This article, from Anne Trubek, originally appeared on The Economist’s More Intelligent Life site on 6/26/09.
Blogs, Twitter, Facebook: these outlets are supposedly cheapening language and tarnishing our time. But the fact is we are all reading and writing much more than we used to, writes Anne Trubek …
The chattering classes have become silent, tapping their views on increasingly smaller devices. And tapping they are: the screeds are everywhere, decrying the decline of smart writing, intelligent thought and proper grammar. Critics bemoan blogging as the province of the amateurism. Journalists rue the loose ethics and shoddy fact-checking of citizen journalists. Many save their most profound scorn for the newest forms of social media. Facebook and Twitter are heaped with derision for being insipid, time-sucking, sad testaments to our literary degradation. This view is often summed up with a disdainful question: “Do we really care about what you ate for lunch?”
Forget that most of the pundits lambasting Facebook and Twitter are familiar with these devices because they use them regularly. Forget that no one is being manacled to computers and forced to read stupid prose (instead of, say, reading Proust in bed). What many professional writers are overlooking in these laments is that the rise of amateur writers means more people are writing and reading. We are commenting on blog posts, forwarding links and composing status updates. We are seeking out communities based on written words.
Go back 20, 30 years and you will find all of us doing more talking than writing. We rued literacy levels and worried over whether all this phone-yakking and television-watching spelled the end of writing.
Few make that claim today. I would hazard that, with more than 200m people on Facebook and even more with home internet access, we are all writing more than we would have ten years ago. Those who would never write letters (too slow and anachronistic) or postcards (too twee) now send missives with abandon, from long thoughtful memos to brief and clever quips about evening plans. And if we subscribe to the theory that the most effective way to improve one’s writing is by practicing—by writing more, and ideally for an audience—then our writing skills must be getting better.
Take the “25 Things About Me” meme that raged around Facebook a few months
ago. This time-waster, as many saw it, is precisely the kind of brainstorming exercise I used to assign to my freshman writing students decades ago. I asked undergraduates to do free-writing, as we called it, because most entered my classroom with little writing experience beyond formal, assigned essays. They only wrote when they were instructed to, and the results were often arch and unclear, with ideas kept at arms length. Students saw writing as alien and intimidating–a source of anxiety. Few had experience with writing as a form of self-expression. So when I stood in front of a classroom and told students to write quickly about themselves, without worrying about grammar or punctuation or evaluation—”just to loosen up,” I would say—I was asking them to do something new. Most found the experience refreshing, and their papers improved.
Today those freewriting exercises are redundant. After all, hundreds of thousands of people wrote “25 Things About Me” for fun. My students compose e-mails, texts, status updates and tweets "about seven hours a day," one sophomore told me. (She also says no one really talks to each other anymore). They enter my classroom more comfortable with writing–better writers, that is–and we can skip those first steps.