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?

148 replies
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  1. Jim
    Jim says:

    Language is always evolving, and one aspect is the creation of new vocabulary, in particular new occupations. If you had said that you were a webmaster in 1970 you would have received some strange looks. And then there’s the move to a more contracted form of writing. But what drives me nuts is people turning nouns into verbs!

  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    I really disagree with this. As a college student who frequently uses Facebook and Texting, I find that my writing becomes worse after a long period of only using those mediums. My writing becomes unfocused, uncreative, and too casual. Even when I am attempting to write a creative piece, I find myself falling back on my “e-mail voice.” While in high school, we wrote creative writing assignments once every week in addition to periodic essays. I had less time for Facebook and spent more of my time writing creatively. This was a period in my life when I felt my writing was at it’s peak. Since then, it has noticeably regressed in quality.
    That being said, poor writing does not seem to be a generational issue to me. I have met plenty of people, both adults and peers, who have difficulties communicating ideas effectively through writing. I have also met individuals of all ages who are wonderful at writing. It really depends on the varying types of writing an individual does. If a person spends all of his time on Twitter, he will be limited to a “twitter voice.” However, if this same person uses Twitter, keeps a journal, does his homework assignments, and occasionally writes a letter to the editor of his local newspaper, he will be a better writer. He has the capacity to fulfill different styles of writing and persuade different people through the written word. I realize that the above description may be a bit ideal, but you can see what I’m driving at. Online writing isn’t everything, and if it is the only thing deemed valuable by students, we are heading towards a problem.

  3. Tracey Linkous
    Tracey Linkous says:

    Some thoughts about your comment on "the new pace":

    You said, "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."

    Hold on. There has been a lot of research done in recent years about the impact of multitasking on one's ability to concentrate and focus. While young people may not feel information overload, their brains very much need rest and recovery time.

    This article discusses how "Teenagers who fill every quiet moment with a phone call or some kind of e-stimulation may not be getting that needed reprieve. Habitual multitasking may condition their brain to an overexcited state, making it difficult to focus even when they want to." This continuous partial attention splinters the mind.

    I see this a lot in my 14-year old daughter. She claims that she read the email from her soccer coach, but when pressed, she did not retain any of the vital details; she just got the gist of it. Her ability to focus is taking a severe hit by her constant obsession with texting, Facebooking, and IMing, most of which, BTW, is nonsensical, trivial banter (i.e. "bored, text me").

    This Multitasking Generation is not only obsessed with staying constantly connected, but puts the onus on their social network to entertain them via constant pings. One of my pet peeves.

    So, it seems as if information overload has somewhat changed forms. It's not just the volume of information, but the pace at which receiving and sending [mostly crap, IMHO] that throws them into "mental antsyness," a term which I borrow from Dr. Meyers, Director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. (“People lose the skill and the will to maintain concentration, and they get mental antsyness.”)

    Also, I found this interesting: In a letter Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son in the 1740s, he said, "There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time." Chesterfield believed that a singular focus was not only a practical way to structure one's time, but a mark of deep intelligence. "This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind."


  4. Janet
    Janet says:

    Hi Penelope!

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now, but this is my first comment. I have to say, I have been enjoying all of the stimulating conversation.

    This post especially struck a chord with me because although I have always been an insatiable reader (from Tolstoy to Goosebumps), I never had confidence as a writer until I went to college and had to write weekly emails for class.

    The format was casual enough that I felt comfortable playing with language in a way that I had never dared to before. I got to experiment without feeling the pressure of a grade; it was all about how to best express myself. Plus, I got instant feedback. Those emails were instrumental in developing my interest and delight in writing…so I am glad that someone is finally mentioning the contribution of emails/blogs to writing.

    I see a bit of a difference, however, in developing writing as a form of communication and writing as a form of thinking. The kind of social media writing that high school and college students engage in do not necessarily lead to better thinking. I meet many high school and community college students who have difficulty constructing arguments and getting through any reading material that is not from a newspaper or magazine. Writing is usually valued because it is a sign of intellectual vigor and thought process, but emails, AIM, twitter, and all too often blogs, are about self-expression, not analysis or thinking.

