The Internet has created a generation of great writers

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The best writers in the history of the world are graduating from college, right now. So everyone can just shut up about how no one can write anymore.

Newsflash: No one could write in the Middle Ages, when the good writers wrote in Latin and everyone else spoke colloquial languages like French and English, which priests told them were too lame for real writing.

It's the same situation today in that the best way to have a population of good writers is for people to write constantly, in the language that is theirs, so that they are great at expressing themselves.

People do good writing every day, in social media—when they write a note on someone's Facebook wall, when they post a caption to a photo on flickr, or when they post a comment in a group on Brazen Careerist.

The people who are complaining that no one can write anymore are the same ones who are stressed about information overload. This is not a coincidence. Information is changing, the flow of ideas is changing, and written communication is changing with it. Information overload is the feeling of not being able to deal with this change. Young people do not feel information overload, which is another sign that they are excellent writers for the new millennium: They can process and communicate new ideas at the new pace.

I remember the first time in my life I heard about people who can't write anymore. It was my grandma telling me to read A Little Princess, instead of Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret.

The people who tell you who can write and who can't are the people who don't want language to change. They don't want ideas to change. They don't want people to talk in ways that are new to them.

And now, for all you doubters, I present the research to end all research. It comes from Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University. She has conducted the Stanford Study of Writing, which includes about 15,000 writing samples from students from 2001 — 2006. The always-interesting Clive Thompson reported her findings in Wired magazine:

First, only 38 percent of the writing young people do takes place in the classroom. Prior to the Internet, almost all writing people did was for the classroom. The increased amount of writing that young people do outside the classroom these days is so significant that Lumsford calls it a paradigm shift.

Second, the type of writing that students do—via IM, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth—is actually great for building communication skills. Thompson writes that, “Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos“?assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.”

Third, the students have an acute sense of what good writing is because they are almost always writing for an audience. Lumsford found that students are writing mostly to debate, organize, or persuade. This is much more demanding writing than most of the writing students do for school. And, in fact, students in the Stanford study were not as enthusiastic about writing for school because they felt that the only purpose was to get a grade.

Finally, for those of you who think students don't know how to write in full sentences, you are the people who probably don't understand how to use text as a persuasive medium.

Lumsford finds that students are adept at making their point heard across a wide audience. And a study about Twitter, reported in Fast Company, shows that the text most likely to go viral—that is, the most persuasive text—does not have abbreviations or emoticons, the evidence most cited of a crisis in modern writing skills. Which means that students probably know intuitively to use texting slang only when texting.

Which makes me think that the people who are most worried that kids today don't know how to write are the people who are most unable to write for an audience.

In the history of western thought, the first thing to happen when there was a paradigm shift was that the writing shifted, (Chaucer’s stories of common people and Martin Luther‘s translations of the Bible come to mind). And the first people to complain were those who had a stake in keeping things the same. So ask yourself, do you want to be part of the next period in history, or do you want to be a person representing the futile force in history that tries to hold us back?

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  1. David Dotson
    David Dotson says:

    I’m floored by some of the writing talent on I see on Brazen everyday, considering it’s coming from my fellow Gen Y’s. Whenever I hear about kids in high school turning in essays written entirely in text shorthand, I either think they are A) idiots, or B) comic geniuses. Either way, I laugh a little.

    • karelys davis
      karelys davis says:

      I think it would be extremely different seeing a full (short) essay (please) in text short hand.

  2. Cesar In LA
    Cesar In LA says:

    Not sure of the complete data set analyzed by the Stanford study. I can tell you that every age has it’s brilliant writers and minds. I am not sure I would compare Martin Luther’s contribution to a Twitter post??? Kairos or not…

    Brilliance abounds today, but part of youth’s luminosity is the fact that it is still fresh and mostly naive to the great duality that life offers. Have a few falls and the strength to get up again and then tell me how brilliant youth’s writing is on Facebook. Please most of the writing on Facebook can be easily compared to what we all wrote in each others high school yearbook.

    No, I know that the genius can be observed in other works by youth and the daring to extend beyond the boundaries and rules of generations past. In a form of writing activism that pushes the envelope forward to new ways of looking and living in the world.

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      Absolutely. Imagine if every sentence was restricted to 140 characters? People’s writing would be so much more concise and clear.

      • Wil Butler
        Wil Butler says:

        Won’t it be wonderful when we all have a vocabulary of only a handful of words once all those unnecessary ones have been completely eradicated?

        “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” -George Orwell, 1984.

        Whatsay we praise good writing and stop trying to compare the modern day equivalent of writing on the bathroom stall to the greats of today.

        Not every Twitter post is gold, nor is every blog post, no matter how badly everyone with $10 for hosting and 10 minutes for a WordPress install would like to think so.

  3. Kath
    Kath says:

    As a librarian who is a frequent user of online technologies I have been trying to articulate this idea for quite some time. The idea that literacy comes as much from new media as it did from old. Give the kids the basic tools (reading, writing, arithmetic) and let them loose with as much information and literature as they like, and they will naturally improve their skills in most cases. Some may need some help along the way, but generally speaking human beings are inquisitive and look for more of the things that fascinate them.

    Very articulate post.

    • LeCedric Hayes
      LeCedric Hayes says:

      Kath, I certainly don’t see evidence in this post to warrant your claim of a very articulate post.

