Pete Davison: Is Traditional Writing Dead?

Posted on March 7, 2011 by

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It seems every other week, particularly in tech-related industries, there is some sort of discussion over whether this or that is “dead”. Inevitably, the answer is usually some vague waffle about how most people may have stopped using their Nokia N-GAGE but there are a few people out there utterly determined to beat Tomb Raider on a portrait-wise screen on a device which can survive being run over by a bus (I speak from experience) and thus the thing in question isn’t dead, just on perpetual life support. Until it gets run over by one bus too many, of course.

A discussion I participated in earlier today on Twitter regarding grammatical usage of hashtags got me thinking, though. Is the concept of “traditional writing” dead?

When considering this, though, it’s first important to determine what you mean by “traditional writing”. And it’s not an easy thing to define. Is this blog “traditional writing”? It mostly follows grammatical conventions (except when I’m being deliberately obtuse or conversational) and uses paragraphs. But no; I’d argue that it isn’t writing in the traditional sense. Blogs are designed as a platform upon which people can share their thoughts on a subject and invite responses from other people. That last bit—the invitation for other people to respond, whether or not it’s taken up by commenters—is the important part of blogging for many people. The best blogs are “conversations”—or at the very least, pieces which start discussions amongst other people.

You could argue, of course, that persuasive writing, philosophy and the like has had this sort of thing covered for many years, and you’d be right—people still debate Nietzsche down the pub, right? (I don’t go to the pub that often.) But the key thing is that with blogs and their commenters, everyone has a voice of (relatively) equal power. Ironically, though, the popular blogs diminish the power of their own commenters by having so many that people are unlikely to read them all. But at least some of them get read, unlike a weighty tome on all matters philosophical, in which those pub conversations rarely go any further than the pub.

Then there’s Twitter, the reason I got thinking about this in the first place. Here’s the kind of tweet that got me wondering:

We’ll leave @tanaymodi1‘s absent apostrophe and misspelling of “myself” aside for a moment, and look at those hashtags. Being someone brought up on “traditional” writing and grammar rules, those hashtags in the middle of a sentence are somewhat jarring to me and interrupt the flow of what’s being said somewhat. Now, in theory, the use of those hashtags allows anyone reading that tweet to click on either #AngryBirds or #Mac and read what other people are saying on those topics. A sensible idea for hot topics under discussion. But I’ve seen people do it with more vague concepts, such as “I’m writing a #novel” or “Is Sasha Grey a model of fashionable female #sexuality?” that could be taken in all manner of different contexts. Are they still useful?

Apparently so; a number of people came forward in response to my query and said that they find it useful to have the facility to find out what other people are saying on the subject. The only fly in the ointment, however, is that not everyone uses them. If I’m writing a tweet about my Mac, for example, I’ll use the word “Mac” and have never, ever hashtagged it, if only for the fact it saves one of Twitter’s precious 140 characters. The only time I use hashtags are if I’m participating in a discussion about something (like, say, a TV show that’s on at the time) and appending the hashtag on the end of the tweet, for these blog posts or for #lamehashtaghumourthatifindquitefunnysometimes.

This is obviously a different use of writing to how it’s used here on my blog, how I use it when writing for GamePro, how I use it when writing an email and how I’d use it if I were writing a book. But it doesn’t mean that any of these forms of writing are “dead” or “dying”. Increasingly what’s happening over time is that things that were once on a relatively linear path, such as the evolution of language, are splitting off into separate branches with their own contexts and purposes. Some people stick resolutely to one path and thus find it rather jarring when something from one of the other paths invades their consciousness. Other people can happily jump back and forth between the different strands, adapting their language to the situation as they see fit.

So no. I don’t believe that traditional writing is dead, nor is it a niche interest that only a few dedicated souls are continuing with. It’s simply one branch of an increasingly-complicated tree. As we find ourselves with more and more different means of communication available to us, language adapts, changes, broadens. And it will continue to do so for some time.

Where does it stop? Will (English-speaking) people on Twitter end up speaking their own language that looks a bit like English but isn’t? Perhaps not. But it’s something to ponder.

 

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