September 26

Technology makes us better writers

    I have heard parents and teachers bemoan the assumed fact that the technology is producing a generation of kids who can't spell (thanks to auto-correct) and who think that “ur” is an appropriate abbreviation for “you're” (or “your,” it's sometimes hard to tell which word they meant to use). I get it. I taught college students and graded their essays at three different liberal arts universities. Yes, some of the writing was atrocious, but some of it was astoundingly good.

    I believe that the technology is producing more writers, some of them are poorly-trained, but some are now writing better, clearer, more compelling content. I have a firm hope that at even the “highest” levels of writing, there are shifts toward overall better written communication.

    Technology gives writers permission to use brief, clear sentences.

    Non-ficiton trade publishing, intelligent journalism, and serious blogs have combined forces to make brief, clear sentences much more standard, even among modern intellectual types.

    Have you ever tried to read an intellectual treatise from the late 1800s or early 1900s? Holy smokes!

    Let me just give you a taste of a classic Sociology text, Durkheim's Suicide (1897). This is the intro, the part of the book that is supposed to grab your interest:

    Since the word “suicide” recurs constantly in the course of conversation, it might be thought that its sense is universally known and that definition is superfluous. Actually, the words of everyday language, like the concepts they express, are always susceptible of more than one meaning, and the scholar employing them in their accepted use without further definition would risk serious misunderstanding. Not only is their meaning so indefinite as to vary, from case to case, with the needs of argument, but, as the classification from which they derive is not analytic, but merely translates the confused impressions of the crowd, categories of very different sorts of fact are indistinctly combined under the same heading, or similar realities are differently named. So, if we follow common use, we risk distinguishing what should be combined, or combining what should be distinguished, thus mistaking the real affinities of things, and accordingly misapprehending their nature. Only comparison affords explanation. A scientific investigation can thus be achieved only if it deals with comparable facts, and it is the more likely to succeed the more certainly it has combined all those that can be usefully compared. But these natural affinities of entities cannot be made clear safely by such superficial examination as produces ordinary terminology; and so the scholar cannot take as the subject of his research roughly assembled groups of facts corresponding to words of common usage. He himself must establish the groups he wishes to study in order to give them the homogeneity and the specific meaning necessary for them to be susceptible of scientific treatment.

    Suicide is over 400 pages long.

    That's what the majority of high-level writing sounded like a hundred years ago. If you didn't have to re-read at least one of those sentences in order to grasp the meaning, I'd be surprised. Now, with technology's influence, we are much more comfortable with the idea of re-writing that paragraph into five or six brief, clear sentences.

    Why the shift toward brevity and clarity?

    If you think of your high-level writers and thinkers a hundred years ago (academics, lawyers, doctors, even fiction authors), they were writing for a small group of people – their own peers. Books were expensive, and the audience was small.

    Now, we see the exact opposite situation. Technology made content creation easy, and audiences are growing. Professors at prestigious universities can now write books that attract hundreds of thousands of readers. What was impossible a century ago is becoming commonplace now (eg, Steven Levitt or Martin Seligman).

    In short: writers (even high-level writers) now connect with a wider audience, and they want to communicate their ideas more clearly to their entire audience. Brief, clear sentences connect and engage with more people.

    You don't have to downgrade the quality of your thoughts in order to be more clear. If your thoughts are brilliant, then you will want to communicate them as clearly as possible, rather than hiding them among undergrowth of pretentious language.

    Technology has made clear, compelling language a standard expectation, and I, for one, am glad for that!

    What do you think?

    Is the technology making us better writers?

    Or worse writers?



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