      The burden on Ms. Trunk is to persuade others to come around to her point of view that the Internet has created a generation of great writers. She hasn’t carried that burden well, in my judgment.

      If she made the simpler claim that the modern social Internet has forced its users to write more, that would be self-evident.

      But to say that–perhaps by virtue of the law of large numbers–this is a generation of great writers is clearly drawing a conclusion where the facts do not warrant it.

  4. Deborah Drake - Catalyst
    Deborah Drake - Catalyst says:

    The ludite that I am who enjoys the classics (aka anything previously written that gains a following) agrees that there are always going to be great new writers in every decade an era.

    And, I do hope that the basics of writing will be the foundation for all the brilliant writing to come for generations to come.

    Part of me is looking to the day we actually do develop the ability to be more telepathic so that even IM and Twitter become obsolete…(smile…I am mostly kidding…says the person who adores thinking in haiku or tanka if I am feeling long winded.)

    Great post and thought provoking indeed. And I say that as the mother of a bright 10 year old who declares her intent to be an author as her future career!


      • Deborah Drake - Catalyst
        Deborah Drake - Catalyst says:

        Penelope, An interesting read indeed.

        I don’t know if I will ever embrace Twitter like I have Facebook and LinkedIn and find that it may very well be a generational thing. I just want and need more than 140 characters to make my points and share my shares…I suppose I could use my lead in text to the link to more.

        I remember when IM used to annoy the “h%&k” out of me because of the waiting for a reply and the hopscotching the dialogue can take with some replies to things written many lines before seeming out of context. I’ve adapted apparently for a choice few friends.

        But then what is a screen play? Reads like a Yahoo chat that is a quick volley between the players!

        One thing I don’t appreciate about the trend to be incessantly tweeting or “Facebooking” via one’s iphone is that it feels the same to me as someone taking an incoming call when in the middle of a conversation be it for business or other. I let voicemail do it’s job as much as possible and resist the urge to say hold that thought.

        Multi-tasking too much causes me to feel schizophrenic and impairs my ability to communicate clearly or remember what I read or heard. And I read voraciously and discerningly and daily first thing and last thing. I agree that there are blogs of all calibre to engage. I enjoy the blogs that are written by people who clearly type as fast as they think or nearly so. The fluid conversational tone one might experience in conversation shines through for me. And that feels like a bit of a telepathic experience as well. I seem to write too much or too little (when composing haiku – grin) and happily both styles of my writing are well received by those who comment.

        I do though hope that education does hold the line on expecting strong grammar and good spelling but if future generations are using the equivalent of an abbreviated written language, well they will all be writing in a similar language won’t they.

        And will the current younger generations and future generations even have the attention span to read Chaucer, Jane Austen, Henry James, Shakespeare or the seven volumes of Harry Potter? Or to read a physical book that hasn't been made into online material? I know I am vintage in my thinking but I accept myself. It works for me!
        I do appreciate your column and the dialogue that it inspires.

  5. Allison Reynolds
    Allison Reynolds says:

    The amount of writing being done is most exciting to me. For the most part you cannot help but improve when doing something often and for a long time. Practice makes perfect and all of that.

    Add the constraints of tools such as Twitter and other muscles are strengthened like brevity and quick wit.

    Great post

    • James Thomson
      James Thomson says:

      I can’t remember where I heard this twist on the addage, but often ‘practive makes permanent’. Doing something often and for a long time ingrains a method, it doesn’t necessarily improve that method, or make it ‘better’.

      As long as a generation of writers continues to write E-mails, blog posts, tweets, comments and responses then perhaps the variety of writing is maintained. I suppose the risk is that online communication ingrains the habit of writing what one is thinking *now*. Right this second.

      Perhaps the habit that may be lost (and mourned?) is reflection, the process of revising a piece of text, re-reading, checking, revising again. Paring a piece of prose down until it says exactly what the writer wishes it to say. Too often comments are misinterpreted online, but then how often do we read before posting to ensure that what we hurriedly say is what we explictly mean?

  6. sarah pipeldoot nimbillica
    sarah pipeldoot nimbillica says:

    It is interesting, Deborah, that you say we are being telepathic.

    I feel this too. In a range of competencies through my body and in my writing too, is a large wad of literature based on the perspective, a person is schizophrenic, isn’t that just french or english for telepathic???

    that is what i thought. and I am happy to read that the standard is increasing, as always it is difficult to find, and although myself finds it difficult to read through the hyperbole and trash and self concerned literature of the people, I am glad to hear that from your perspective there is a lot of good stuff to read online.

    give me strength. my god. and the rest, for i will hope to happen across more of your words, at least.

    thanks for the thoughts one and old.

    well done. xxo

    catch ya!! xxo

  7. VW Ladybug
    VW Ladybug says:

    While I agree with the premise of this article (that more people writing in more venues as a means of communication means a larger number of fine writers), I must disagree that more people truly understand spelling, grammar or punctuation.

    As a Gen-Xer, half of the people my own age don’t know how to spell properly without spell-check. A writer by trade, I’ve been awarded jobs because my FaceBook status updates are grammatically correct.

    Employers who are hiring writers don’t want to spend all of their time editing lazy, sloppy grammar. I understand that the language is a living thing, but tone, grammar and content do rely on context. Who would go to a doctor’s office with improper grammar in the ads?

