The pundits have become silent, tapping their views on increasingly smaller devices. And tapping they are: The screeds are everywhere, decrying the decline of artful prose, deep thinking, and proper grammar. Critics bemoan upstart bloggers. Parents worry about text messaging. Bushels of scorn are heaped on new forms of social media. Facebook and Twitter are derided for being shallow, sad testaments to our cultural degradation. The view is often summed up with a disdainful question: "Do we really care what you ate for lunch?"
What many overlook in these laments is that Americans are writing more. 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. Then, we rued literacy levels and worried about whether our teenagers’ hours of phone-yakking and zoned-out nights in front of the television meant the end of writing. Critics, educators, parents, and citizens bit their nails in worry. What would happen to our nation’s literacy levels if we stopped writing?
Today, few can claim that we do not write much. We are all writers now. With more than 200 million people on Facebook, two million iPads sold in two months, and home Internet access almost ubiquitous, we are all writing more than we would have 10 years ago. People who never wrote dad a card on his birthday or letters to their beloveds now compose texts to friends, family, and colleagues daily, from memos to quips about the World Cup. And if we subscribe to the theory that the most effective way to improve one’s writing is to write, write more, and then write again, then our writing skills must be getting better, too. We have entered a new golden age of writing.
Writing is changing too, to be sure. Cursive is dying out. Twitter demands concision. Book sales are down while the next generation iPhone is back-ordered. Quantity is valued over quality. Our written forms are no longer what they used to be, nor what they soon will become. We are in the middle of a writing revolution.
The digital age marks the third revolution in the history of Western writing. The first was the transition from an oral to a literate culture (Socrates was unhappy with the shift to the written word). The second was ushered in by Gutenberg’s printing press (monks thought civilization would be ruined when printing replaced copying). The third came with those first Apples and Dells. With the digital revolution comes a great democratization of writing. More and more people have access to the means of production.
Immediately after the first two revolutions, writers invented new forms. Plato wrote down Socrates’ dialogues, early printed books aimed to look like handwritten manuscripts. These new forms were hybrid—not quite in either the old nor the new age. They were transitional forms that merged the old and new. (If you were to examine one of the first printed books today, you might mistake it for a handwritten manuscript.) Today, we are in such a transitional period; iPhones, ebooks, online newspapers, blogs, and Facebook pages are half-print, half-digital. The iPad takes its name from a printed object, not a computer-generated device. We are in the middle of a revolution, and everything is up for grabs.
I started teaching writing to undergraduates 20 years ago. Then, I would begin the semester asking my freshmen to freewrite, as we called it. 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 entered my classroom with little writing experience beyond formal, assigned essays. They wrote only when they were instructed to, and the results were often overly formal and stiff, ideas kept at arms’ length. Students saw writing as alien and intimidating. Few had experienced writing as a form of self-expression. Most found the experience of freewriting refreshing, their writing improved, and they lessened their anxiety about writing.
Today those freewriting exercises are redundant. My students write freely all the time. They are writing—be it composing 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. As a result, they are better writers.
My friends and I write more than we used to as well, often more than we talk. We correspond with each other and to colleagues, school teachers, and utility companies. We send e-mails to our local newspaper reporters about their stories; we post our comments on magazine blogs. And most of us do labor to write well: an e-mail to a crush is revised and edited (no more waiting by the phone); a tweet to colleagues is painstakingly honed until its 140 characters convey both wit and information. A response to our supervisor’s clever status update on Facebook is written carefully, so as to keep the repartee going. These new forms privilege the clever and the concise. Who would not welcome shorter, funnier prose?
We may not be as good at talking to each other as we used to be, but like it or not, we are all writers now. Perhaps this explains the pessimism coming from big-name pundits about the effects of so much online writing. With traditional media feeling the pain, many professional writers worry that they have become dispensable. So they unfairly degrade the prose of amateurs.
We need to ensure authority is granted to those whose writing is verifiable, and discount rumors. The recession and its hard hit on traditional media leads some to think we can do without trained professionals. On the contrary; we need skilled editors and experienced reporters more than ever. But not at the expense of silencing the new voices and new forms of writing whose words we hear all over our screens. There may be too much writing, but that does not mean it is unworthy.
Anne Trubek is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition and English.
Anne Trubek’s book, A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses (University of Pennsylvania Press), takes readers on idiosyncratic tours of the former homes of the likes of Ernest Hemingway (Key West, Florida) and Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dayton, Ohio). Although Trubek first envisioned the project as a where-not-to-go "reverse travel guide," she ended up bringing much more soul and much less snark to the final product, and critics took note. The Wall Street Journal called her "a bewitching and witty travel partner." The Chicago Tribune called the book "a slim, clever bit of literary criticism masquerading as smart travel writing."
Anne Trubek was one of three faculty members who took part in a public reading of their works at the Slow Train Café in Oberlin. For more information about alumni authors, see Bookshelf in the Alumni Notes section of this magazine.