Writing New Media

Dave Humphrey posted on the subject of grammar the other day, arguing against the now cliche assumption that new textual media like texting, instant messaging, twitter, facebook, and blogs are creating a generation of students who are poor writers.  Now, as a teacher of English Literature, I have been confronted by some horrible writing over the years, and very little of the writing that I see is of the quality that I would like it to be, but this does not imply an easy correlation between new media and poor writing.

In my opinion, the shift in writing has not been from good writing to bad writing at all, but from technically correct writing to technically incorrect writing, which are related but not identical questions.  Though good writers generally do have a certain facility with the technical aspects of writing, it is certainly possible, as the schoolwork of previous generations would testify, to write correctly, by dint of rote and repetition, but still to write poorly, without style, without rhetorical force, without intellectual or emotional insight, without sensitivity to the subtleties of sound and connotation and allusion.  It is entirely possible, therefore, even likely, that previous generations of students were no better writers than the students of our own day, even if they were better able to write correctly according to a certain definition that may or not be very useful in any case. I am certainly not suggesting that today’s students are better writers  than their predecessors, because they may in fact be worse on the whole.  I am only suggesting that it is not possible to measure writing ability solely by the degree of adherence to certain technical standards.

With this distinction in mind, I would argue that new textual media do in fact have a relationship with the ability of students to write in ways that are technically correct.  It is not that these media have produced an increase in incorrectness, in colloquialism and informality, but that they have made our already colloquial and informal communication a textual and public activity rather than an oral and more or less private one.  We now write to one another the things that we previously only said to one another, and this has produced a new kind of writing that tries to represent textually the kinds of colloquial talk that has never before found a significant place in formal writing.  This new colloquial writing is not merely a corruption of more traditional formal modes of writing.  It is a mode of writing unto itself, with its own grammars and technicalities.  It is not necessarily good, of course, but that is not exactly the point.  After all, the colloquial talk that is now being made textual through new media writing was not often of tremendous value either.

This textualization of our colloquial talk is significant, however, because it begins to blur the boundary between the colloquial and the formal.  If there was once a strong distinction between the ways that people spoke and the ways that they wrote, a strong distinction between colloquial speech and formal writing, this distinction is now increasingly obscured as both the colloquial and the formal become a matter of textuality.  After all, people now text gossip to each other and blog their lives to each other and write their school assignments or professional documents all at the same time and on the same device.  These activities are just different windows in the virtual space of the same monitor.  There is no longer a strong spacial or temporal separation between formal and informal communication, so it should come as no surprise that the two begin to bleed into one another.

Not only do new textual media blur the distinction between formal and informal writing, however, they also blur the distinction between textuality and other forms of media, as text becomes only one of many elements that are combined in the space of the screen in order to communicate, something to be combined with emoticons and embedded audio-visual material and hyperlinks and other such media.  Though this is not exactly new, as even the earliest written texts have incorporated illustrations, what is new is that these additional media are no longer intended only to support or to enhance or to explicate the text.  Instead, they are now understood as having equivalent or even greater significance than the text, where the primary medium is audio or visual, and the text is included merely as a caption or a label.

It is the blurring of these two distinctions, between the colloquial and the formal and between textuality and other media, that I think is the real source of anxiety for most educators, even if they have not yet recognized it.  What they perceive as a degradation in their students’ ability to write properly is in actuality a shift in the very idea of what constitutes proper writing and even a shift in what constitutes the proper role of writing.  They advocate a return to rote grammar and spelling in the schools without realizing that writing well in the context of new media may well require very different kinds of propriety altogether, very different approaches to rhetoric and persuasion, very different understandings of style and tone.

Now, let me be as clear as I can.  I am very definitely not suggesting that the writing going on through new media is good writing simply because it writes in new and different ways.  My experience with most new media writing is that, when it is intended still to be the primary mode of communication, it is as horrible as most writing has always been, and when it is being subordinated to other kinds of media, it is usually a good deal worse.  Simple novelty of form and purpose should not at all obscure the fact that this kind of writing is mostly characterized by cliche, incoherence, and general sloppiness, but this is not merely an effect of adopting one standard of technical propriety over another.  It is an effect of having few models of good writing within the newly adopted standards of technical propriety, models that teachers and schools are too fixated on grammar to provide.

