Is good writing doomed in the new-media age?

It’s hardly a new concern, but we aren’t talking about it enough.

ernie.jpgWill good writing become a casualty of the new-media revolution? It looks that way from where I sit.

In Kent State PR classes, writing is the core skill stressed every day on every project. We’re proud of our tradition that puts writing first. And I know Papa would approve.

But I’m worried that the casual nature of online media is destroying this core value. I see it in students’ classwork, and most certainly in their emails. I see it in professionals’ work, too. Careless writing is everywhere.

quill.gifThis past week I critiqued 12 blogs produced by the students in our Public Relations Online Tactics class. About half of these students are social-media naturals, and they’re all pretty smart kids.

But too many of them — in the process of becoming bloggers — bypassed our core value of clear, concise, correct writing. I found a slew of spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage errors –errors not common to their more traditional, on-paper assignments.

To be fair, the blogs won’t be graded for a few more weeks, so there’s time to edit and proofread. Not so when you post “for real.” You click “publish,” and your post is out there, warts and all. So you need to get it right the first time.

It’s not just our students whose blogs contain grammar and punctuation gaffs. I routinely find errors in the works of A-listers in PR and marketing, fields in which clear and correct writing is fundamental.

One blogger on social media (whose book we require in our Online class) says mistakes in blog posts actually lend authenticity to the message. I agree with Shel Israel on most things, but I can’t rationalize carelessness by saying typos enhance credibility — at least not without some research to back it up.

Can you achieve breezy, conversational style without soiling the language? Of course. You simply write as you speak. Then you edit, you polish and you proofread. It takes more time, but it’s what professionals who write for a living do.

I can criticize other bloggers for sloppy writing, but nothing will change. But if I flunk my students for the same offense, at least I can clean up my little corner of the world.

I know what you’re thinking, “I’ll bet there’s a mistake in this post. I’m gonna find it, and I’m gonna nail his ass.”

You won’t be the first to find an error on this site. Self-editing is a bitch, and I struggle with it daily. But I’m betting you won’t find spelling errors, subject-verb disagreement, or commas inserted for no apparent reason. And nowhere will you find periods and commas outside quotation marks, an error so common in the blogosphere that I wonder if anyone teaches the rule anymore. (Thank you Dan Santow for reinforcing it.)

We all know writing quality is in decline just about everywhere, and that’s a shame. But it presents an opportunity for you and me, since we can do it. We’re professionals, right?

lampoon71.gifBut you can’t turn good writing on and off, or at least you shouldn’t. To stay sharp, you should write well all the time. (I exclude text messages from this rule, since that medium has its own little code.)

If you’ve come this far, you deserve a treat. So enjoy Michael O’Donoghue’s classic essay, “How to Write Good.” Things were funnier in 1971, but I can’t remember why.

17 Responses to Is good writing doomed in the new-media age?

  1. Sarah Wurrey says:

    I can’t express how much I agree with this post! I posted about bad writing in PR a couple weeks ago, and it seems that ever since it landed on my radar I can’t turn around without running headlong into a dangling modifier. You are correct, I think the difficulty of self-editing plays a major role in the bad writing present throughout the blogosphere. It’s a pickle, to be sure.

  2. Let’s take a trip. In a fruitless attempt to find a more official version of O’Donoghue’s essay, I find the following URL:

    http://www.nationallampoon.com/nl/02_fb/writegood/writegood.asp

    Link rot be damned. Coming up empty on Wikipedia, I recklessly search Google and Nexus, only to find several iterations of Frank Visco’s piece sharing the same name:

    http://www.commonplacebook.com/jokes/funny_lists/how_to_write_go.shtm

    Now, I haven’t a clue who the good Mr. Visco is, though it appears he taught at Orange Coast College. You know, Orange Coast College. Everybody knows Orange Coast College. At any rate, Visco’s list shares the stage with William Safire‘s “Rules for Writers” on a dot-gov site:

    http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/humor/writegood.cfm

    Fair enough; however, let’s back up a bit:

    http://www.plainlanguage.gov/

    A federal website about “plain language”? Billed as “Improving Communications from the Federal Government to the Public”? (Note to the kind folks at PL: your website sucks hardcore).

    So, yes, the web is amok. You already knew that. At any rate, if anybody can point me to a clean copy of National Lampoon‘s original piece, I’d be forever in your good graces. Oh, one last link to share in accord with the above post:

    http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/commentary/theluddite/2006/02/70214

  3. Brian Wooley says:

    Thanks again for hammering on the writing topic, Bill.

    Your point about turning one’s writing skills on and off is one I’ve stressed for years. The simplest way I can think of to avoid slipping into a casual, error-prone style is to make your style consistent regardless of what you’re writing. (Let me clarify that I am referring to “style” as grammatical structure, as opposed to voice/tone, which obviously may vary according to circumstance.) Be it an email to a friend or even an instant message, take the time to capitalize and punctuate where appropriate. Spell out words rather than relying on shorthand, symbols, or emoticons. The extra time it takes to write something clearly and correctly the first time around is paltry when compared to what’s involved in cleaning up a mess later on–particularly in a professional setting.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’m happy to see that good writing strikes a chord with some folks. Thanks for your feedback. But according to Technorati, I lost four links and about 3,000 spots in the rankings since I posted this item. Must have offended those wreckless bloggers, eh?

