The Future of Writing

Last updated: Jul 2, 2013

The Elevator Pitch for the Future of Writing

1. I’m not alone in my faith that periodicals, books, and other printed media are not doomed by the Web. They will flourish. But the Web has created a massive alternative media outlet for those who express themselves in words, and has broken down the traditional barriers that would prevent those writers from having their words heard.

2. I can easily argue that there has never in history been a greater demand for words, for words pulled together into clear expression and persuasive thoughts. The question for writers and those who employ them is how far this demand is shifting from words that appear in print and for words that appear electronically (and the twain often meets). Writing for print has created far less wealth than media hype suggests. If one was embarking on a writing career today, and the best pay is the objective, the Web appears to provide a more lucrative outlet (and often a wider audience) than print. But these are two different beasts.

3. Most intriguingly, the Web itself has changed and broadened the nature of the opportunities for writers. Today’s most-read blogs have no true historical equivalent. And some (admittedly, only a small fraction) are significantly profitable. (See the Industry section on Blogs.)

4. Perhaps ironically, the Web has also inadvertently spawned an enormous self-publishing industry, good old ink-on-paper: there have never been so many opportunities to have your musings recorded in book form and made available for distribution via this ubiquitous medium (see in the Industry section on Book Publishing, “Vanity Publishing Becomes Self-Publishing“).

Introduction to the Future of Writing

I mistrust this computer work. It’s too clean. The result is coming too quickly.
I write all manuscripts still and first of all by hand, with pen and paper…
— Günter Grass, Winner, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1999

The nature of the writing profession has changed because of the Internet. Certainly there have been many media influences that have altered the nature of writing in the past, the distant past. The Web is by far the most profound in recent history. (Although email’s role should also be considered in this equation.) I follow the master, Jakob Nielsen when it comes to thinking about writing on the Web. Nielsen’s many papers on the subject are at the very least, provocative, at best, absolute models to live by when writing for the Web. The enormous effect that the Web has had on verbal communication has, in my opinion, uniquely influenced all other forms of written communication. As much as writing changes when the Web is the output medium, so too has the Web changed the nature of verbal expression in all media – a change perhaps equally profound as that found on the Web itself.

There’s no question in my mind that the Internet and the Web have changed the writer’s role in society. But how? Let’s go back in the time tunnel before the Internet. Who were the writers? Mostly they were either journalists who published in newspapers and magazines or “authors,” who wrote books. Plus a smattering of others. Writing has indeed changed.

The nature of the change in writing wrought by the Internet must be divided into two distinct segments:

1. How the Internet (or, more primarily, the Web) has changed the way that written communication is practiced.

2. How the Internet (or, more primarily, the Web) has changed the way that writing can be communicated. It is a new medium.

The Practice of Writing for the Web

As I noted above, Jakob Nielsen has, in my mind, become the definitive commentator on the subject of the practice of writing for the Web. His seminal essay, How Users Read on the Web begins with the very memorable words: “They don’t.”

Nielsen continues: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”

There are numerous other studies by learned observers that essentially confirm these observations (give or take). Google lists about 458,000 entries to a search for “writing for the Web.”

The general consensus is similar to Nielsen’s: “Writing for the Web is different. Surfers often have short attention spans, so you have to grab their attention with graphics and great text” (Catherine Titta). Ms. Titta goes on to recommend “avoid narrative paragraphs whenever possible,” the kind of advice guaranteed to make most professional writers cringe.

Melinda J. McAdams’ Tips for Writing for the Web points out that “a 100-word paragraph looks pretty long on a Web page. Long paragraphs send a signal to the reader: This will require effort.”

And, of course, there are now numerous books available on the subject (Amazon.com has 48 listings), such as Crawford Kilian’s Writing for the Web 4th Edition, which includes advice such as “use simple sentences,” and “don’t use extended metaphors.”

The Web as a New Communications Medium

This site is devoted to the future of publishing. It would not exist except for the Web. As explored in numerous other sections of this site, the Web changed the way that all publishers communicate with all readers. The purpose of this section is to examine the implications for writers.

I explored above some aspects of the ways in which the Web changes the nature of how traditional communication is influenced when communicated via this medium. Just as important, if not more so, is how the Web has altered the means by which writers can reach their audience, and what form(s) those communications can take.

Blogs get much of the press. But the “social media” — YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, among many others — have all grown from the Web as a medium we’ve not previously encountered. They’re immediate, intimate and media-rich. They’re interactive, and tend to spawn additional sites and communities as quickly as each new compelling site is created.

This aspect of “writing for the Web” is brand new, developing, and promising a fascinating and fulfilling future for writers. Equally true, they may pass like the wind. Remember GeoCities, purchased by Yahoo for more than a billion dollars — where are those cities now? (Yahoo closed the site permanently at the end of October, 2009.)

Recommendations for Writers

1. Look at the most popular Web sites and observe how they present both text and images.

2. Consider the interactive nature inherent in the Web. Few sites take advantage of the interactivity of the Web. Could your communication benefit from increased interactivity, or might it hinder your message?

3. Read blogs and then more blogs. Why has this form of communication exploded? What value do you feel that bloggers derive from their efforts? What does/could it mean to you as a writer?

References

To follow…