We Are All Writers Now

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.

Read the rest of the article on More Intelligent Life.

0 Responses to We Are All Writers Now

  1. Anonymous July 24, 2009 at 5:03 pm #

    Transfering the mindless gab of the masses from talking to typing doesnt make it meaningful.

    And while there may be more writing available because more people now think they are "writers", little of it is of any quality.

    That is the crux of this problem. Quality VS Quantity. In the end though, a society gets the culture it deserves. You are choosing a plebian lowest-common-denominator culture over rigorous traditional culture. The infantile desire for community rather than the austere school of artistic solitude. Good luck. Some of us are leaving, and trading our works among ourselves alone.

  2. AnonymousToo July 24, 2009 at 6:45 pm #

    This has to be one of the snobbiest things I’ve ever read. Human beings are social animals, their desire for community is not infantile, it’s part of being a normal, well-adjusted person. Participating in communities through the use of social media is not choosing a plebian, lowest-common-denominator culture, it’s choosing to engage and interface with others from all over the world, and opening up the possibility of (gasp!) learning something new about those people and maybe even yourself. Why can’t one read Proust or ee cummings in the morning and tweet or blog about it in the afternoon? Why shouldn’t one?

    Maybe the reason you don’t recognize the value of social media is that you seem to lack a sense of humor and the capacity for fun. Either that, or it’s the leviathan stave interpolated betwixt your gluteal thews. (See? Even a plebe like me can use Big Words correctly!)

  3. Anonymous July 25, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    I’m not against learning about other people and other cultures, and I’m not against "tweeting and blogging" outright, though I don’t do either of them. I’m against the idea that doing them makes one a writer. I’m against the sentiment behind the statement "we are all writers now". I’m against this modern obsession with "community" and the egalitarian feeling underpinning it.

    Not everyone likes this new world you are building. Some of us are actively keeping our work out of it.

    And the way you both resort to nasty insults and refer to vocabulary as "Big Words" is very telling.

  4. 名無し July 26, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    This sort of thing encourages what I call Slushpile Culture. It’s going to be bad enough now that everything is moving towards self-publishing. We don’t have to encourage it with articles like this.

  5. Publetariat July 26, 2009 at 9:02 pm #

    You are aware that this site was created primarily for indie authors (aka self-publishers) and small imprints, right? You’re kind of putting down the entire site, and its audience, with your comment.

    The reason this site exists is because self-publishing is now a conscious choice for many authors, not a last resort. There are plenty of articles in the Think department that go into considerable depth on this, but here are a few to get you started:

    A New Chapter In Self-Publishing 

    My Big Rant On Self-Publishing

    The Financial Sanity of Self-Publishing

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