The art of modern writing

Learning to write is one of the fundamental skills we gain from our time at school. Writing is one of the cornerstones of learning and we devote significant time and energy towards its mastery. Skilled writing is a mark of an educated individual and a skill required for academic success. But in the modern world what makes a skilled writer? What has changed about writing and what literary skills should we focus our attention on. 

Clearly writing has changed since the time of Shakespeare. For one our vocabulary has greatly increased and the fine art of penmanship is today much more ‘art’ than highly prized talent. We write more today than in perhaps any previous period of history and yet somehow it seems that what we write has less value. Our disposable society has spawned a seemingly endless chain of disposable messages, emails and tweets that are spewed into the ether never to be seen again. Letters lovingly written by hand on paper and transported through rain and snow by tireless mail services have been replaced by the instantaneous transmission of ideas which are dealt with in seconds and discarded. 

On social media, we share the most mundane events of our lives publishing our every passing thought for the world to see. A cacophony of voices writing the story of us all in 140 characters or less and read in full by no one but the artificial intelligence used to decipher what the next great fad might be. We have media articles written for us by computers, rely on our devices to correct our spelling and sign our correspondences with “Sent from iPhone” so that our poor grammar is forgiven.

Some of us do try to cling to the traditions of quality writing and the beauty of the ‘Queens English’. We mock those foolish enough to split their infinitives and debate the merits of the Oxford comma. Words are our friends and punctuation our sword. We delight in our propensities for expansively, expressive vocabulary and ignore the reality that most people read nothing beyond our first paragraph. Sadly, beyond the most academic of tomes our skilled writing is ill appreciated if not plainly mocked.

Why write a page when a paragraph serves as well? An email shall not be read if it is longer than one-hundred words and no policy document should exceed one page. Dot points are not only acceptable in most communication, they are widely appreciated by the time poor reader who needs to cut to the chase. Quality writing will include a 'top ten' and should allow the reader to spilt their attention between reading, driving and chatting on the phone. 

Clearly writing is not what it once was but not a lot has changed in schools. The traditional three-part essay is still taught, as is letter writing. Handwriting is a skill valued for its use on standardised assessments even though we recognise it will be used beyond school for little besides personal notes, lists and the occasional form which has not yet migrated to a digital format. Students for the most part do not learn how to compose emails and tweets are not touched on at all. Newspaper articles are written modelled after the fine work of Woodward and Bernstein but we do not teach how to compose the perfect "and you want believe what happens next” headline. 

This does not mean that the skill of the writer is diminished only that it has changed. A well composed email can influence the direction of a government. Carefully constructed Tweets reach a global audience. Amidst the bland and the ordinary those who have mastered modern writing will still be noticed. It is our understanding of what makes for effective writing in the modern age that needs a rethink.

Great writers have always written with their purpose and audience in mind. What am I writing for? and what do I hope to achieve? are the questions which should guide our constructions. Today how we answer this dictates the form our written communications should take and there is much to consider. Maybe I am writing for a global audience. If I am, then how will machine translation alter my message? Skilled writers will consider this as they compose their thoughts and select words and phrasings which survive the process with their message intact. What device will this be read on? Am I aiming at a mobile audience where screen size and data rates favour brevity? While scorned by traditionalists and an older generation of readers, the use of emoji might hit the mark perfectly with the right audience. Is my purpose to quickly communicate a few key points or is this part of a more nuanced conversation full of subtlety? What font should I choose? What colours might I use? Should the headings be bolded or underlined? Many are the decisions that the modern writer must make. 

If educators cling to traditional forms of writing when will our children learn to master the diverse styles they will require for survival in the real world? Do we hope that an understanding of classical writing can be transferred suitably to less stringent contemporary forms or should we seek to empower our students as skilled communicators able to master writing in all its forms?

By Nigel Coutts