Does Digital Media Make Us Bad Writers?

Behind the Research

1.26.10 | “I feel so necrotic,” writes a college student.

Well maybe he does have a bad case of dead tissue. What’s more likely is that he means “neurotic,” but his spell checker insists on necrotic, so what’s a student to do?

Turns out he’s not alone. Choosing the wrong word is the most common error today in student writing, according to Andrea Abernethy Lunsford, English professor and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, at Stanford University. Students today also have trouble incorporating quotations, and figuring out when to use a hyphen. (But honestly, who doesn’t have trouble with the hyphen?)

But maybe the most surprising thing to the “gotcha gang” is that while the type of error has changed, the ratio of errors to words has held steady for more than 100 years.

“If you read the popular press, you are led to believe that [digital media] are killing the way we write the English language,” says American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron, author of “Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World.” Elsewhere “they say it’s killing French, Chinese, Spanish …”

But, Baron isn’t one of those people, and neither is Lunsford, who spearheaded the Stanford University Study of Writing research project, a five-year look at Stanford students’ writing.

“There never was a golden age where everybody could write well,” says Lunsford. “Writing is hard.”

According to Lunsford, the writing we produce is not getting worse.  Instead, it is simply adapting to the modern world.

“It was very clear as we entered the new millennium that writing was undergoing really, really profound changes, probably more so than in the last 2,500 years,” Lunsford says. Writing, she says, is “a plastic art.  Writing always changes given the context. It molds itself to the changes.”

Young people today approach writing differently, she also thinks. Rather than organizing a piece of writing based on a logical progression, with argument at its base, Lunsford says they are instead organizing their content and material by association. Like a well-crafted essay, one idea leads to another in an associational framework—more akin to organizing a website.

Digital tools have also changed student writing by providing the ability to marry text and other media in ways that can often help them provide greater depth and texture to what they are trying to communicate.

“Writing isn’t just black marks on white paper. It’s full of sound, images, color,” Lunsford says. “I think that students today have an ability to use a combo of words and images. Words free up the images and the images free up the words so they’re both incredibly important but they are doing different things.”

An example of this would be the graphic novel, a frequently nonlinear combination of image and text that requires a higher level of engagement on the part of the reader when compared with a traditional book.

“Every tiny image and word is important. You have to study each page, jump back and forward,” Lunsford says. “It’s a challenge. I’m convinced we’ll be talking about the challenges of teaching reading very soon.”

Too Much of a Good Thing?


Some of the changes with writing today, Baron says, have little to do with new technology and are more the result of our increasingly less formal society.  But, digital tools do bear responsibility for “flooding the scriptorium,” a phenomenon Baron likens to the way we behave at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Essentially, the huge opportunities and options for creating text (email, tweets, blogs) cause us to write (or type) more than we ordinarily would.  The result is that we are less careful with our words.

“We type far more than we used to and are producing massive amounts of text compared to what we used to write,” Baron says. “And because of the amount of writing we are doing, we tend to devalue what we write. How much do we edit or care about what we post online to god knows whom? How much are we making sure to represent ourselves carefully?”

Yet, the quality of what someone puts down on paper, posts online or types into a Blackberry cannot necessarily be held to a single standard of good versus bad writing.  Instead, it depends on an old concept: audience.  According to Baron, there is a difference between a grammatically suspect, poorly spelled email to your writing professor and an email sent to a friend.  In one case the quality of writing absolutely matters. In the other, it may not.

“Bad and good writing is in the eye of the beholder,” Baron says.  “It’s all in the relationship of the recipient to you.”

Baron’s research has shown that emoticons and abbreviations are not as pervasive as we fear (save for the nearly universally OMG and LOL).  Instead, they are primarily the province of teenagers, and more specifically, teenage girls.  As people mature, there is a precipitous drop-off in the use of sideway smiley-faces and winks created with punctuation.  In many cases, she says, “it takes more effort to make yourself cool than to just write.”

