Does Digital Media Make Us Bad Writers?
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.
Image by http://www.wordle.net/.
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