A Question on the Future of Writing

I’ve had a question that’s been rolling around in my head for the last few weeks now, and I’ve been trying to find a good way to post about it. The problem is that every time I start to write about it, I start getting lost in trying to figure out how I really feel about the issue. So, instead of trying to take on the topic single-handed, I’m going to pass along my question to all of you.

How will the information age affect the future of writing?

It would be easy to jump to a few conclusions right off the bat on the subject, but I think to really answer the question we need to take a step back into the past. Writing has been through a lot of twists and turns in recent history, and it’s important not to ignore those.

Before we get too far along in that, however, I do want to say that my personal feeling is that the internet won’t mean the end of days for the written word. Despite the fears of some people, I don’t think that the next 20 years will see English devolve into something resembling drunken text messages, and I don’t think that I need to start preaching to everyone that cares about literature to move off the grid and start using tree leaves for toilet paper. That being said, I do think that some subtle changes may be coming. Perhaps you feel differently though. If so, I should point out that WebMD has a great article that helps you identify Poison Oak and Poison Ivy. You should probably print it out before you go.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the matter. What got me thinking about this question in the first place was a blog post I stumbled on over at Buffer about how writers improve their abilities by becoming better readers. In the article, Belle Beth Cooper does a good job at emphasizing the fact that what you read can very definitely influence what you write. There are a few things I disagree with her on, but the overall idea that most good writers spend a fair amount of time with their heads buried in other people’s books seems pretty sound to me.

When I read through the post, my mind was flooded with memories of a recent project I undertook, and the shivers down my spine that I still feel when thinking about it can only further cement for me the idea that reading is a required part of writing. Not so long ago, a first time author stumbled on one of the sites I run, and he wanted to see about doing an interview about his new book. The book fit in well with the genre of our site, but because I didn’t want to go into something like that blind, I told him that we would need to read through his novel before doing an interview. It was probably one of the best decisions of my life.

I’m not going to name the author or the book here because of what is about to follow. After spending a good month trying to pace myself through the 500 page epic on my Kindle, I came to two conclusions. First was the fact that sometimes a physical book is still better. There were many times that I ran into spots in the book where what I was reading didn’t seem to line up with earlier parts of the plot, and I found myself longing for the ability to easily flip back to earlier pages to see if I was in fact losing my mind or not. The second conclusion? No one must have proof-read this work before it was published. Littered throughout the novel were so many grammar errors, punctuation errors, and improper word usages that I many times had to resist the urge to take out a red pen and mark up my e-reader with corrections.

Later on, I actually ended up getting hired by that author to copy-edit the story for him before the second edition came out, so I can’t say the experience was a complete loss, but it definitely was a shock to my system compared to the type of reading I’m used to plowing through in a good book. That second edition of the novel has yet to see the light of day, and I don’t know if it ever will. Coincidentally enough though, there was a blog post the author made a few months ago where he mentioned that he too had realized that the more he read, the more his writing style adapted to match that of other authors. At last check, he was going to try to read through the books of three highly respected writers and then try to dive back into a full-fledged rewrite.

One experience certainly doesn’t make a trend. There are tons of new authors that are just starting to stretch their wings, and many of them are putting out fantastic work. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if what I saw the first time I sat down with that book was a glimpse into what we might see more and more of as the people who grew up with the internet always at their fingertips start to come of age as the next generation of writers.

This isn’t a condemnation of young people, nor is it a condemnation of technology. Both have the potential for doing vast amounts of good to the world, but we do have to acknowledge that every time a massive change takes place in society, some side effects can occur, and the way our ability to communicate with other people in the world has evolved in the last hundred years is a change on a scale more massive than most of us can even fathom.

It was only in 1906 that the first AM radio signals started to make their way into the world. By the 20s the ‘Golden Age of Radio’ had begun, and we saw the start of an era where one voice could be heard by thousands of people, spread over hundreds of square miles. Telephones technically came before radio, but it wasn’t until after World War II that they were commonplace in most homes. After that, we saw television gain adoption in the 50s and 60s. Each of these technologies had an effect on reading. By dividing up the way that people spent their free time, they most certainly cut down on the amount of time people devoted each night to browsing through a newspaper, reading a magazine, or sitting down with a good book. Even so, magazines and newspapers still thrived. Books were still published and consumed at a rate fast enough to keep roofs over the heads of good authors.

You could look at all of this and wonder why the internet is any different then. It’s one more division of people’s free time, but those divisions haven’t historically led to the end of the printed word. If you were to argue on those facts alone, you would have a fair point to make. There is a difference though. The internet isn’t taking away people’s time spent reading books and magazines and newspapers; it’s replacing that time entirely in many cases.

