Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Should Everybody Write?

With the advent of the Internet, the tools for writing and publication are available to all. University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron wonders, is that really such a good thing?

"Should everybody write?" That's the question to ask when looking at the cyberjunk permeating the World Wide Web.

The earlier technologies of the pen, the printing press, and the typewriter, all expanded the authors club, whose members create text rather than just copying it. The computer has expanded opportunities for writers too, only faster, and in greater numbers. More writers means more ideas, more to read. What could be more democratic? More energizing and liberating?

But some critics find the glut of Internet prose obnoxious, scary, even dangerous. They see too many people, with too little talent, writing about too many things.

Throughout the 5,000 year history of writing, the privilege of authorship was limited to the few: the best, the brightest, the luckiest, those with the right connections. But now, thanks to the computer and the Internet, anyone can be a writer: all you need is a laptop, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks.

The Internet allows writers to bypass the usual quality-controls set by reviewers, editors and publishers. Today's authors don't even need a diploma from the Famous Writers School. And they don't need to wait for motivation. Instead of staring helplessly at a blank piece of paper the way writers used to, all they need is a keyboard and right away, they've got something to say.

You may not like all that writing, but somebody does. Because the other thing the Internet gives writers is readers, whether it's a nanoaudience of friends and family or a virally large set of FBFs, Tweeters, and subscribers to the blog feed. Apparently there are people online willing to read anything.

Previous writing technologies came in for much the same criticism as the Internet: too many writers, too many bad ideas. Gutenberg began printing bibles in the 1450s, and by 1520 Martin Luther was objecting to the proliferation of books. Luther argued that readers need one good book to read repeatedly, not a lot of bad books to fill their heads with error. Each innovation in communication technology brought a new complaint. Henry David Thoreau, never at a loss for words, wrote that the telegraph — the 19th century's Internet — connected people who had nothing to say to one another. And Thomas Carlyle, a prolific writer himself, insisted that the explosion of reading matter made possible by the invention of the steam press in 1810 led to a sharp decline in the quality of what there was to read.

One way to keep good citizens and the faithful free from error and heresy is to limit who can write and what they can say. The road to publication has never been simple and direct. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI's Bulla inter multiples required all printed works to be approved by a censor. During the English Renaissance, when literature flourished and even kings and queens wrote poetry, Shakespeare couldn't put on a play without first getting a license. Censors were a kind of low-tech firewall, but just as there have always been censors, there have always been writers evading them and readers willing, or even anxious, to devour anything on the do-not-read list.

Today critics blame the Internet for the low quality of much of its content. Most digital text is short and ephemeral. But so is most analog text: shopping lists, to-do lists, post-it notes, signatures, parking tickets, graffiti. More to the point, previous technologies of writing didn't guarantee quality either. Despite the many obstacles to publication their authors had to overcome, there are plenty of clay tablets, manuscripts, printed books, mimeographed screeds and xeroxed memos that should never have seen the light of day. The computer may be responsible for the current explosion of text, but throughout the history of writing there has always been both too much to read, and a whole lot of stuff that no one wanted to read.

In the end, the question, Should everybody write? is moot, since everybody is already writing. The more interesting question to ask is this: How can we ensure that everyone continues to write? I for one am constantly looking for that next good thing to read, and more writers writing only increases the chances that I'll find it, or that you will. As for the rest, well we can just ignore it. Because, like most technologies, text comes with an "off" button.

For a pdf of a more detailed version of this essay, click here: Should everybody write? The destabilizing technologies of communication.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 16th 2010, 7:59 AM
Comment by: farrelldoc (Alvin, TX)
This is a good article, but I think that a better title might be "Should we read everything that is written?" Thanks for the food for thought.
Tuesday March 16th 2010, 8:36 AM
Comment by: LeanneF (Winnipeg Canada)
Fabulous and insightful and agree wholeheartedly with ferrlldoc's comment also. The greater concern is what measures are in place to help our young people discern the value of the material that's available since so much is unedited, uncensored and unreviewed. Hopefully the education system will help.
Tuesday March 16th 2010, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Anne L.
Hopefully media literacy is addressed in a meaningful way, beginning at elementary level in all schools. Young people need to learn the skills necessary to determine what is factual, balanced, and/or worthy of attention. Critical reading fosters thoughtful writing.
Tuesday March 16th 2010, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Redneckrenaissanceman
I can hear or read the voice of the common citizen. The internet has given a freedom to the masses over the censoring elite establishments from imposing their views only. It may not always contain a certain degree of intellectual quality. I feel it is a freedom that needs protecting.
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 3:41 AM
Comment by: Ash. (Pune India)
I grew up with an understanding that reading the "classics" would help me build character...I completely get it, that the classics defined for my generation were different, very different, than those that were considered mandatory reading for say two generations before me...But I did labour through "Tale of Two Cities" and "Three Musketeers" and "Little Women" to name just a few. I laboured through them, was intrigued by them, revisited them at a later stage in life, and had much to gain from my relationships with these works and their authors. "Catch 22", "One flew over the Cuckoo's nest", "To kill a Mockingbird", "Catcher in the Rye" are modern day classics and they too had something to say that resonated with the times and life of the last century.

What then are the classics for today's teens? With all this writing going on, who is telling stories that teach the timeless values that have defined the very evolution and existence of the human being over the last few decades? Or is that being left to video games, social networks and cinema...?!?!
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Esteban (pittsburg, CA)
Should everybody write? No.

Should everybody read what everybody writes? No.

We have to filter what we read by first asking ourselves questions that allow us to identify the worthiness of the material we read.
Is it constructive reading? What do I wish to get out of my reading? Do I want to share it? And if I do what does it say about me? Etc.

Censorship is needed for literature and publications that will affect a collective culture regardless of age.

Great article!
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Bryan S. (State Center, IA)
Are we understating the importance to us ALL of seeing our ideas, dreams and viewpoints take some substantive form? Writing is watching your very intellect take physical form. It's opening yourself to criticism and discussion of your thoughts.

Placing pen on paper (or fingertip to key) should not place one in some mystical club that excludes Joe and Jill Six Pack. How else can they aspire to become Joe and Jill Champagne Split?

I say, write on! (But read selectively.)
Thursday March 18th 2010, 12:29 AM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I am unconvinced that in the past, the factors limiting authorship gave us necessarily "the best, the brightest". I will concede "the luckiest, those with the right connections."
Friday March 19th 2010, 4:28 AM
Comment by: Elijah (Austin, TX)
Ya'll are very smart, so I hope that what I have to say doesn’t make you think that I am ignorant. My observation is this, everything has been said or written and regurgitated exponentially. The young ones have refined the art of writing to its purest form, one-to-one communication. Cave men and women drew what they did and saw in the hopes that what they drew and did would be preserved and viewed by others. So if someone tweets he/she had a jelly doughnut for dinner it is just his/her primal instinct to be heard or seen. However my true inclination is to write these tweets off to the de-evolution of humankind.
Monday March 22nd 2010, 12:59 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
Oops, Dennis Baron, I spotted an error: Parking tickets should not always be ephemeral. Here's one I cherish as a model of civility to which all municipal authorities worldwide should aspire. It was printed in 4 languages, and my sister received it in 1971.

"Dear Sir,
Rome, the most cherished goal of international tourism, is happy to welcome you among the visitors of the city.
It often happens that even the most careful driver infringes, without meaning to, the rules of the highway code. In this particular instance you have failed to observe the rule contained in Article _________.
The Communal Authorities are quite convinced that this infringement was unintentional and wish you a very happy stay in Rome.
The Mayor"

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