  8. K. A. Laity
    K. A. Laity says:

    “No one could write in the Middle Ages, when the good writers wrote in Latin and everyone else spoke colloquial languages like French and English, which priests told them were too lame for real writing.”

    As a medievalist, I have to correct the notion that 1) “no one” could write — as you seem to recognize people could write but they were limited in numbers. 2) Priests didn’t tell them their native languages were “too lame”; rather Latin was the language that crossed all borders in Western Europe, so it was understood by people who wrote in any country, regardless of their native tongue. If priests thought English was so lame, I doubt they would have copied down the three thousand lines of Beowulf.

    That quibble aside, I think people read and write more now than ever, though I’d agree that Sturgeon’s law still holds. After all, the frequency of flame wars continues because people DON’T communicate effectively and misunderstandings abound. But there are new kinds of literacies and not all of them receive recognition yet. But they will.

    VW Ladybug has a good point re: the casualness of language having an effect. While people may be more aware of writing to an audience now, they may not always realise that they are writing for *different* audiences and those different audiences require different rhetorical approaches.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love that a medievalist would take the time to clarify this stuff on my blog. I love the range of topics I learn about from the comments section! Thanks, K.A.


  9. Melissa Chang
    Melissa Chang says:

    I graduated from Harvard with an English degree; during one semester, I wrote 37 papers. After college, I worked as a professional editor for 10+ years. Both of those experiences were grueling training (in different ways – one theoretical, one practical) in the art of writing and language. However, I can say without a doubt that nothing has trained me on pure editing and the use of language to communicate an idea as well as Twitter.

  10. Susan Johnston
    Susan Johnston says:

    I agree that the internet has taught people to write persuasively and concisely. But while I’m technically part of Gen Y, I suffer from information overload ALL THE TIME! Like last week when my Google Reader had 100+ unread posts, I felft anxious and overwhelmed. Now I’ve gotten it down to 49, which feels much more manageable. Guess I’m really more Gen X at heart?

    Great points, Penelope!

    • Jackie1776
      Jackie1776 says:

      “But while I’m technically part of Gen Y, I suffer from information overload ALL THE TIME!”

      Do you have an internet-enabled smartphone, and if so, do you use it to keep up on at least some of your content? Getting a Blackberry has helped me tremendously with my “information overload” — it’s amazing how many emails, tweets, posts, etc. one can read or otherwise process during otherwise wasted waiting time.

  11. Russ Moon
    Russ Moon says:

    students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos – assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across.

    = why commercials are making a comeback & great brands are brandishing new muscle.

  12. Gabriel Smy
    Gabriel Smy says:

    Great post. I wonder if people who get stuck on the demise of writing are missing a couple of things:

    1. Communication is much more than just writing – €“ whether or not people can craft a dissertation is mostly irrelevant; can they communicate effectively using the diverse media available to them?

    2. There are so many different expressions of writing that we shouldn’t judge them all as one – €“ schools should be teaching pupils to write well in many forms, not just in essays.

    The lesson I remember most from a Cambridge University degree in English was being forced to write arguments in 100 words. That made me a better writer long before twitter!

  13. Van
    Van says:

    I agree with this post, but I have to say that I have read papers from high school student written ENTIRELY in text-speak. The High School I graduated from is an F-Rated school. Most students have a 4th grade reading level according to standardized testing (at least in 2000 when I was in 9th grade), and that’s giving them too much credit. I helped grade English papers and students used ‘y’ ‘2’ ‘u’ and other abbreviations. This isn’t the norm, but it does happen.

    The school is Nathan Bedford Forrest High School (yes),_Florida%29

    F Rating as of 2007-2008 on the Florida School Accountability Grading Scale.

    These kids need to turn off the Social Networks and read a book because school won’t help them.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I clicked the link, and I have to say, it’s an amazing example of the insane persistence of racism in the US. You should click: This Florida public high school is named after a KKK operative, and each time the (largely black) student body tries to get the school renamed, the board votes it down.


      • Shawn
        Shawn says:

        “This Florida public high school is named after a KKK operative, and each time the (largely black) student body tries to get the school renamed, the board votes it down.”

        LOL! Welcome to Jacksonville, FL – It’s actually southern GA, but just happens to be over the border. I grew up there. Blatent racism in northern FL is pretty rampant…it lessens the further south you go, starting at the latitude line the cuts through Gainsville.

    • Van
      Van says:

      At Nathan Bedford Forrest High School I helped my journalism teacher (also the 11th grade English teacher) make a power point presentations on “Things Fall Apart” we had to make for her “Standard” 11th grade reading class. The presentation featured pictures of African villages because the students could not visualize what they read. These were 11th grade students that were not beyond picture-book reading level (and the ones that turned in A/S/L internet text speak essays – the entire class.)
      Semi-illiterate 17-year-olds were handed diplomas, and 5 years later I’ve run into them as cashiers & fast food workers…

      Social Networking, Blogging, Facebook, Twitter, these are always amazing tools to help you write clear, concise writing- but it won’t help the illiterate.

      Also, a lot of the Nathan Bedford Forrest High alumni (myself included) don't support a name change for the school. (I'd argue that many don't know who Nathan Bedford Forrest was but that's another issue.) It's ironic that it's a predominantly black school with a name chosen by "Sisters of the Confederacy" – €“ but I think it's important to preserve the history it represents. History should not be white washed or erased; we can't pretend that people didn't honor Nathan Bedford Forrest. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past and move forward. First with literacy!

