Writing Continues to Evolve in the Digital Age. That’s Good.

Person writing on laptop from birds eye view. There's a phone on the left of the laptop on the desk, as well.

Writing has always been in flux. Always. In response to current events, politics, legal developments, the latest creative works (Shakespeare, anyone?), and yes, fads and fashions. That’s why dictionaries are living things, not static monuments to frozen languages. 

And technology has always influenced writing, too. From hand writing with pens and brushes in medieval times to the invention of the typewriter in the nineteenth century, many writing technology tools have had the effect of speeding up our ability to put words on paper. And how something is written naturally changes what is written. 

Fast or slow: What wins the writing race?

And herein lies the controversy: Does writing more quickly capture our brilliant thoughts better? Or prevent us from digging deep into them? 

Indeed, a common complaint you hear about our current digital writing technology (typically a word processing application on a personal computer) is that it is too easy, too facile. One writer (in the New Yorker, no less) lamented that writing using a keyboard was “harmful to the spirit.” That it prevents writers from thinking sufficiently before they commit to their thoughts with language—and that this is a bad thing. 

Some research seems to back this up. In many analyses, writing by hand is deemed better than other methods—say, typing or speaking—for producing text. Even behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner believed that the physical act of pen on paper was an important part of the creative act of writing. Perhaps he would say fingers typing on a keyboard would have the same effect of stimulating the brain. We’ll never know. But students taking notes by hand recalled more of lectures after a month than those who used laptops.

However, the implications of research for these differences is not settled, and empirical research has only begun trying to understand how digital technology is impacting people’s writing styles. 

Learning to be concise

Twitter famously has a 280-character limit. Instagram has limited space for captions. No one reads a LinkedIn post that’s more than 1,000 words. And don’t get me started on how to write an effective email (hint: keep it brief). 

Yes, the digital world doesn’t reward long, elegant, and complex sentences. You use active voice. You write short, concise descriptions. You eschew adjectives and (especially) anything hinting of purple prose. 

And yes, these short-form types of internet communications don’t leave a lot of room for subtlety or evocative imagery. But can’t we all learn to be less verbose?

Isn’t it a good thing when you can write short and snappy (and rhythmically pleasing) prose? Even if in your longform writing you let yourself wax poetic at times? 

Speaking for myself (a fiction writer in addition to a content writer) I can sincerely say that having to write within the constraints of many digital channels has made me a better writer in many ways. Chief among them: I do a lot more searching for the mot juste (the right word) to get the phrasing just right in the least amount of verbiage. I don’t let this ultra-short kind of writing influence me too much or cripple me from writing long, (hopefully) beautiful, complex phrases when I deem it appropriate, but writing for digital channels definitely helps when I need to write, say, hard-hitting dialogue.

Worrying about whether writing is clickable, likable, or shareable 

I’ll tell you one thing about writing for digital channels that doesn’t help. Having to constantly worry about whether my writing is click-baity enough. Of course, writers always worry about how audiences will react to their work. Of course, writers always hope against hope that they’re writing a best-seller. But the need to deliver clicks or likes or shares doesn’t haunt them with every phrase they put down (or at least, not unless they want to make themselves very, very unhappy).  Yet in digital writing, that’s a fact of life. You are judged by the numbers. Immediately. And that isn’t generally the kind of pressure that will most writers would thrive under. 

The writers’ hell that is SEO

But the winner of the not-good-for-writing prize of communicating digitally is SEO (for search engine optimization). This refers to the things that you must do to make articles likely to be picked up by search engines and given low rankings (low is good in such cases). It means making articles long enough (even if you don’t have that much to say), and to build articles around keywords and keyphrases that must appear a sufficient number of times even if it interrupts the flow or reads awkwardly or feels repetitive. Most writers I know hate, absolutely hate, SEO mandates. 

In summary: Adapt and (mostly) thrive

Digital communication has most definitely streamlined writing, especially in business communication, where being able to speak “social” is critical. Even in more creative types of writing, though, the move to shorter and more active prose is happening. And this is good. Because writing should be constantly evolving. The world we live in today is not the same one of 20 or even 10 years ago. So why should we use the same words in the same way to describe it? 

ABOUT Khaleelah Jones

Khaleelah Jones is a digital marketing consultant who has worked with tech startups, educational institutions and non-profits on acquisition and engagement strategy, implementation and KPI modeling. When she’s not working, she can be found reading, writing, pontificating history, yoga-ing and making up verbs.