Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing is Dead. Long Live Writing!

Norm Geras picks up on Umberto Eco's lament of the bygone practice of handwriting. Eco:

The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages hand-eye coordination ... [W]riting by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think. Many writers, though accustomed to writing on the computer, would sometimes prefer even to impress letters on a clay tablet, just so they could think with greater calm.

It's true that kids will write more and more on computers and cellphones.
The latter observation finds confirmation in The Stanford Study of Writing:
The first thing she [the study's organizer, Andrea Lunsford] found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.
Fair enough, but what about Eco's implied worry that more, faster writing is not the same as better, more thoughtful writing?
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.
In light of the sad state of my own handwriting abilities -- the scratching I do now would appall my junior high self -- and of my son's halting progress in hand-eye coordination, I can see Eco's point that these trends stand to eliminate a specific form of elegance and mastery, but the gain in writing and in the art of writing seems a trade-off worth embracing.

Computerized keyboarding provides a quicker way to turn the bramble and rush of thought into sequences of words, after which the more important work of editing can begin. And as Norm Geras notes, much of this editing -- moving sentences and words around, for example -- is itself far less time-consuming thanks to these technologies.

To date, apart from most spelling errors and some grammatical errors, no technology has made the art of editing any easier, and this, to me, makes the current state of computer-enhanced writing an ideal instance of technology-driven productivity (in the broadest sense): the mechanical aspects of the task are simplified if not eliminated, leaving the person to focus on personality, style, reason, coherence, rhetoric, and everything else that counts as human engagement.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I quite agree, Dale. As someone who as a grade schooler had handwriting that was considered fairly good for my age, but then never got any better, I'm quite happy to be able to reduce (not eliminate by any means; my typing skills are just short of tragic) the physical drudgery of writing. My occasional need at work to scribble something on paper also points out another problem solved by typing: the inability to read my own scratchings. I make it a point to quickly transfer such work to another medium out of fear I won't be able to interpet it later.