  5. DofAM says:

    And what would Shakespeare say about what we deem to be “good writing.” Writing evolves with the times, and the corresponding media forms. Perhaps it’s not good or bad, just the Darwinistic changes of the times.

  6. wreckless, eh? Glad to hear there haven’t been any accidents!

  7. Andy Curran says:

    U iz nutz iff u dont think wee bloggers kin right good, U will loose me as 1 of. you’re reeders iff u keep doin this.

    I know, stock humor, hardee-har-har!

    My “go to” guy for writing is James J. Kilpatrick. All politics aside, he knows what is talking (writing) about. He is a double threat: top-shelf grammarian with a creative flair.

    So I suggest you check out this link for some samples, you ignorant sluts!

    http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4155/is_20050206/ai_n9725632

  8. Stacy Wessels says:

    It baffles me that so many people put so little stock in good writing. It’s like the company president (or US president) who can’t put together a simple sentence during a news conference. The writer or speaker looks bad, the company looks bad, and I have to think I’m not the only person in the world who gets offended by the disrespect of bad grammar. Hey, if you are writing to me, and you don’t even take the time to spell check the letter, screw you and the illiterate horse you rode in on. My own motto: Trying to make the world a better place, one properly placed comma at a time.

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Glad to see the interest continues in this topic. I’m not surprised. And I’m gratified to see most of the comments come from the PRKent faithful and those close to us. By the way, Sean, I have never had an accident while writing, so I am indeed “wreckless.” It’s funny, but I think we all have those little writing foibles. For whatever reason, “reckless” always comes off my keyboard as “wreckless,” at least on my first drafts. And 99 of 100 times I catch it on the proofreading. “Tie” always comes out “tire,” owing to my many years promoting rubber products other than Goodyear! (Sorry, man! You guys are still the king!)

    Andy, one reason I’ve avoided an AIM account is because the shorthand would drive me up a wall. And, Stacy, sometimes even a well-written letter can get us off on the wrong foot. Do you recall getting one from me (when back when) that began “Dear Stephanie”? Not sure I’ve ever recovered from that!

  10. Andy Curran says:

    I swear that just before I clicked “Submit”, I noticed that I typed “flare” instead of “flair.” That was close!

    Are you sure the period always goes inside quotation marks? I thought that it was only done when someone was actually quoted. It doesn’t look right in the first sentence.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Andy…Periods and commas always go inside the quotes. No exceptions. At least that’s how I’ve been indoctrinated, and all my grammar books agree. Check Dan Santow’s post (link from my original). Also, it doesn’t look right in the first sentence of what?

  12. Stacy Wessels says:

    Your memory is better than mine. I have no recollection of you writing a letter addressed to “Stephanie.” Then again, I have grown almost immune to such things. Not at all the case when someone misspells my name, although that is so common that I rarely correct people. Funny story… I was typing my name into the bar’s video game and a friend said, “That’s not how you spell your name!”

  13. Andy Curran says:

    It doesn’t look right in the first sentence of my previous post within the word “flair.” Or in the first sentence of this post, for that matter!

    But I’ll start doing it that way.

  14. Brian Wooley says:

    “Periods and comma precede closing quotation marks, whether double or single.”

    So says section 6.8 of my edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    Brian,

    I’ve always thought New York style had it all over Chicago style. Thin crust is where it’s at. Fewer carbs, more cheese. And Andy will agree, since he’s from Brooklyn. But when it comes to placing one’s quotations, you are right on the money.

  16. I know I’m a little late on this, but I hope you won’t mind too much.

    I think what you’re doing with your students and their blogs is great. I think you’re demonstrating how “new media” can be a tool to keep writing from declining. A lot of the problem with the decline of writing is foundational — kids who grow up with “internet speak” have a hard time spelling out words and figuring how to use punctuation that isn’t a string of exclamation points.

    I’m finishing up my undergraduate degree at Towson University in English, after a several year absence (actually, one of my former English profs — Don-Jon Dugas — is now teaching up at Kent State). One thing I’ve noticed is the deteriorating of writing skills — even among students in the English department. At the beginning of the semester, one student asked the professor if “internet speak” (i.e., 2 for two, LOL for laughing) was alright for our bi-weekly reading responses (I wanted to do many bad things to this student once it became clear to me she was serious).

    Here’s a bad analogy: you’ve got a knife, and you don’t sharpen it, and pretty soon it’s dull. Writing is like that knife. You’ve gotta make writing a regular practice to keep it sharp — and I’m not just talking about proper positioning of a quotation mark. I think “new media” can provide plenty of opportunities to keep that blade sharp — a big reason I started blogging was because my writing skills were getting rusty. Sure, I do it casually – I’m not the best at double-checking my spelling before I post, and my self-editing before posting is, on occasion, questionable.

    Also: to be a good writer, you’ve got to be a reader. The paper, books, anything and everything. The two go in hand and hand.

  17. Matt Smith says:

    Bill,
    I’d love to see ABC’s John Stossel take a look at this question on his show! Having taken an Economics course at George Mason University, we were exposed to this guy’s thoughts. John, can you look at this? šŸ™‚

    I don’t think people are getting dumber, in fact, I think most people don’t want to read that sort of “lingo” anyways. Having just finished school myself, I remembered that I didn’t see much of the language you talk about. Perhaps I didn’t view my peers’ papers enough, but I think most people want to see clear and concise writing, but in snippets. Just a thought.

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