      • Molly
        Molly says:

        I disagree with keeping the name of the school. I don’t think it teaches anyone about the mistakes of the past. I think the having a place of learning named after a bitter ignorant racist actually glorifies the man.

        Having a school named after you is an honor, and that honor should not be given to someone who started one of the most infamous domestic terrorist groups in this country’s history. That does a huge dishonor to the victims of him and his organization, not to mention those who devoted themselves and were killed trying to fight the hatefulness that group supports.

        If you want to teach people about the mistakes of the past, create a museum dedicated to the people who were needlessly killed by Forrest and his clan members, don’t name a place of learning after him.

  14. Nisha
    Nisha says:

    I only half agree with this point. If your point is that the internet has taught my generation how to better communicate a point or message effectively and concisely, then yes, it has. Twitter, blogs, all of that teaches us to be concise and to the point.

    But that’s hardly what I consider good writing. Really great writing, the kind that is a pleasure to read, the kind of blogs you could get lost in for hours because the writing is beautiful — our generation doesn’t have that.

    We may be effective business communicators, but that’s not the same as great writing.

    • David Dotson
      David Dotson says:

      Nisha makes a good point. There is a difference between great writing and great ideas communicated clearly and effectively. However, I have still seen some great writing come out of Gen Y as well.

      • Wendy
        Wendy says:

        I found this blog post fascinating and intriguing, and also this comment thread. Maybe what Penelope is saying is that Gen Y has all the foundations for being brilliant communicators because they have honed an ability to connect to a variety of audiences and adapt their writing to do so.

        Great prose, in short essays, as seen on some blogs by Gen X and boomer writers, may just take practice in using that medium. Gen Y is perhaps way ahead at, say, age 25, in terms of communications instincts than “older bloggers” were at their age. So give them 10 years of professional writing experience, and us gen x writers will have to improve or get out of the way.

  15. Srinivas Rao
    Srinivas Rao says:

    Really cool post. I agree that people are better writers now because they are writing for an audience. I honestly never did much writing for anything other than my classes, until I started blogging. It’s definitely improved my writing skills tremendously.

  16. Jay Godse
    Jay Godse says:

    Thank you for your posting Penelope. You have expressed something that I have been thinking about for over 10 years.

    I didn’t get access to email until 3 years after I graduated from university, and didn’t get access to the internet until a couple of years after that. My writing improved considerably when I had to communicate thoughts and opinions through email. Before email, my writing was weak and it took me forever to compose thoughts and arguments.

    Email and blogs are great media for learning how to write because correcting mistakes and revising work is extremely cheap compared to paper. In every change in communication media from rock carvings to hieroglyphics to skins to scrolls to paper to electronic communications, I’m sure there was an explosion in the number of people who could communicate using a newer medium. Each successive medium made it cheaper to correct and revise.

    However, the majority of people didn’t use the new medium in any of the transitions to learn how to write for an audience. So, although there are many more fantastic writers (those targeting audiences) because of blogs and email, the majority of people do not use even electronic communications for much more than status updates, instructions and simple thoughts. So, although there will appear to be more people who can write well (for audiences), most people will still use email & blogs mainly for status updates, instructions, and thoughts. The net result is that there will be a notable increase in the number of good writers, and then a frustrating number of people who actually won’t write well.

  17. Jacob
    Jacob says:

    Van makes a great point. In order to have any kind of skilled writer, you first need a reader. Read books to your children from the day they are born and they will grow up to write well. Then, as this post demonstrates, they can use the tools of the day, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook, text messages, whatever it may be in the future, to become great writers.

  18. Be Szpilman
    Be Szpilman says:

    I’m ever amazed at the quality of writing you can find in some forums, blog articles and blog comments. Whether it comes from youngsters or from the older internet crowd (which it often does, because great writing involves maturity, though not necessarily age), it’s surely a fantastic product of the world bein connected and communicating.

    And it’s a great side benefit of twitter, the one many commenters have spoken of, that it invariably imprints upon our minds the habit of brevity in communication. I know I have that already, and love it. Prior to twitter, the only practice I could get in conciseness was writing email subjects, but those are far and few, and you can always communicate the rest in the body. Twitter’s unmatched, and I consider it a great tool that it makes me constantly shrink the size of my message.

    As to Nisha’s point, it’s an author’s unique style you’re talking about, isn’t it? I believe that’s not great writing, it’s exceptional, and quite rare. It has always been scarce and will always remain so, a gift of the amazing writers who have a shot at making a living from it. If anything, the internet helps people find and develop their style by exposing them to far more different authors than has ever been possible.

  19. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I spent a lot of my teenage and young adult years writing outside of school (mostly journals). That was pre-internet. I think there were a lot less of us then (young writers) than now, because we weren’t connected. So the only real feedback we got was in school – and back in my day teachers were not all that encouraging. I think that the Internet makes it possible to learn peer-to-peer as writers and therefore writers in general are better – not just the young ones. I’m agreeing with you, but I also think the 35-year-old, 55-year-old, and 72-year-old writers today are better than the writers at the same age were 20 years ago – because of the Net.