    I know your point is that the rise of email/blog culture has really raised the number of great writers, but I think it is also interesting to see that at the same time, the U.S. education system is really floundering. It appears that we are developing a large gap in literacy, much as we have developed a large gap in wealth. Through the use of social media, the literate get better and better at communicating themselves, and the less literate get worse and worse.

  5. Leftcoast
    Leftcoast says:

    Penelope, I find myself half convinced.

    Your argument that a generation that constantly writes persuasively will create a new generation of persuasive writers is sound. I know first hand that writing for blogs and forums sharpens my own writing. But when you extend this same value, unreservedly, to Twitter and IM messaging you lose me and afterall the world has a lot more twitter users than bloggers. You see I’ve READ too much IM dreck to believe that this is the nursery of the next Hemmingway, Steinbeck or, heck, the next Neil Gaiman.

    And then you write as if practice is the ONLY thing great writers need.

    My experience is that great writers are also great READERS. How’s Gen Y doing on that front? The stats I’ve seen aren’t encouraging.

    A disproportionate number or great writers come from societies with great oral storytelling traditions (Ireland comes to mind). Is Gen Y holding forth in the local pubs and North Beach coffee houses or are they sitting in the dark pounding out Twitter messages at 140 characters per burst? Which experience births better writers? Again stats don’t show an upswing in personal interaction.

    And what about life experience? Great writers aren’t often from the media mainstream – they’re more likely to be lifes loners and outsiders (ex. Kerouac, Thoreau, Salinger, Pynchon). Let’s hope that your prolific Gen Y microblogger will have lived an interesting life and have something unique to tell us.

    Gen Y might do just that – In fact I hope they DO and you’ve injected in me a little hope to balance against a dumptruck load of depressing educational research.

    But you leave me only half-way convinced.

  6. @BenDawe
    @BenDawe says:

    A little bit tough on the grammarians but it did resonate with me (and another 80 commentators above me with more to come no doubt). The guff about standards is of course perpetuated by an offline audience who aren’t faced with the same challenges as the current 15-35s. In this world, we all need to sell something, namely our identity, and in as persuasive language as possible.

  7. Martin
    Martin says:

    Good writers are good readers, and our generation reads less than any that came before it. Facebook and Twitter as “good writing?” Come on…

    I’m with Left Coast on this one.

  8. nestor makhno
    nestor makhno says:

    The e-mails I receive show that young people are not “remarkably adept” at assessing me as a reader or adapting their tone to suit me.

    But the highly touted study appears to look only at university student writing, whereas most people do not go to university, so I’d be more interested in a 15,000-piece study of ordinary people’s writing.

  9. Writer of writing
    Writer of writing says:

    As a young writer working with young writers, I’ve found many bad writers among the good. The Internet is not a panacea. For every good writer I’ve worked with, there have been many who’ve suffered one or more of the following flaws:

    -The inability to differentiate between to/two/too, it’s/its, and their/there

    -The inability to match singular subjects and singular verbs; ditto plural subjects and plural verbs.

    -The inability to make a persuasive argument (when one could, instead, crib notes from Wikipedia), no matter the medium – Twitter, Web site, billboard, press release – when tens of thousands of dollars of revenue are on the line.

    -The inability to distinguish fact from fiction (when one could, instead, crib notes from perennial favorites Wikipedia and Perez Hilton).

    -The inability to understand, comprehend, or take criticism without meltdown.

    -The inability to handle discipline without involving parents.

    -The inability to receive a rejection letter without volleying back a nest of barbs.

    According to the Gospel of Penelope Trunk, Generation Y is the greatest generation that has ever existed. Fabulous. But might it be that great writers existed before the Internet Age – and will exist long after – because people with the MEANS TO WRITE FOR LEISURE OR PAY have access to WRITTEN WORDS of SOME KIND?

  10. Writer of writing
    Writer of writing says:

    And while we’re discussing brevity…

    Brevity does not imply or equal good writing. Just as often, it communicates nothing. Wade through the number of Twitter posts that read, approximately, “2d I got sumthin 2 eat and then I went 2 chill with my peeps,” and you’ll see what I mean.