Let me take emoticons as an example. I have no essential objections to emoticons, neither in themselves nor as an example of visual elements being introduced to a textual medium.  My objection to emoticons is that they are usually the visual equivalent of a textual cliche.  They say only very little, and they say it in only a very simplistic way, which makes them suitable for only certain kinds of writing, for those kinds of writing that are the equivalents of our colloquial speech, which often do not require anything more than simple and uncomplicated modes of expression.  Rather than just objecting to all such visual elements in a text, however, I would suggest that teachers should be providing models that combine visual elements with written text more effectively, models that signal a more formal or thoughtful use of these visual elements without necessarily making recourse to traditional writing conventions.

They could, for example, show how a still primarily textual piece might include audio or video or photographs or hyperlinks to material that explicates its subject more effectively than words could alone.  They could show how text might be superimposed as commentary on a video or on a series of photographs or on an electronic text in order to make a close reading of these media.  They could show how text might be voiced, or combined with music, or laid over visuals in order to produce a certain stylistic or tonal quality.  In short, they could address emoticons, not as a failure to understand formal grammar, but as a failure to understand the visual possibilities of which emoticons are only the most banal example.

This does not devalue the role of formal grammar.  Many of our grammatical conventions exist because they help us to communicate more clearly and more easily.  They are not essential, to be sure, and they can and should change over time, but that does not alter the fact that they are useful as conventions of communication.  What I am suggesting is merely that the value of these conventions needs to be modeled in the context of writing that is relevant to students because it also models the ways in which their media enables them to write.  I am suggesting that we need to write new media well, to encourage others to write it well, and to learn from others who are writing it well, and I am suggesting that this requires us to discover and develop and artculate and share new conventions that will enable this kind of writing, even if these new conventions take some of what they need from good old fashioned grammar.

  1. “In short, they could address emoticons, not as a failure to understand formal grammar, but as a failure to understand the visual possibilities of which emoticons are only the most banal example.” — beautiful.

  2. Lauren said:

    “It is an effect of having few models of good writing within the newly adopted standards of technical propriety, models that teachers and schools are too fixated on grammar to provide.”

    This has always seemed to me to be the root of the problem when it comes to the lack of technical correctness in writing (which I view as a serious problem, although that opinion might be unpopular). It seems to me that most teenagers at this point are primarily reading things that are written by their peers and, as my high school history teacher was wont to point out to us on a regular basis, each high school student is just as dumb as the last one.

    Not that I think that high school students are dumb (far from it, in fact) but that they seem to, as a whole, be steeping their brains in this new media without much exposure to literature that offers any sort of example of technical correctness, and it’s kind of like the unable-to-spell leading the unable-to-spell. There are obvious exceptions to that rule, but that has been my experience with the teens that I know, lovely, intelligent people who can’t figure out how to spell simple words, or who don’t care enough to try, which might be a different issue altogether. (And it’s affecting adults, too, although not quite at the same pace.)

    Either that, or I’ve become a seriously uptight old fuddy duddy at the ripe old age of 28. Kids today! Get off my lawn. Etc.

  3. Dave,

    I am glad you enjoyed that bit.


    Good grammar, like everything else, is best learned by model rather than by rote, because mere technical instruction can never account for the ways that grammatical conventions can and should be broken at times in the interest of style or emphasis or tone or whatever. As people learn from their models, questions of grammar will certainly arise, but they will arise in the real and relevant context of their own writing and their own reading, which is, at least in my opinion, precisely the point when they will truly motivated to learn.

  4. Lauren said:

    But if what someone is reading is fairly uniform in its style, emphasis, or grammatical correctness, what exactly is there to raise the questions necessary for learning? If it’s 10% awful, but grammatically precise books assigned by distrusted English teachers (present company excluded, of course) and 90% blogs, text messages, and Facebook postings by their peers, what hope is there that they’ll be inspired to seek out good books and/or good writing, or to become technically proficient on their own?

    You obviously have way more formal experience with this issue than I do (all of my opinions are anecdotal at best) but I feel like I am fighting on the losing side of this battle, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cause me some amount of pain and aggravation.