  20. Jess
    Jess says:

    Very interesting post. I agree that all of this technology use and writing for it has the potential to make some of the most succinct writers of our time. Lengthy posts and antiquated phrases are fodder our our generation. I cant count the times I’ve been asked – or have asked – to write shorter. More to the point. Devoid of fluff. Thats how digital communication trumps all others in terms of communicating an idea.

  21. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    If everybody is writing, who is reading?
    If everybody is talking, who is listening?
    Is there such a thing as information overload?
    Yes, there is, even if young people don’t feel it and think they’re so much more adept at filtering information. My feeling is they’re skimming and reading stuff they already know about and are comfortable with comprehending. I’ll be the last person to tell them they should spend more time on a given subject or reading that really challenges their perspective or beliefs. They’re young and they’ve got time to figure that one out for themselves.

  22. Tim of Angle
    Tim of Angle says:

    “Newsflash: No one could write in the Middle Ages, when the good writers wrote in Latin and everyone else spoke colloquial languages like French and English, which priests told them were too lame for real writing.”

    So that Chaucer guy was writing in Latin, huh? I always wondered about that.

    And don’t get me started on that Mallory fella….

  23. GInger Rose
    GInger Rose says:

    Oh, dear. I don’t even know where to start. I know it’s better for your bottom line to propagate the idea that youth are better synthesizers and adults and are not overwhelmed by information. However, when information does not lead to synthesis, and does not lead to knowledge, it doesn’t mean much. You could memorize batting averages for the American League, several recipes and how to build a carbeurator, but so what? Especially if you’ve never swung at a baseball, cooked anything, etc.

    And I say all this as one who researches this stuff for a living. One professional study does not a mandate make.

  24. Pat Hufford
    Pat Hufford says:

    Penelope, I think there is a bit of a disconnect here between what people are saying about this generation of writers and their bad habits and who you’re talking about with this post.

    When people, especially high school teachers, are complaining about the use of text-message speak in papers you’re getting information about kids that are only really learning to write for the first time in high school. Middle school was about reading and sentence structure, but not really about writing for a purpose or to an audience. It’s very much just for a grade.

    In your tags for this post you’ve chosen this to be mostly about “college students” and not to much about high school students. By college those students have found their voice, can write for an audience and have the skills to argue a point. Their writing is mostly pretty coherent.

    As a high school technology teacher, I can tell which students that have a solid background in writing because they are able to put into words what they want to get across when writing short answers to questions. The ones that don’t struggle with the use of technical terms and have a limited vocabulary to use in writing and will fall back to what they communicate with everyday…their text-language shortcuts and spellings.

    I hope people realize who it is you’re talking about with this post. I think sometimes people fail to read tags on blog posts and therefore fail to understand where you’re coming from and who you’re talking about. College students and high school students aren’t even in the same solar system when it comes to expressive writing skills.

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      “By college those students have found their voice, can write for an audience and have the skills to argue a point. Their writing is mostly pretty coherent.”

      Except for when they, too, are turning in papers that contain text-speak. That happens at the college level, too.

  25. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:


    We are in the era of LOLCats; there is “Quality”, and ‘quality’ writing. The big Q is for “the Master and Margarita”, and the lower case q is for, “101 and career choices for twenty-something virgins in the professional workplace”.

    I like to read great books, not Dan Brown – yet he us a “quality” writer. I enjoy P-Lope, not that other charming woman who writes oddly formatted viral marketing posts….with the rubber duck.

  26. Christopher Petruccelli
    Christopher Petruccelli says:

    I cannot but help finding myself immensely amused by: ‘everyone else spoke colloquial languages like French and English’.

    The imprecision here marvelously deflates the gist of the argument; colloquial language, by its very name, means language which is spoken. It is redundant to say that people spoke colloquial languages. Everyone who speaks does – even Latin was spoken colloquially (check out the excellent western film ‘Tombstone’ wherein there is to be found an amusing Latin dialogue). Almost all spoken language is colloquial (excluded here are incantation, recitation, and perhaps oration). I gather the intended meaning here is ‘everyone else spoke vernacular languages like French and English’.

    Furthermore: ‘Finally, for those of you who think students don't know how to write in full sentences, you are the people who probably don't understand how to use text as a persuasive medium.’

    If we ignore the syntactical atrocity that is the above sentence, we still find a significant conflation of thought here; what is suggested is that correctness of usage is not to be the standard of good writing, but rather the measure of its persuasiveness should stand in its place. But this assumes that all good writing is effective, or persuasive; it isn’t, or at least it certainly isn’t the only standard by which writing can be judged. There is nothing inherent in either grammatical soundness or persuasiveness that makes them either allied or opposed. I’ve yet to meet anyone to be persuaded by any of Oscar Wilde’s essays, yet can anyone deny that they are absolutely excellent specimens of prose?

    Moreover, precision of thought (which so many students lack almost entirely) is not a necessary component of correct writing. So, if students can, when the need arises, write in complete sentences, it doesn’t mean that they can write precisely, or persuasively; this is very likely why they don’t like writing school assignments. On the internet, there are fewer brilliant people to demoralize them by ripping there arguments and their to shreds.

    But there are a few of us…beware!