  11. Heather
    Heather says:

    Speaking as a member of this “generation of writers” I can say with great sincerity, that we are all dunces. We are bombarded by useless information on the internet and everywhere else for that matter. If anything, it’s our lovely sense of disillusionment that will lead us to salvation. Do we write more? maybe, but do we write well? no way in hell

  12. Jeff HDX
    Jeff HDX says:

    Interesting. Of course tomorrow’s great writers are with us now, tweeting and blogging. Where else would they be?
    But, in terms of writing, don’t confuse quantity with quality. There’s a lot of crap out there in cyberspace.
    And what about learning? Young people might be writing more, but are they reading more?
    As Groucho Marx said: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

  13. Tynan
    Tynan says:

    I think good writing is more a measure of how interesting and engaging the content is or being able to present boring content in an interesting way. I think when interacting with so many people via social mediums you naturally learn how to be a better writer. Reading books can also help but many books are boring and it you attempt to write like most books your writing will also be boring.

  14. site
    site says:

    I disagree, I think it actually killed a generation of great writers. Instead of writing novels and books, the same people are now writing blog posts…posts that have a short shelf life.

    • David Kipling
      David Kipling says:

      Odd to define “great writer” as someone who has written a novel or other book. Great writing is writing that works really well, and it may consist of very few words.
      On the back of trucks we se the sign “IF YOU CAN’T SEE MY MIRRORS, I CAN’T SEE YOU”. Perfect.
      A local mountain biking club has these four rules printed:
      Don’t damage trails.
      Don’t create new trails.
      Don’t bug walkers.
      Don’t be a goof.

      The last line is brilliant, in that it does the job completely and replaces a hundred circumlocutions, and everyone who reads it KNOWS instantly everything it subsumes.

      A local pub has on the bottom of its menu “Where you’re always welcome unless you’re a jerk.”

  15. education
    education says:

    I agree, the internet is a great place to showcase writers. Yet, I do not agree that the internet makes great writers. Teachers help students become great writers. Experiences help writers share their writing skills through writing.

  16. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I agree about college students or the young generation in general, are taking advantage of various self-publishing platforms to enhance the communication skills. You are right that we are more motivated to write because of the interaction and get motivated to write better because we have an audience to project to. I do not agree, however, about the type of writing which in some cases are a little informal like offensive words often used by a lot of young generation. I do not have anything against it but I just don’t think it’s ideal and pleasing of the world of writing would be overpowered by such use of language.


  17. marciano guerrero
    marciano guerrero says:

    I agree there’s an abundance of writing, but quantity doesn’t mean quality. The trillion jibberish messages you read in facebook can’t be called writing–jibing maybe?

  18. Alan
    Alan says:

    Evolution of language may be improvement in precision or it may be decay. Improvement is rare. Decay is common.

    Precision in language is important because the mathematics of perception and thought are done in words. You use dull tools, you get bad outcomes.

    Unless you are only looking for persuading and relating, in which case you could just emit random noises and it would work.

  19. Richard Gilbert
    Richard Gilbert says:

    There is a great deal of really terrible writing being done.  I see it every day on my monitor.
    Poor spelling and grammar are endemic!

    Spelling correctly is not terribly difficult; my computer points out my bloopers.  I keep a dictionary on my desk and when my computer tells me I’m wrong, I figure out what I did and I fix it! 

    There is not, AFAIK, a grammar checker.  A pity; some people really need a grammar checker!


  20. Richard Gilbert
    Richard Gilbert says:

    There is a great deal of really terrible writing being done.  I see it every day on my monitor.
    Poor spelling and grammar are endemic!

    Spelling correctly is not terribly difficult; my computer points out my bloopers.  I keep a dictionary on my desk and when my computer tells me I’m wrong, I figure out what I did and I fix it! 

    There is not, AFAIK, a grammar checker.  A pity; some people really need a grammar checker!


  21. Richard Gilbert
    Richard Gilbert says:

    There is a great deal of really terrible writing being done.  I see it every day on my monitor.
    Poor spelling and grammar are endemic!

    Spelling correctly is not terribly difficult; my computer points out my bloopers.  I keep a dictionary on my desk and when my computer tells me I’m wrong, I figure out what I did and I fix it! 

    There is not, AFAIK, a grammar checker.  A pity; some people really need a grammar checker!


