of “professional blogging” (a broad category, of course), the amount of writing online that ever sees an editor has decreased. Blogs written by journalists in particular (think The Lede) have shockingly low standards of grammar of spelling.

Considering all of that, perhaps I was a bit harsh on “us” (being your average bloggers and Twitter users) – we ARE, in fact, writing more. I think what I mean is that, when standards are lower across the board, our own standards for what’s acceptable decrease as well. We consider it okay to write things like “B4” because we see the pros do it.

I was always taught that “practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.” Therefore, the idea that we’re practicing writing “skills” is questionable – skills do improve over time, but if we’re not practicing them properly, how can they ever grow? – Jillian

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Jeff Cobb says

Jillian – Thanks for commenting – and strong disagreement is welcome. (Certainly beats silence!) I wonder, when you say the quality of grammar and spelling has drastically decreased, what is your point of comparison? Are you seeing it decrease in blogs and tweets? Or are you saying that the quality of writing is worse than what we have traditionally seen offline? Having seen a lot of bad offline writing (particularly as a composition teacher), I’m not sure I really see worse writing online. Mainly the volume is much higher, along with the corresponding volume of mistakes. And both are much more visible than has ever been the case in the past. Of course, if there is evidence that as people blog and tweet their writing skills decrease over time, that would be very interesting, and to a certain extent, counter-intuitive, given that skills generally tend to improve with practice. – Jeff

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Jillian C. York says

Given the amount of time I spend online and the amount of blogs and tweets I read, I have to strongly disagree – the quality of grammar and spelling has drastically decreased. As Wired put it this month, we’ve entered the era of “good enough” – most writing online is just that.

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