    • Mike
      Mike says:

      I am something of a grammar Nazi; I get picked on all the time about my obsession with proper verb tense and punctuation. Having said that, two points strike me about your post. One, your second-to-last sentence is gibberish. Two, you are proving Penelope’s point with your post. Using words that only 10% of the population understands is not precise communication, but simply exclusion. To be a great writer is for people to understand what you mean, deciphering their ideas or feeling your emotions, without the benefit of their body-language and voice inflection. By that measure, a person learns more by Tweeting than by reading the dictionary.

      • Matt Law
        Matt Law says:

        “Using words that only 10% of the population understands is not precise communication, but simply exclusion.”

        Hah! In many cases I would agree with you, but the argument that Penelope is making concerns writing, and while it is possible that the majority of the population can not define “colloquial,” “vernacular,” and/or “syntactical,” they are all useful terms for describing both linguistics and writing. Placing such terms off-limits in a discussion about writing because they are “hard” is just as silly as putting “cost-of-living index,” “discount rate,” and other economic terms off-limits in a discussion about economics. That is, you can get around them, but it requires much more writing to do so and is inefficient to the point of absurdity.

        Finally, I think you are underrating both Penelope and the other posters here – I would bet money that the majority of them (and certainly Penelope), whether they agree or disagree with him, can follow and fully understand Christopher’s entire post, even if it takes a quick stop at to do so.

  27. Rachel Esterline
    Rachel Esterline says:

    Thanks for this great post, Penelope. I definitely can attribute my writing skills to the Internet. I started out writing at when I was in junior high. I then moved onto writing on Web sites and forums (when forums were popular). I had a personal blog in high school. Now, I have my professional blog…and it has helped me the most.

    The one problem I see with some forms of communication my generation uses is that they use it all the time. I’ve had professors tell us we can’t use “lol” in our papers. I never thought we could, but apparently students try it.

  28. Neville
    Neville says:


    How would you be able to know if the Stanford study was performed in a meaningful way? If the methodology was flawed? A few posts back, you stated “I run a lot late at night, and I usually run in very dumpy clothes. After all, the only people seeing me at that hour are potential rapists. (Note to women: You are more likely to get attacked while running if you wear a pony tail.” Then you cited a study that, if you’d actually READ IT, discredits the whole thing. The ponytail, as well as other points cited in the study, are a myth, that has been perpetuated because of idiots like you who don’t know how to make use of data. (Don’t believe me…Google the very study you cite.) So not only can’t Gen Y twits sift through and understand information, but you can’t either. No wonder you’re impressed by them. And no wonder America’s in the shape it’s in.

  29. Michele
    Michele says:

    Christopher is mistaken. I was going to write, “Christopher is an idiot” because I’m in a bad mood, but I decided to ammend that statement.

    According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “colloquial” means “relating to conversation.” It is a very close cousin to “vernacular,” which is more specific to culture or region. What’s nonsensical about Christopher’s post is that he says “it is redundant to say that people spoke colloquial languages.” He then goes on to use the phrase “spoken colloquially” in the very next sentence. Isn’t that also redundant, since colloquial, according to him, is any spoken language?

    And, given Christopher’s definition, what could possibly be the meaning of his next sentence, “Almost all spoken language is colloquial??” If Christopher’s definition of colloquial is inserted, then the sentence would read, “Almost all spoken languages are languages that are spoken.” Really?

    I’m not saying that I’m a wonderful writer (quite the contrary – my specialty is mathematics), but I just had to point out the contradiction in the comment.

    • Matt Law
      Matt Law says:

      Okay, going to jump in in defense of Christopher because his post made me happy.

      The actual statement is “… even Latin was spoken colloquially…” which is relevant because Latin is a special case, as much of the surviving Latin works are formal writings that are not colloquial, and it is most commonly spoken during Catholic services in an equally non-colloquial manner. Hence, his reference to tombstone as an illustration that Latin occasionally sees use in a non-colloquial manner.

      Similarly, NOT all spoken language is used colloquially. Legal arguments, when presented to a judge, are not colloquial regardless of the language of presentation.

      While I agree with his comments on imprecision, my main issue with short statements is that many ideas cannot be sufficiently argued or understood without a thorough explanation. I do data analysis for a living and run into this all the time; people want to know something and ask a simple question, the answer to which totally fails to give them the information that they actually need. For example, “How were sales in September?” The answer is a handful of numbers (or even one), but in many cases what they want to know is far more complex and requires information on patterns, the effects of their efforts to adjust those patterns, specific outliers, overall market shifts, etc. Whether or not they actually acquire this information depends heavily on their ability to actually read a more thorough analysis.

  30. Gavin Bollard
    Gavin Bollard says:

    I still have problems understanding why they teach Shakespeare at schools. Yes, I know the stories are quite original (though exactly how original, we’ll probably never know).

    Why teach them in old English? Is it the story or the language that matters? Isn’t it a “given” than language changes over time? Why learn something that is no longer relevant in English classes – surely it could be studied as part of history instead, along with Greek and Roman mythology. After all, it’s historical “entertainment”.

    Surely more relevant modern English texts abound. Schools need to be using modern authors and more importantly, modern “texts”… and that means blogs and facebook.

    • Christopher Petruccelli
      Christopher Petruccelli says:

      Wow. I cannot even begin to express what is wrong with you.

