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.

BlogsMy friends and I write more than we used to, often more than we talk. We correspond with each other and to colleagues, school teachers, utility companies. We send e-mails to our local newspaper reporters about their stories; we write to magazine editors to tell them what we think. And most of us do labour to write well: an e-mail to a potential romantic partner is laboriously revised and edited (no more waiting by the phone); a tweet to a prospective employer is painstakingly honed until its 140 characters convey an appropriate tone with the necessary information. A response to our supervisor’s clever status update on Facebook is written carefully, so to keep the repartee going. Concision and wit are privileged in these new forms. Who would not welcome shorter, funnier prose?

The conversational arts may be suffering (despite their enduring rules), but like it or not, we are all writers now. Perhaps this explains the loud clamouring over the questionable authority of online authorship. With traditional media feeling the pain, many professional writers worry that they have become dispensable. So they unfairly degrade the prose of amateurs in order to guard the ramparts.

True, much of what is written online is quotidian, informational, ephemeral. But writing has always been so: traditional newspapers line bird-cages a day later; lab reports describe methodology in tedious detail; the founding fathers wrote what they ate for lunch. And the quality of many blogs is high, indistinguishable in eloquence and intellect from many traditionally published works.

Our new forms of writing—blogs, Facebook, Twitter—all have precedents, analogue analogues: a notebook, a postcard, a jotting on the back of an envelope. They are exceedingly accessible. That it is easier to cultivate a wide audience for tossed off thoughts has meant a superfluity of mundane musings, to be sure. But it has also generated a democracy of ideas and quite a few rising stars, whose work we might never have been exposed to were we limited to conventional publishing channels.

Amateurs and experts share real estate on our screens. We scroll down to add our comments; we join the written fray. The rush of prose is intense, but also exhilirating. So many hats are in the ring.

Yes, we need to darken the line between what is verifiable and what is hearsay. The financial downturn and its disastrous impact on print publishing has led some to think we can do without trained reporters and editors--professionals who know how to check facts and strip the gloss off hasty pronouncements. We need this work, perhaps now more than ever. But not at the expense of silencing the new voices--an exciting new crop of self-possessed scribes--ringing all over our screens. There may be too much, but that does not mean it is unworthy.


Picture credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com (via Flickr)

(Anne Trubek is an associate professor of Rhetoric & Composition at Oberlin College. She has a blog at GOOD magazine.)