There are people that love to read. They pick up a book or browse through and article and enjoy every minute they can delve into it, getting lost in the words and in the story they make. I’m one of those people. When I was younger, I often times got into trouble for staying up much too late reading books in bed. Within them I found worlds that I wanted to escape to and people I wanted to be like when I got older. The experiences those books brought me helped make a part of the person I am today.

Things started to change when I started to get into computers. At first it was subtle. I would find myself spending some of those same late hours on a game of Space Quest, instead of with the latest RL Stine book, or I might spend some time experimenting with making a BASIC program that asked questions and flashed the screen in all 16 colors with the right answer, leaving the latest issue of Wired for another day. But what really changed things for me, what fundamentally altered the way I looked at reading, was the first time I got online.

Rather than striving to find new things to read, I was suddenly completely overwhelmed with material to pour through. Message boards, chat rooms, news articles… On the internet there was so much information that keeping up with it all was impossible. A wealth of information was out there for me, but I had the pockets of a poor man when it came to the amount of time I had to consume it… especially on dial-up.

That’s when my strategy for reading started to change. Since I didn’t have time to read everything out there, I did what almost everyone does on the internet these days. You’re probably doing it right now actually. I started skimming. One paragraph here, one headline there. If I didn’t read things that didn’t appeal to me, I could cover a lot more information in a much quicker time frame.

Skimming is a useful tool for the internet. In many cases, it really is a necessity if you want to stay sane. There are huge downsides, however. Because I was spending at least the same number of hours reading as I had before I got hooked up, my mind was still getting its reading fix. And slowly, without even realizing it was happening at the time, I started to put down those other forms of reading and trading them for more online hours.

It took years before I realized that I had stopped reading books altogether. Even when I did, I still didn’t feel like I had missed out on much. Call it denial, call it over-optimism, or call it whatever else you like, but I still felt like I was just as competent a reader as I had been back when I was a kid, before the internet struck.

That feeling lasted until my mid twenties, when I picked up a book again for the first time since I had moved out on my own. Just 3 pages into the book, I realized I had a problem. The words all made sense, and I could still connect them into a sentence, but I had completely and totally lost my ability to lose myself in them. Back when I was younger, I remember the world shutting off around me as chapters started to move by. Now, sitting on the couch and trying to work my way through the preface, I couldn’t concentrate at all. My eyes kept trying to jump forward, to skim two paragraphs ahead for an important fact. Everything about how I read had changed.

Looking back at emails I sent from those days is a painful experience. My thoughts jumped around randomly, and I had some real issues maintaining a coherent thought in my replies if I strayed off at all from just answering any questions I had been asked. There’s very little doubt in my mind that if I was still in school and went to see a doctor for it, they would have diagnosed me with ADD (or ADHD now, for those wanting me to live in the present). But my problem wasn’t a chemical imbalance. It wasn’t something a few pills would fix. My problem was that I, like so many others, had trained my brain to work this way from years of repetition, and now it was affecting more than just my ability to read through a good book. It was affecting my ability to write as well.

Once I started to get in the habit of reading more books, things started to improve for me again. Though it took a lot of struggling to make my way through the first two or three, things got easier from there on out. That part of my mind that let me imagine other places and other worlds started lighting up again. If an author took more time to weave a more intricate plot, I was thrilled to discover how all the pieces fit together at the end. And better still, when I started writing again myself, I discovered that I hadn’t completely lost my abilities to let my own thoughts out into the world. They were just buried under the pile of disconnected thoughts that was thrown on top of them when I tried to take in too much information all at once.

But now we come back full circle to the initial question I asked. How will the information age affect the future of writing? To make it a little more meaningful, it’s a question you can ask about yourself too, especially if you plan to jot down a few words of your own in the coming years. How will the information age affect the future of your writing?

For the author that hired me to copy-edit his book, I firmly believe that his travels are similar to those that I made a few years ago. Hopefully the fact that he’s starting to realize how the books he reads can affect his writing means that he’s on the upward swing of that battle though. The bigger question, however, is if all those destined to be writers will make the same journey. Or, will we lose some wielders of the pen… or the keyboard… to the struggle of staying focused in an age where information pours down from the internet like rain on a town that’s already 6 feet under water.

To be fair, there is a flip side to all of this that I haven’t explored here, which is why I’ve posed this little rant of mine as a question, rather than an answer. Another point of view for all of this is that maybe, for the generations to come, the constant presence of the internet from the time they first open their eyes will mean that they can process it all without feeling so disjointed as those of us who have had to adapt to it as it made its way through the earlier stages of its evolution. Maybe the books that they write will be even more impressive because of all the information they have at their fingertips and not despite it. If that’s your point of view, I want to hear it. Make your case, and perhaps you’ll prove me wrong. You’ll definitely have my full attention.

Featured Image Courtesy of Moyan Brenn (Flickr)

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