Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The writing is all right.

Every once in a while, I hear people complain about those rotten kids who are wantonly ruining English with their electronic gizmos and their internets. It's a myth that's been taken apart in various ways.

One fact that I don't see mentioned as frequently in this discussion is that people in this generation are communicating in writing much more than previous generations. Blogs, Facebook, email, Twitter. It all adds up. So it's nice to see this fact mentioned in this Wired article.
Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.
The first thing she 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.

It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.
People used to phone. Now they're writing. And the writing isn't half bad, possibly because the entire world is reading, ready to correct you if your logic or your spelling is faulty.

You can listen to me talking more about this on an RTRFM radio interview (about three-quarters through the stream).


  1. A literacy revolution? Revolution means change, right? And any change in language is degradation, right? And a reflection of poor moral character, right?

    This is the most terrifying thing I've ever read. The more people write, the more writing changes? Obviously, the best way to protect the integrity of written language is to limit people's access to literacy.


    Maven McLoonyPants

  2. ps) I recommend 'Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses' to anybody who is intrigued enough by this general topic to read a whole book on it. It's an interesting discussion of the history and meanings of literacy that's accessible to a general audience.

    pps) Obviously, I'm desperately procrastinating my thesis right now.


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