Writing in the 21st century

The last post looked at some questions about how reading text has changed with the rise of computers and internet. There’s been a great increase in both the amount and type of reading matter, all of which is actually written by someone at some point.

I think that the major contributing factor in the increase in how much people write is the fact that it is now so easy to get your writing out to other people. Using a keyboard, you can put down over a hundred words per minute with some practice, far more than you can write with pen and paper. Once you have something written down, you can then send that to large audiences very easily, either by private communication (email or IM) or publicly as part of a mailing list/forum or a blog or website. That’s not the end of the story. Once you have something ‘out there’, people can start writing about what you’ve written. The internet has allowed large groups of people to take part in massive conversations which in their turn generate even more text and spawn other conversations.

Given so much opportunity and incentive for writing (and publishing), there are two main questions that are worth answering: how do you actually go about writing and what is it that you actually write.

How do you write in the computer age?

With all the choices of how to get your message out into the world, you have to actually choose which one to use. Not too long ago, simple static webpages were pretty much the only way to communicate on a large scale across the net. Today, with the explosion of such things as microblogging, wikis, social networks and the such, a simple web page is probably the last option you’ll consider. I personally think that’s mostly a good thing. I’d rather be thinking about content and writing style than about HTML and CSS (though I do enjoy making the ocassional web page layout).

While some of these tools (blogs and wikis) are conducive to long-form writing, many of them aren’t, no matter how much users might try. Most of my writing is done on this blog and in the form of emails (though I have a few other projects up my sleeve). I would find it very hard to do the same sort of writing I can do here if I were restricted to (for example) Facebook’s notes. Part of the reason is that WordPress offers a more feature-righ experience, but also that a blog is designed to make content presentation the prime objective and discussion or feedback secondary (even with comments). I know some bloggers use their blogs as discussion tools as well, but I feel that a forum or mailing list offers a better environment for that than a blog post.

You could apply the same argument to wikis as well. Wikipedia in particular makes discussion a background process. But some wikis such as the very useful EmacsWiki and the originial wiki at c2 make discussion an important part of the wiki. However, both of them still have strong seed articles and the discussions provide supplementary information and allow disagreements to be placed on record.

Even when it comes to private communication, there are choices. You have email of course, as well as instant messaging. But you also the have various social networks and forums each with their ad-hoc email-like messaging system (and maybe basic chat). A private Twitter account or blog can also be used to let people close to you know about things in your life if you’re not comfortable with laying bare to the world. I’m personally just an email guy, but with multiple accounts to keep things separate. I also use IM, but only for close friends.

While it’s certainly great to have all these cool toys to play with (many of which are generally helpful), an equally important question is what do I write and who gets to read it?

What do you write in the computer age?

This answer depends a lot on what sort of person you are. How much of your life and thoughts do you want to share? I’m personally comfortable with sharing a lot of my life. I have this blog and I Twitter. I do it because I want people to know who I am and I’d like there to be a public record of my thoughts, ideas and transformations over time for people in the future who might be interested (and might learn something). Many people don’t think the same way as I do, and that’s fine. I agree completely with Steve Yegge regarding the reasons you should blog, though I think any other medium is fine.

That being said, I certainly don’t write about everything I think about. If I did, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. I have a few criteria for what I spend my time on. I put in writing what I think would be most interesting for other people to read. I also use writing as a thinking tool and so I write about whatever problem I’m facing to see if I can write my way to a solution. I don’t write much about my personal life because I think it’s not very interesting to most people and I’d get bored writing about it. Once again, other people probably have different criteria and reasons and that’s fine too, as long as you’ve given the issue serious thought. Above all, you should make sure that you write what you want to. Stephen King’s advice has been helpful for me: “you must not come lightly to blank page”.

While you should absolutely place yourself first when thinking about what to write, you should also give some thought to who’s going to read what you’ve written. Thanks to the internet, the chances of other people seeing what you’ve written have greatly increased, especially if they’re looking for it. Computers may be more secure than a paper diary, but for a determined enough seeker, no electronic hurdle is too much. Public encryption technology is pretty good quality, but its not bulletproof. On a less sinister note, there are chances that you yourself might accidentally send out something that you don’t want others to read (remember those great jokes about hitting the “reply-to-all” button). What if you’re afraid that you might accidentally put out something that will cause you great distress later? I found the answer a few weeks ago while reading Ender’s Shadow (which is a really good book that you should read). It goes something like this:

He would never, never commit his real thoughts to a readable form. He keeps his own counsel. Always. You will never find a document written by him that is not meant to be read.

Sister Carlotta, about Bean

Pretty simple, huh? Don’t put in writing something you wouldn’t want people to read. This doesn’t just hold for embarassing stuff, it’s also for stuff that you may think is ‘copyrighted’ or something along those lines. Unless you want people to actually read your stuff, don’t write it. Its ok to want to make money off you’re writing, but understand that not everyone who reads your stuff will pay and it’s best that you accept that and not let it stop you. Newspapers are having real trouble getting to grips with this fact about the computer age, but you can be smarter than that.

In conclusion

Writing in this age is different because computer technology has made distribution very easy. This basic fact is what you have to keep in mind while writing or thinking about writing. Publishing has never been easier, but that puts the onus on you as the writer to decide carefully what you want to publish and make the most of the wonders of computer technology.

3 thoughts on “Writing in the 21st century

  1. I think it can sometimes be risky to assume that just because everyone knows how to write, and because everyone is capable of it. I blog, mostly becasue it’s the way I work through ideas, and think. Seriously, I get lost in the world if I don’t play with ideas and words every week. Lots of times every week. But that’s not, I think, particularly typical. A lot of people struggle with writing, and express themselves pretty well in other ways. Different strokes.

    Also regarding the way that the internet has changed things? There’s a lot of obvious stuff regarding ease of publication and the creation of lots more information, but I think the non obvious stuff is that the internet makes the roles of editor, and curator much more valuable, and also way more distributed… I’m not sure how that’s going to work out, though.


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