Fast and Slow Writing

25 July 2013

Image by Jhaymesisviphotography


I’ve often wondered how the use of e-devices has changed our writing.


The good

Back in the early 1980s, when I first began using a word processor (a very slow one with very little storage capacity), I was so happy about how easy it made typing documents. You could add or delete information and correct all the typos without having to type the entire document over and over. Such a relief!


And then came email, which makes it so quick and easy to communicate – followed by SMS and IM, giving us an instant means to tell people where we are and what we’re doing.


I would not want to go back to pre-computer and pre-internet days!


The bad

But of course there are drawbacks.


I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received that were obviously dashed off without enough thought beforehand. Details or action steps went missing, making it necessary for me to contact the writer and ask for clarification.


This is a waste time for both writers and readers. It’s annoying, and it increases business costs.


The history

In a recent article, Richard Nordquist referred to philosopher Frederick Nietzsche’s belief that ‘we’re more apt to read with care what has been written without haste’.


I was intrigued by Nietzsche’s remark, so I did more research on his thoughts about writing. I found that when he began to lose his eyesight, he bought a typewriter so he could keep writing. This was in 1881.


Not long afterward, one of his friends noticed that using the typewriter seemed to have a subtle effect on Nietzsche’s writing style, making it more terse and tight. He mentioned this to Nietzsche, who replied, ‘You are right. Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.’


So if old technology like typewriters seem to affect writing style, imagine how much                       our ultra-fast e-devices have changed it.


The thing I notice most often is that it’s far too easy to skip over the planning stage of writing. We just jump in, open a file or WhatsApp, and start typing away.


And for very short instant messages, that’s fine.


The research

Nordquist continues the article talking about research by Professor Naomi S. Baron on the ways we use online and mobile technologies. She agrees that the fast writing for a ‘to do’ list or to dash off an IM is fine.


But she says that contemporary writing technologies ‘threaten to overwhelm slow writing’.


Slow writing, she says, whether it’s composed on a keyboard or with paper and pen, is required ‘to formulate and convey meaningful analysis to others and to ourselves’.


Baron continues, ‘The challenge is that the convenience of email, IM, and texting tempts us to sacrifice intellect and elegance for immediacy.’


Note: Naomi Baron’s book on her research: Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Oxford University Press, 2010.


The solution

Nordquist ends the article, saying ‘…when the occasion demands good, thoughtful writing, close your browser and shut off your phone. It’s time to think. It’s time to write. Slowly.’


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