      1. Shakespeare’s stories are not original at all. They are almost uniformly stolen from Latin poetry, drama, and history, as well as from both Latin and English translations of Greek poetry, and contemporary Italian literature.

      2. Shakespeare wrote in what we now call Early Modern English. This means that though there are variances in diction and a somewhat simpler morphology, it is largely the same stage of English that is spoken at present. Older than that is Middle English, which is the stage of the language we fine in Chaucer. Old English, a phase of the language that had died out at least five hundred years before Shakespeare set pen to paper, is hardly recognizable as English to those without linguistic training. Of course, to us cognoscenti, it presents no problems since it’s far simpler, grammatically, than Latin or Greek, and is morphologically the same as most of the Germanic languages, Dutch, German, &c.

      3. I can’t even begin to address how unbelievably stupid the rest of what you said is. I’m going to bed, then to work, then I’m going to drink so much scotch, I forget the internet exists.

  31. sneakysnoo
    sneakysnoo says:

    Thanks Penelope. As someone who dropped out of highschool, I spent two years without a formal english program, but wrote all the time. I wrote e-mails to friends and family, commented on forums on anything from the CD I had in the player then to long debates over civil unions, and followed and kept my own blog. I got to college, and instead of being handi-capped like I had been afraid of, I was surrounded by people who only knew how to write for an A. As you pointed out nicely, that isn’t anything like how anyone writes outside of highschool–whether it’s a letter to a friend, an e-mail asking for a job, or an article published in a journal.

    Social media like twitter and facebook is all about making connections, which means knowing how to be entertaining or compelling to your target audience. Usually in 140 characters or less. That is not the death of writing. Highschool English is the death of writing.

  32. tc
    tc says:

    Just because something is written more times doesn’t make it better writing. We may be able to get news and peoples opinions at a more rapid rate than ever before but does that make them accurate and accountable?

    Something that has tickled my fancy at the moment is a site called This is a site set up by an experienced entertainment reporter, to verify stories that are being reported on throughout the web and print media. There may be more people “reporting” on the news but it doesn’t make them better reporters.

    In my opinion, great writing needs to have truth and authority behind it, be well thought out and informed and ultimately be accountable to it’s purpose. I think social media sites are creating a different form of community with a different form of communication, not better writing.

    This blog for instance would have held a lot more weight with me if you had not only cited some random study but also researched into the negative effects of the change in communication styles. Argue both sides Penelope, and then make your point. That makes for better writing – not twittering.

  33. TimW
    TimW says:

    The ability to write and the ability to communicate are not always one-and-the-same.

    As a moderator on two different Internet forums, and participant on about a dozen more, it’s my opinion that younger folks may be able to “communicate”, but they can’t write worth a damn.

    Posts tend to be a competition to see who can create the longest run-on sentence. Occasionally, punctuation might get thrown in because, well, they heard somewhere that periods and commas should go….somewhere. And, now and then, they get put in the correct spot.

    The concept of paragraphs is lost on these folks. In an age of sms/text messaging, it’s one long string sentences if you’re lucky (see above).

    My college-attending niece finally understands all the grief I gave her over the years when I criticized her writing style when we were IM’ing…and she thanked me for it.

    Lest you think I am some change-fearing Troglodyte, I was IM’ing when it was known as IRC and BBS boards back in the early to mid-90’s. I love Instant Messaging and text-messaging. Love Internet discussion boards, and am really looking forward to trying Google Wave. Twitter…I still don’t get that one, even though I use it. I don’t really care if you’re going for coffee now…a status update phenomenon that has infected Facebook, too.

    So while Gen Y/Z/whatever to come may write MORE, it doesn’t mean they write WELL.


  34. Samuel Clemens
    Samuel Clemens says:

    I love it. Young people do not feel any information overload. Well, I have it on good authority that they don’t bombard themselves with such time wasters as news of the financial meltdown, health care reform, epidemics, tsunamis, career and financial information, computer security threats, and whether or not an asteroid is about to disintegrate the Earth —- unless it’s on Facebook.

    If they had a different perspective, then I guess they wouldn’t be “youngsters”; they’d be young adults, and by the way, they don’t twitter. Twits twitter.

    The only witty writing any more is done in these idiot text-areas.

    Irreverently Submitted, (as always)


  35. Heather
    Heather says:

    Penelope you always stick up for younger generations, so I expect you to find some bit of research to show that they are not the crappy writers and communicators that most people (?) believe them to be. And perhaps that’s what they need-encouragement. What’s great about the internet for encouraging writing is that feedback is not far away. Hopefully it’s helpful feedback. I don’t believe that that quantity and flexibility across various media platforms make a writer great. My instincts tell me that the ability to think and integrate information is part of it. If not, then what does make a great writer? Surely they are not born. That makes me despair.

  36. Satya Colombo
    Satya Colombo says:

    OK, you are a goddess… yeah, in the crazy Greek goddess kind of way.

    I admit, when i first found you i was a bit appalled, and equal parts intrigued, by your style. Now i’m starting to see things a bit different. I think that (all things being equal) you understand some thing about the world today, that’s beyond any marketer’s wet dream about how to sell to the new young and restless.

    For that, i applaud you. But that doesn’t really matter.

