Technology changes, but good writing transcends all

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aug. 27, 2009

Dear Julie,

This is my first week back at school. This semester I will teach college sophomores to write for the mass media. The first day of class, we talked about how much the mass media has changed in only a generation. I don't think 19- and 20-year-olds can understand how much. The Internet has always been their home away from home.

Some people fear that text messaging and Tweeting are harbingers of the end for good writing as most of us have known it. After all, where's the nuance, the beauty in a text message? It's just information, and not necessarily meaningful information.

Hoping to spark a discussion about good writing, I showed the students a passage from the prologue of "The Prince of Tides." Pat Conroy writes about his childhood on a Carolina island and a mother who told bedtime stories about copperheads that dreamed of "placing their fangs in the shinbones of hunters," about "the brute wings of owls in the nightmares of ermine." His mother's eyes, he writes, "were our keys to the palace of wildness."

The images are vivid, the rhythm poetic, the verbs charged with movement. "The Prince of Tides" wasn't written for the mass media, of course. We won't be novelizing this semester. But writing for the mass media doesn't mean squashing the life out of the language you use.

None of the 15 students was familiar with a label often used for their generation. In his language book "Spunk and Bite," Arthur Plotnik describes Millennials this way: "Warp-speed fast on the uptake, digitally fixated, optimistic, spoiled and arrogant, impatient, multitasking, high-maintenance, materialistic, fickle, sarcastic, high on humor and irony." None of my students disagreed much with their stereotyping.

When I asked why conciseness is important to writing for the Internet, no one sprang to answer. Millennials being Millennials, they don't comprehend their uniqueness.

How different their world is I hoped to demonstrate through a YouTube video called "Did You Know?" "We are living in exponential times," it proclaims, and to a pulsing beat proceeds to show what that means. It means half the top 10 jobs in demand next year did not exist in 2004. It means new technical information is doubling every two years, so whatever a student at a technical school learns one year will be outdated two years later. It means these students will change jobs an estimated 10 to 14 times in the next 20 years.

I asked the students to react to this video. One said she was left feeling as if she's behind and that catching up is impossible. "Overwhelmed" was another student's reaction.

Who can blame them? This is a daunting time to be a college student. The future might be unprecedentedly unpredictable. But these times are also supercharged with unfathomable possibilities, especially for the digitally fixated. Some of the best trips begin with not knowing where you're going.

The message I hoped to leave them with is this: Formats and delivery systems and jobs will change, and rapidly. But no matter what happens in the world, the ability to write clearly and concisely and imaginatively will always serve them in ways technology can't.

Conroy writes that his mother "believed in the dreams of flowers and animals." We will always want to read words like those and then want to read more.

Love, Sam<I>

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