I just read William Zinsser’s beautiful address to incoming international students at Columbia’s school of journalism. Toward the end, he says:
“The epidemic I’m most worried about isn’t the swine flu. It’s the death of logical thinking. The cause, I assume is that most people now get their information from random images on a screen—pop-ups, windows, and sidebars—or from scraps of talk on a digital phone.”
In an article in the New York Times this morning, Anand Giridharadas claims that we are becoming linguistic utilitarians, treating language “as computers do, as a protocol: a code that machines use to communicate with other machines, a code that is not savored or loved, a code that exists to get the job done and works precisely because it is boring, standardized and pragmatic.” What an unfortunate description of current language use! This claim is pretty bleak and omits the most interesting part of the story.
As many scholars point out, the advent of computers, Internet, text messages, etc., have increased literate practice. Up until the early 80s, most executives dictated messages/letters for others to type. Phone conversations were the norm of business communication, rather than the exception. Innovations such as e-mail and texting, however, require us to think and communicate textually.
Recent additions such as texting and Twitter seem to move us toward less words, rather than providing a space to expound upon our thoughts. Often, these shorter phrases lead to impoverished communication, but they don’t need to. Zinsser’s address emphasizes a point that Nancy Duarte consistently makes in her book slide:ology (2008): the importance of message. A benefit of abbreviated communication is the pressure to condense our message into a sentence. We now need to identify the most salient part of what we’re trying to say and communicate it clearly and concisely.
Clarity and conciseness are a benchmark of good writing regardless of medium. Before Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses, however, we had the luxury of space that a page provides to develop our thoughts. Many abused this privilege. To be an effective communicator in this new space requires skill in condensing a message into a single, compelling sentence. Likewise, in longer pieces, each sentence must have a message.
Now, as Duarte and Zinsser point out, is where story is important. We no longer have the luxury of space for a data dump. Readers expect a lot from our single phrases or sentences and if there isn’t a story or some coherent theme tying our ideas together, we may be read, but we won’t be understood.
True, students are now expected to compose in new media. We assign them to create video, images, presentations, or blogs of their ideas. Rather than seeing these new media as a threat to literacy, especially to good writing, we should engage the possibilities these modes afford.