    What i really want to know is: what keeps you going. When i drop into my twitter feed from my phone on an avg day, i can’t say i’m too inspired. Now, all miscarriages and rigmarole aside, and i know it’s exciting to build a real business from an idea, and to accomplish your life mission and all, but what i’d really like to know, is what makes Penelope tick. That’s all. I imagine i’m probly not alone.

  37. George
    George says:

    “The people who tell you who can write and who can't are the people who don't want language to change.” – I’d say that about sums it up! I’m ever amazed at how articulate young writers are these days. Perhaps young writers are more used to writing short snappy pieces than the traditional longer pieces many of us grew up with, but that’s just adapting to modern society.

  38. Dale
    Dale says:

    Few people like change except those creating it or those who benefit from it.
    There’ve always been great thinkers in every generation, the problem is they didn’t have the platforms we have today and/or the time/resources to verbalize their ideas. It was also a bit dangerous too (socially and physically) to be too out there ideologically speaking, and to write about your thoughts.

  39. McK
    McK says:

    I found this article particularly interesting because of my work situation. My boss is extremely critical of anything that I write, however, he is a poor writer and speaker. I received honors in graduate school, yet, if I write an awkward sentence, my work “sucks”…

  40. Sonya
    Sonya says:

    I understand that young people can write, and that they can understand each other, but I have to say that, having worked with bunches of people from age 16-25 in a business setting, there is a need for writing to be clear and make sense. I have had important information submitted to me without any punctuation. It was difficult to clearly understand what was being said. The problem is that some people start to communicate the way they do while chatting when asking for a raise, complaining that they are being discriminated against, etc. They are not considering their audience (when their audience is from the baby boomer generation- or even gen Y- like me).

    I, for one, would not want to be represented by someone who does not know the difference between “no” and “know” in court….

    I realize there are many gen Y-ers that know the difference, but I have run into many that don’t. Just my 2 cents.

  41. Alisa Bowman
    Alisa Bowman says:

    I didn’t realize that people were worried that the young folks (when did I stop being one of them?) couldn’t write. I’ve heard about how we are falling behind in science and math, but I didn’t know that some people thought we were falling behind in writing, too. Not that I’m disagreeing. I live under a big fat rock. That’s been well established.

    When I come across terrible writing — defined as writing so bad that you can’t even figure out what the writer was trying to say–that writing usually has been penned by someone of my generation (which is of the X variety). Computers and the digital revolution seem to have sped up the learning of reading and writing in general. My daughter–age 5–can already type in URLs along with various words. She can read books cover to cover. And she can write. I certainly could not do any of those things when I was in kindergarten.

    More important, social media has removed a lot of the mysticism of writing. It used to be that people feared it. They worried about being perfect–so they got writer’s block. Now, the stakes aren’t so high, so I think people have an easier time with it, too.

  42. rebecca
    rebecca says:

    You site research done on standford students and make sweeping statements about how well college students write. they’re the greatest generation of writers? stanford students are hardly typical. and without slogging in the trenches of academia, you cannot know the real state of writing; just what you’re exposed to, the cream of the crop, which you think is representative of a whole generation.

  43. Clare
    Clare says:

    I’m not convinced that good writing is a generational issue. I don’t have any research or stats to back it up – just observation.

    When people have a reason to communicate (beyond writing something in school for an assignment / homework) they generally do a good job if they read regularly and if they practise their writing skills. I run a site for non-native speakers of English, and those who participate regularly in discussions make noticeable progress in their writing. They learn from each other, they experiment with English, they pay attention to their grammar, spelling and punctuation. I’m talking about people of all ages, from all countries, and whose first languages range from Farsi to Spanish.

    Contrast this with my gen X brother who never reads anything beyond his fishing magazine, and wouldn’t know a comma if it hit him over the head.

    To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader, in my opinion.

  44. Mike
    Mike says:

    Usually, when somebody makes a counter-intuitive claim like yours that the best writing is happening now, I instinctively think the claim is hyperbole. You backed up your case better than I thought possible that the younger generation communicates more effectively than ever before. I will say that I have a harder time staying focused for a long time because of the ease of internet access today. I desire more stimulation. As a result, I don’t think I’m as keen an observer of the world, nor as introspective, as I used to be, which gives me concern about my content. Even if our ability to communicate grows, are we in danger of not having anything to communicate?

    • TimW
      TimW says:

      “Even if our ability to communicate grows, are we in danger of not having anything to communicate?”

      Sure…unless you consider “eating ice cream now” and “Go Broncos/Chargers/Jets/etc.” to be communication.

    • Martin
      Martin says:

      Mike – Excellent post. It seems like my generation (myself included) often is willing to exchange real experience for an e-version of it. We have smaller attention spans and less of an ability to focus deeply than those of previous generations, and I blame the induced-ADD on the instant gratification that comes from a million TV channels, Facebook, Twitter and the like.

  45. Téa
    Téa says:

    I embrace this post.

    Excellent reminder to feel good, not bad, about big changes in the world, With so much change underfoot in the economy, etc staying connected to the current pulse is vital to our power and protection.

    Thank you for sharing.

  46. Jacqueline
    Jacqueline says:


    Have you seen this video, “A Vision of Students Today”? It emphasizes the differences between classroom learning and the internet-enabled activities that students are doing — the number of pages of assigned textbook reading vs. the voluntary online reading that students do, the number of pages of writing assignments for class vs. the number of pages of email, status updates, etc. that they write.

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