On Writing and Reading

Heather Champ recently wrote a bit of a “switch” story, in which she begins by talking about hooking up a 20-inch monitor to her 12-inch iBook, and then she reflects upon her early days as a Mac-user in the 1980s.

Then she says this:

My tryst with the dark side began in 1998 when I moved back to Canada and money was tight. If I could zoom back in time, I might visit myself in Montreal and scream “don’t do it,” but if I had a time machine there would be far more important events in my life that I would want to deter. Or not. While the journey was wretched at times, it led me here.

At least one person I know read that as a slight against Montreal—interpreting “don’t do it” as “don’t move to Montreal.” I’m sure others have thought the same thing. Upon careful reading, however, one sees that “the dark side” and “don’t do it” are most likely referring to a move away from Apple computers and into the world of Microsoft Windows.

It’s not very clear, but that is my interpretation. However, it takes a careful read—or a repeat read—to get that meaning.

I bring this up not because I want to talk about Apple versus Windows, nor Montreal versus any other place. Rather, I want to talk about writing, and more specifically, reading.

The Web is a marvelous thing. It provides us with an unimaginable amount of information—literally at our finger tips. It also provides ways for us to add to that vast storehouse of searchable human knowledge. Blogs, forums, personal web sites—they’re stockpiling knowledge and information at a rate that was inconceivable just a generation or two ago.

Acknowledging that I’m certainly not the first to bring this up, I do have a few questions about how our minds are being shaped by the presence, accessibility, and ubiquity of all this knowledge.

For example, many people have lamented the poor quality of writing found in the “blogosphere,” and it is indisputable that writing in an environment free of copy editors and proofreaders creates a lot of errors in both language and the presentation of ideas. One could argue, for example, that an editor might have pointed out to Heather Champ that her “Don’t do it” paragraph is perhaps too ambiguous, that her point is a bit muddled because she’s introducing two ideas in the same paragraph (going from Apple to Windows, and moving to Montreal) yet it is unclear which of those ideas reflects a move to “the dark side.”

On the other hand, particularly in cases such as this, the problem might not be the writing. Perhaps, instead, the problem stems from losing our sense of nuance when it comes to reading.

When I hear about people reading 100 or 200 blogs a day, or hundreds of on-line newspaper articles, or dozens upon dozens of forum postings, I wonder how they can achieve any kind of depth with that kind of broad and rapid input of text. A fortunate choice of words, as it begs the following question: does an extremely high volume of on-line consumption not reduce the process of reading down to a simple input function?

How can anyone read with nuance at that rate? It must be like spending an hour racing through the Louvre and registering only “picture of house; picture of human; odd-shaped piece of wood; photo of dog.”

There is more to the craft of writing than the mere transmission of basic information onto a page. But how are we, as writers, supposed to react when so many readers simply bolt down our painstakingly-crafted words and move on, like someone gulping a finely crafted lobster bisque out of a Styrofoam cup and then reaching for the nacho chips?

Lets step back a bit. On the matter of writing, I do not believe that blogging leads to bad writing. Correlation is not causation. Rather, I believe the ease with which people can blog has simply brought forward a lot of people with modest writing skills and has allowed them to publish, unedited. As those people blog more, many will indeed improve their skills.

But what about readers?

Are the volume, and sheer ubiquity of on-line texts causing people to abandon the art of reading well? Or are those who read broadly but not deeply unlikely to read deeply regardless of the medium or the volume of material? Is it possible that some people, due to impatience, disinterest, or some other reason simply don’t read for any reason other than “information input?” Or are we on the verge of a massive shift away from multi-dimensional reading into a dark age of flat, two-dimensional “information flow?”

Just as the art of oratory—once valued as an important part of a person’s cultural development—is now lost, will the arts of writing and reading become nothing more than “functions?”

And ultimately, does it matter? If a thing is lost to the point that we don’t know it ever existed—how can it be missed?

22 thoughts on “On Writing and Reading

  1. Great post, Ed. I personally appreciate both great writing and great design and that’s why although I see the benefit of RSS and the like (and use them all the time), I have a deep aversion to them at the same time. RSS washes out the design, and those very designs communicate, along with the words, the ambiguity of great (or even just good) writing.

    The other thing is that good writing can only be really great to skilled readers. It takes time and effort to read, and to understand. By treating all writing as “content” or “data” or “information” I think we lose something important.

  2. Thanks, Michael — I agree. I was thinking of following this up with something about RSS, but I see you’ve already done that here, and a few times on your own blog (such as yesterday).

    Hmmm. Maybe I still will. I’d prefer this comment thread NOT turn into an “RSS: for and against” thing (that can wait for my RSS post).

  3. Merci. Merci. Merci.
    I’ll have to write about perceptions and interpretations, right versus elegance of readers.

  4. hm. i realize there are as many different kinds of blogs as there are writers, but it’s quite possible that weblogs, in aggregate, are evolving a particular kind of rapido style that spans a range from “newsbite” to “magazine writing.”