  22. Patrick Gant
    Patrick Gant says:

    So glad you wrote this post, Penelope. This has been one of my mantras for many, many years: this is a great time to be a writer. Never before have we had such a literate society, along with the tools to share ideas. 

    What has changed dramatically in just the last 100 years is what the written word is used for, not to mention who uses it. 

    As you rightly point out, in Western societies writing was once the vestige of a very select few (exclusivity was less the case with the Arab peoples in the Middle Ages…but that’s a story for another time). 

    The written word was essentially the monopoly of churches. Then, with the printing press, it became a shared monopoly of commerce and industry. It became a simple tool to separate elites from masses.

    If you could write, you were somebody. Like all exclusive clubs, it had rules (e.g., grammar, punctuation, style, usage). If you didn’t follow the rules, you’d face derision (I see some of that spirit is still alive, sadly, in a few comments in this thread). 

    In other words, writing/literacy was an old-boys’ smoking club. 

    Plenty wish for a return to the old days. They liked when they were in control of things. It was easy to ignore people when you could devalue what they had to say based on whether they were educated, let alone “literate.”

    That world is gone. We are moving very, very quickly to a point where most of the world’s population will have at least basic literary skills (and yes, there is still much more work to do). In developed countries, more people that ever before have tools at their disposal to share ideas, publish, communicate, express things. 

    That many do not have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eloquence really isn’t the point.

    We are at the start of something huge in human civilization. 

    The written word belongs to everybody now.

  23. Jay Gald
    Jay Gald says:

    I’m a little dumbfounded by this post. I’ve been teaching college composition for a number of years now, and, contrary to what the post suggests, I find student writing getting more and more superficial with each passing year. True, the youth may be writing more on to Facebook et al, but this doesn’t translate into good writing. Sure, maybe they can put together a well-crafted sentence in 140 characters, but this doesn’t translate into depth. What it does translate into is shorter attention spans which leads to superficial writing: well-crafted and no depth. Do you think the fresh college graduate can read better than, say, somebody from Gen-X? Think again. Reading and writing are inextricably intertwined. How many college kids read Crime and Punishment for fun anymore? Moby Dick? Which is superior: Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings? Do the math. What the Internet has encouraged is group think and short attention spans at unprecedented levels.

  24. Adrian
    Adrian says:

    Interesting argument! As a digital-native it’s hard for me to comment on how people used to write, but I think that, because of computers and the internet, a lot of good writers are overlooked in the traditional classroom setting (hence a lot of these comments from disagreeing teachers). The reason? KIDS DON’T KNOW HOW TO WRITE WITH THEIR HANDS ANYMORE (and why should they?!). However, most schools and universities still require kids to write with their hands a great deal, particularly as part of the testing process (in-class essays, the SATs, all of the AP and IB tests, etc.). This is a fact I find totally absurd! Although hand-writing and writing with a computer are considered manifestations of the same skill of ‘written communication’, asking a millennial kid to construct a good argument with a pen and paper is like asking a 20-year-old film editor to cut and edit movies by physically piecing strips of film together like the olden days, instead of using Final Cut Pro on his Macbook. No one knows how to glue filmstrips together anymore, because they don’t need to! Plus, writing by hand necessitates a linear thinking process in the way kids construct their arguments, which is totally inefficient and not the way people need to think when they have non-linear editing capabilities (i.e. we can now copy, paste, delete and switch paragraphs around). Even between myself and my little brother (I am 25, he is 20), I see a HUGE difference in his ability to write with his hands. He’s done terrible in his high school and college english classes, but he writes a very decent blog and is an extremely witty tweeter. I just really don’t trust a lot of teacher’s opinions on today’s generation’s ability to write…it just seems pretty obvious that kids have simply outgrown our education’s analog system for teaching and evaluating writing.

  25. Papa T.
    Papa T. says:

    I became an unemployed electronic tech a year ago. I could not find a job. I have a few college courses and electronics training from the military. I became very depressed. I picked up my laptop one day and joined a writing site. I haven’t looked back since. I am now a fully self-employed writer. If I can write than anyone can write. I started for this reason. I want to show people that they can do something and their situation is not hopeless. I want to make a difference.

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