Ultimately, argues Baron, the writing challenges created by digital media are not unlike those faced when in the 1980s when word processing hit college campuses.  Baron says that tools like spell check and the ability to move text from place to place temporarily resulted in a step backwards.

“It was curious to read what people [wrote] on computers,” Baron says. “The writing was worse than what had been produced with the previous technology.”

What followed, however, was the recognition of a need for rules that would guide the way people used word processing.  Those new standards led to improved writing on personal computers. As digital media hurtles us forward, the same thing has to happen, says Baron.

“We need to decide whether we wish to take writing seriously and if we value the importance of a properly chosen word,” Baron says.

And for Lunsford, technology leads to new skills required for good writing.

“I see a student who can get across a complex idea in 140 characters or less [on Twitter] and I see versatility,” she says. “I’m not one of the hand wringers.”


Read Wired magazine’s interview with Andrea Abernethy Lunsford.

This Christian Science Monitor article discusses the impact of e-readers on students.

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texting, writing



Picture of Melissa King
Melissa King (Northern Virgnia)


Interesting discussion, but I’d like to see some research data to inform these opinions. What details do we really understand about how writing is changing with the frequent use of today’s technology? I’d like to hear about scientific studies and their results.

Picture of Elyse Eidman-Aadahl
Elyse Eidman-Aadahl (UC Berkeley)


I’m guessing since the previous comment referred to ‘scientific studies’ that the question is about impact studies that answer questions like: does use of digital media improve writing performance as measured by…?  There is not a large body of studies of this kind yet, and I think there are many reasons for that.

The area of new digital media is so new and is undergoing such rapid development that it is premature to try to do these sorts of summative studies.  These sorts of studies are not well suited to emerging areas.  But we do have many smaller scale studies that point to promising impacts. 

However, there is a different body of literature that is important in this discussion.  For example, there are many studies from the publishing industry about the growth, development, and circulation of new media and their importance in communication and knowledge-building.  So we do know that young people are coming into a world where they will need to learn to communicate in these emerging forms: for work, for school, for personal life.  They will use many of the same skills we have always been teaching: understanding and relating to audience, clarifying purpose and figuring out how to accomplish it, understanding the demands of the genre you’re working in whether it is a blog or video, or brochure or tech manual, or whatever…  So it’s less that we look to writing in digital environments as a way to make writing better than we see that writing in digital environments is becoming the way we write.  So we will need to learn and teach how to do it well.

Picture of Suzanne Shaffer
Suzanne Shaffer (Pennsylvania)


I agree with Melissa that I’d like to see more data - and I would also like to see studies across groups - so Stanford is one group - but what about students in community colleges, or in high schools? Is this a function of academic preparation overall or something else?

Picture of Naomi Baron
Naomi Baron (Washington, DC)


Melissa, Elyse, and Suzanne all raise important points. Research on the potential effects of online and mobile media on writing is still in its infancy. In fact, it’s not always clear what questions we should even be asking, now that nearly all “traditional” writing is done at a computer keyboard, and use of new digital media for communication (be it email, instant messaging, texting, Facebook, or Twitter) is growing across the age and social spectrums. (The Pew Internet & American Life Project offers valuable statistics on these trends in the US.)

What we do know is that technologies can facilitate the production of more written text. Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, studies compared the number of words produced by elementary school children using typewriters versus age-mates writing by hand. Those using typewriters produced four times as many words. Similarly, when word processing was first gaining traction in the 1980s, research suggested that college students wrote more when using computers than when submitting handwritten or typewritten papers.

Anyone who teaches – or evaluates – student writing knows that “more” is not to be confused with “better”. One useful line of research might be to see whether the ease with which students can now crank out text makes for more rambling prose than when writing was a more laborious process. (The author Henry James, who often dictated his work to an amanuensis, was acutely aware that he could be more concise when he wrote the words himself than when he dictated them.) Elyse is correct that digital environments are becoming the normal venue for writing. However, it is still up to us as teachers and scholars to set standards of excellence – and, I suggest, length!


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