    There are practical reasons for this: it’s really annoying to read long, multipage texts onscreen; pages are inevitably cluttered with navigational elements and linkage which is visually distracting. Until we get super-high-resolution tablet screens that are impervious to coffee spills, there’s something a bit…hmm..purposeful about “sitting at a computer to get information” and when you hit a chunk of text that isn’t likewise purposeful, one that really deserves to be on the printed page, it’s jarring.

    Blogging, in the aggregate, as a style of literature or journalism, has become the art of the short, sweet article with a good punch. Rambling, vague, ambiguous, gauzy poetics – well, it has its place, but in a blog, I find it oddly off-putting, like putting the CP newswire into iambic pentameter.

  5. What a great post, Ed, one of your best. Both the slap-dash writing and the rapid reading worry me. As someone who really tries to write well, I find it troubling to write a careful post for people who may be reading at the rate you suggest here. But I then buy into the same rush by writing yet another post in the next day or two – and we all feel pressured, i think, to do that. Certainly this has helped me write better under self-imposed deadlines, but is the end result – either in terms of the words on the page, or the process of writing and reading – something that truly values either writer or reader? And is there enough time built in for contemplation of the ideas expressed, let alone discussion? Are we treating the word like a commodity?

  6. Readers and Writers

    In light of my not-quite-recent post about blogging and misunderstanding, I thought I should point to a Blork Blog post from today.
    In “On Writing and Reading,” Blork wonders
    does an extremely high volume of on-line consumption not reduc…

  7. A.J. Liebling wrote : “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.”

    I guess, Ed, you’re telling us : “one can read better than anybody who can read faster, and one can read faster than anybody who can read better.”

    Reading, for my part, is deciphering “context”.

    It is perfectly clear for whoever hanged in the blogosphere for a while that “context” is not limited to the number of hyperling in the post.

    If blog are conversation, then it is like being introduced into a conversation “in progress” without having listened from the beginning: it is necessary to take into account that a certain latency is required “to understand” what the discussion is about: the subject can be known, the language used too but it takes sometimes longer to catch it all…

    This “time” to catch up with a conversation clearly seems to me to be a barrier at the entry for whoever wants to read in the blogosphere.

    Those accustomed to “infotainment” as provided on TV won’t be able to get it if the blogger don’t chew it up for them.

    That said, reading is a interpretation act. I choose stuff to consume as “information input” and other as quality writings, which I read more carefully. It just happend that what writers’intend and writer’s intend don’t fit all the time.

    To answer your question : no, reading won’t be reduced to information input. It just a matter of learning to cope with information overload. We’ll get used to not answer (or comment) a post we didn’t read attentively, I guess…

  8. This is all very interesting.

    I reserve my privilege to dislike certain sites because they’re poorly written, not because of their content. I certainly judge newspapers by their quality of prose (and, now that I have a friend copy editing the Gazette, style).

    But arguably I wouldn’t compare letter or e-mail prose with Dickens, and a lot of websites are written in the former vein.

    My friends and I chat a LOT on MSN, and quite often we have to stop and ask each other what was really meant by a message. More than once I’ve written something and realized later that it didn’t come off the right way at all. Reporters get slammed all the time for writing lightheartedly–that just doesn’t work well in print.

    If anything, reading more online sources has taught me to be a more reflective reader and writer, because ambiguity is so common. Writing well is no longer a prequisite to being read broadly. Okay, I’ll admit that many reporters don’t write well either, but…there’s usually someone up the chain, like a copy editor, who cares about good clear writing.

    It takes a lot of skill to write with appropriate tone, and devices like innuendo fly right over people’s heads when they can’t see it in someone’s face or voice.

    Maintaining that balance–clarity vs. voice–is a struggle, but…isn’t most personal blogging all about creating a voice?

    I think that people gravitate to sites that reflect their reading tastes. There have always been poor readers who nonetheless enjoy reading, and there will always be judgemental readers waiting to leap on potentially offensive material. I value their opinion less than that of those who take the time to consider alternate interpretations (even if they still end up offended).

    Oh? I have to answer the question? Hmmm.

    Don’t worry about it. Some sites, some entries, and some newspapers are for information. Others offer the chance for more comprehension. We want information first, because it’s quick to absorb. In time, we want reflection. Different people like different quantities of both.

    It’s the same with any other medium, I think–how many people would watch Masterpiece Theatre every day? Entertainment Tonight?

    P.S. I hope this is at least somewhat non-confusing…try reading it twice, if that helps.

    P.P.S. The above is a joke. I think.

  9. Excellent post. I plead guilty to poor sloppy rushed writing and trying to digest too much when reading.
    But you make some excellent points I’m going to have to ponder.

    Thanks also for your post at my blog.

