oct 11

Is the Net Good for Writers?

Jason linked to this a couple days ago, but I read it today on the bus and it's pretty interesting, mostly in a meta way: Is the Net Good for Writers? It's a good question, posed to several decent writers (most of them cut from the old-school-hippie Wired mold). But it's surprising to see how many of the contributors truly despise the internet because they think it destroys serious, long-form writing. The irony is that this article is a serious, long-form piece of writing found only on the internet. [My thoughts inside.]


My take: Because of the internet, we have far more good, serious writing than ever before. (We also happen to have far more bad, frivolous writing -- but we've also gotten pretty good at filtering it out.)

I think most of these writers are simply upset because the internet has deprofessionalized their craft. So in one sense, these writers are right: "professional writing" is worse off. Society as a whole, however, is far more educated.

posted by Rex at 10:10 PM on October 10, 2007

a friend of mine who is contact with the novelist david markson, who is around 80 years old, sent him some stuff that people had written about him on the internet. he replied with what i think is the best characterization i've heard about writing on the internet:

"this stuff is awful! how can anyone live in this first-draft world?"

when i read stuff on blogs -- whether by my friends, the new york times, gawker inc., any big blog network, my own stuff, whatever -- i am left with the impression that pretty much no one is writing second drafts, and i think the writing seriously suffers from it. arguments are poorly supported, sentences are badly structured, and so forth.

when i look back on papers i wrote for school or for the local paper, i can see how i spent so much time getting things right, backing up arguments, etc. -- in other words, doing all the things you should do before trying to use your writing to convince someone of something or accurately describe something. but nowadays, it's extremely rare for me to see any evidence of that kind of process on any site.

one great exception is abu aardvark, a middle east blog by a college professor. if more blogs were like his, we would have a lot more interesting, higher-quality stuff to read.

now if you'll excuse me, i have to get back to my IM conversation instead of proof-reading this.

posted by adm at 11:07 PM on October 10, 2007

See, I think that's missing the point. If you're going to judge by the median, you're right, it's a first draft world.

But if you shave off the top 5%, it's a different story. The top 5% of writing online is as good as anything in print -- and there's vastly more of it than what's in print.

posted by Rex at 11:41 PM on October 10, 2007

The conversational-ness of blogs gives writers a bunch of proofreaders ready to attack their stuff, and the dialog back and forth is far more interesting than if the writing was perfect to begin with.

posted by Chris_ at 11:44 PM on October 10, 2007

Totally agree w/ your assessment, Rex. And it's funny to see Markson mentioned here, b/c I just read one of his novels (my first of his) -- they are written in this terrific staccato almost bloggy style (totally not kidding!) -- and yet yes, of course, completely precise & polished.

First drafts aren't always bad, either: Again, focusing on the top 5%, what you give up in polish & perfect word-order you get back in voice, panache, & a certain useful transparency. At Snarkmarket over the years I've had to learn to be, er, 'draftier' -- more willing to just write and post. And I think (though perhaps others disagree) my blogging has improved because of it! Odd!

posted by Robin at 1:19 AM on October 11, 2007

Well, here's an idea: Someone should make a "Best Internet Writing of 2007" book. Rex can edit.

Seriously, I would like to see some examples of what would go in such a book, and see how it holds up next to the best print writing. Is there anything out there that can even begin to compare to an essay picked at random from David Foster Wallace, or Jon Lee Anderson, or William Langewiesche? Honestly, if there is, I want to read it, because (except for maybe some stuff from Salon's heyday) I haven't read it yet.

I think "the top 5%" of internet writing would probably have to be whittled down to the best 0.5% to find anything comparable. The haystack of crap is just too big.

posted by adm at 1:38 AM on October 11, 2007

Totally seriously: I think about proposing that book to a publisher at least once a week.

posted by Rex at 2:29 AM on October 11, 2007

This is a topic of particular interest to me since I push for the use of blogs in higher ed and argue that students become better writers when they have blogs. I've done research on it that shows that the longer students blog, the more thoughtful and reflective they are in their writing. That speaks more to what they try to do than how "finished" their entries are, but the gist is that while they may not edit entry by entry, they become better writers over time because writing has become a habit, and when you do anything regularly you usually get better at it.

Anyway, blogs just occupy a different context than other forms of writing. I kind of reject the whole notion that blogs are *supposed* to be something else: finished academic essays, journalism, polished memoirs, whatever. So much of the handwringing is based on trying to cram them into the template of a pre-existing genre. Marshall McLuhan was wrong; people don't use new media to do the work of the old, they just insist on using the old media as metaphors for the new.

Blogs have a bit of a better toe-hold than wikis, though. I've just recently read about a college professor giving her students a wiki, and was horrified to find out later they'd been editing one another's work.

posted by Kurtis at 9:34 AM on October 11, 2007

Well, I'm not as revered in the internet circle as all you bloggers (this is the only spot my writing appears on the internet), but I do write professionally.

I can tell you that my first draft is never as concise or accurate as when its sat around for a while, been marked up by someone else, and given a final edit. And then there are still some really silly things missed.

Your 5% would be way more special if I was out there blogging away.

Carry the torch of truth quickly to the masses of medians!

posted by Sandman at 6:39 PM on October 11, 2007

That thing reeked of sour grapes. Also, shouldn't we have been tipped off by the title (who's called it "The Net" since, well, that Sandra Bullock movie?) I did get a good laugh out of seeing the term "cognitive elite" used as if it were still a phrase or descriptive of any existing group (is there still a Mensa?) If you're not annoyed on a daily basis by the amount of crap on the internet, you're not paying attention, but there's a lot of crap on TV and in movie theaters and books, too. Why? Because most people are stupid. Most people will always be stupid. The "cognitive elite" (still LOLing) has to accept that and find a way to do work they're proud of in the habitat in which they live. Also, not to pick on Mark Dery again, but it's "Dawson's Creek", not "Dawson's Landing." The Google is available to people of all ages.

posted by lindsay at 2:29 PM on October 12, 2007

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