  5. Lauren,

    You have identified the problem exactly. People write poorly, not because they lack teaching in proper grammar, but because they lack models of good writing. The greatest service that teachers can do their students, therefore, is to offer them examples of good writing, in many styles and from many genres and from many eras. Students need to see living grammar in its many forms in order to have the familiarity and context to make questions of formal grammar relevant.

    Your own experience can confirm this. When you see children just learning to read, a lesson on the parts of speech would obviously just bore and confuse them. Even a lesson on the names and sounds of all the letters may not be entirely relevant. Instead, you start with the letters in their name, and they begin to ask, “What sound does that letter say?” and “What letters are in Daddy’s name?” and so on. The teacher is there, first, to encourage the students to read at a level that will raise questions, and second, to help answer those questions as they arise.

    In exactly the same way, teachers of much older students need to offer models of good writing that will challenge the students to think about writing and reading and language as such. In this and every other age, most people will never rise to such a challenge, but some will, and these few will find themselves on the way to writing.

  6. your whole post made me think of two things, the way so many languages use such foreign devices in both written spoken communication, like how some African dialects use different clicks and pops when speaking and in english they are integrared into speach as specilized nouns held by punctuations, or that some norse languages have characters we have no values for- or finish which has so many ideas placed into single words let alone a sentence.

    It also made me think of this:

  7. Sorry I didn’t mean nouns, I meant vowels, so very odd of me to say nouns.

  8. d said:

    I think there has been a decline in writing quality, and my theory is that this decline is related to the disappearance of written correspondence. Writing letters was the testing ground and ‘school’ for generations of writers, and it has been replaced by digital messaging formats that don’t seem to have any positive effect on how users write (if anything, the opposite).

    The other culprit is probably due to how few people read poetry anymore. According to the NEA, around 5% of the adult population of the US read poetry anymore. So…

  9. d said:

    Also, schools (in the US at least) have moreorless given up on teaching grammar. Even at the University level, students no longer have to be grammatically competent. It’s embarrassing and difficult to read an essay by most college students today.

  10. This is true d, but I don’t think this would suffice. There is a great amount of people and students who simply have no compunction for communication, which lends them to be very incapable or derriving any nuance about what they are reading. They cannot even grasp simple identity of uncommon or rare words based on tone or context by placement or usage. In terms I would blame simplicity, yes a lack of poetry, but also too much ingrained academia, which focuses on straight foreward principals of communication which on many levels eliminate the ability or need to think critically, allowing only the simplest absorbtions of necessary material- unless the author has done all the heavy lifting, the tome is cast off or deemed academically inferior, or too much work to read.

  11. d,

    I would agree. The move from formal correspondence to informal email is an example of the kind of shift in our modes of writing that I am describing above. It is not that email is bad necessarily, and it is not that email should never be used to write a quick and colloquial note. It is that nobody bothers to write emails well, not even when this kind of writing is what is required, so there are few models of good writing in the medium, and our writing habits deteriorate.

    I do not think that teaching more grammar is the way to address this problem, however. I think that the way to address it is to have more of us consciously take the time to write new media well, so that others will have models of this writing. We need to show that we expect more from each other as writers and readers, so that there is a reason for people to learn how to write well, even and especially if they are now writing very differently.


    If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying that people do not read well, so they are unable to write well, and I would agree with this. If people do not read carefully, with an ear for how the text has been written, they will not know how to go about writing themselves.

  12. d said:

    Well, the medium is partially the problem (the internet is increasingly video rather than text based), but the cultural shift away from the written word was already happening before the internet became ubiquitous.

    The problem with the internet is that it is not designed as a communication tool: it is primarily a means of selling things. It commercializes and monetizes everything. Free email providers, social networking sites, and so on do not exist to help people communicate; they exist to sell products and services. (Even a blog like this, which lacks advertisements, still advertises products: books and films.)

    One interesting case study in this is the disappearance of the zine/pen-pal subculture that thrived in the 1980’s and early 90’s but is now relegated to a few large zine distributors.

    Anyway, I’m throwing myself into this battle directly by teaching a free poetry class for young people in the Spring.

  13. d,

    I am interested in this free poetry class. I also teach writing freely and informally to some young kids, and I find that the experience is much more rewarding and productive than my formal teaching in many ways. I think that these kinds of opportunities are great ways to actually engage people in the process of writing, as long as they can avoid the tendency to fall into traditional teaching structures.

    Let me know how the class goes.

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