  10. Hi.
    I’m a newspaper copy editor, and I have to tell you that readers drive the writers I know up the walls. They always have, I guess, judging by what Mencken and Leibling sometimes wrote. They don’t understand the obvious, they don’t appreciate clever humor, they go off on tangents at phrases you never meant anything bad by. I don’t need to tell YOU it’s because written media like blogs and newspapers lack the common environment and body language of spoken communication, and because writers can’t get see their readers flushing and beginning to frown and so know to backtrack and explain themselves.

    But readers, God help us, are all that we have to communicate with and if we don’t communicate – via the old media or the new — there’s no point in doing all this work. So it pays to try to reread yourself after a pause, or rely on a trusted (and reliably supportive) friend to have a look and reply. The standards of good writing help everywhere: Decent, if not fussy grammar; careful observation; precise use of images and words, things like that. Some of that is hard to accomplish when you’re writing with passion, but you have to have both passion and precision, and some of the best writers out there do both. They’re why I keep reading.

    Good luck to you.


  11. Ed, I was just thinking about you as I was compiling a blog post I’ll put up tomorrow morning. There’s a nice rant from Testy Copy Editors about how they matter and can keep the writing from getting sloppy and irresponsible and that made me think that in some ways their point and your points were not too far apart, while in others I bet you’re not in agreement at all.

  12. Thanks for the insights, Peter. I agree that a bit of a pause and a re-read (and edit) are important, particularly for longer posts. In fact, I’m not immune to editing an already-published post — just last week I practically rewrote a post I made in 2003 when I stumbled upon it and realized how unclear the writing was.

    I should add that this post about reading and writing is largely rhetorical — I’m not firmly committed to any specific thesis on the topic. I’m just wondering about some things. And while it’s true that I wish the quality of some of the writing I read would improve, that does not disturb me nearly as much as the quality of READING.

    I cannot count the number of times I have seen knee-jerk reactions to posts, both here and elsewhere, that are clearly the result of the person skimming the post and jumping to conclusions. When you try to clarify your point (which in many cases does not need clarifying) the person either doesn’t reply or they go off on a tangent based on their original mis-reading. That kind of thing makes my blood boil far more than a few typos or the odd muddy sentence.

  13. Came here via cassandrapages. Interesting, provocative essay.

    I read a handful of blogs that I consider perfectly written. It’s a question of winnowing, mercilessly cutting out the chaff.

    And yet, I’m convinced that, in comparison to a decently stocked library (there are perhaps a dozen such in Manhattan alone), the internet in general is a cesspool. The content is cliched, and contrary to all the hype, the quantity of high-quality, in-depth and unusual information is not that high. Yes, there are a few good blogs. But, goodness, there is SO much crap. 99% crap. Nothing to compare to even a moderately comprehensive reference section in a university library.

    What you do have is a lot of network television-fed brains making a whole lot of noise, millions of people all around the globe drowning in the same sea of cliches, all the while convincing themselves that they are helping build a true universal library. The commercial impulses only confuse matters, and in the end, it’s the money makers that have the upper hand in the “free” world wide web.

    Of course, there are mavericks, there are slow, thoughtful people, but most of them are not online, and the few that are can barely make themselves heard.

    Give me a good book any day of the week. A good museum. A good local historical society. Something other than these flashing lights.

    Part of the reason I’m going to bring my own blogging to a close is a realization that the medium is far better suited to entertainment than it is to calling people to attention, and while entertainment surely has its place, it’s the latter that interests me more.

  14. What I mean by that last sentence is that, for me, it is more difficult to be attentive in a library or in the presence of a book, than with a 15″ screen glowing in front of me.

    So, yes, I’m interested in calling others to attention, but I’d like more success with calling myself to attention first.

  15. For me, the medium develops fluency, but it may also be contributing to our collective A.D.D. Most interesting piece.

  16. Thanks for the interesting comments everyone. There’s plenty of grist for the proverbial mill here.

  17. Hey Ed,
    What a complete joy it was to come across this blog entry. I am not a writer by profession. But, I do enjoy reading a well written text. Whether it’s short and utilitarian or long and poetic, I appreciate the flow and efficiency of carefully crafted words. And, to the best of my ability, I try to deliver the best quality text that I can in any given situation.

    However, to ‘craft’ something takes time. And therein lays the crux. Speed vs. Quality. I think this is one of the great challenges of our time. In a society where speed is so often revered (and rewarded) over quality, it’s no wonder that we’ve collectively lost our sense of nuance and appreciation of subtlety.

    The big question is – What are we missing out on? I can’t help but think that the gain of speed (which has brought many advances and advantages) is being acquired at the cost of beauty (and the pleasure and enjoyment it brings). Of course, as with most things, it is not a question of either/or, but of balance. Ultimately any craft that is practiced and taught will survive the test of time.

    For now, I will continue to try to find that elusive balance between quality and quantity/speed. This is challenging indeed, as I almost always feel that I’ve invariably gone too far in one direction.

  18. Milliner, you hit the nail on the head. Speed kills, as they say — and as Flaubert said, “Pour qu’une chose soit intéressante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.” (Everything is interesting if you look at it long enough).

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