Writing in the Digital Age / by Chris Weigl

I was listening to an audio recording of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights the other day when I sat down and looked over a few pages of the text to check my notes in the margins.  When I looked at the text I was puzzled because what was being read to me wasn’t even close to what I was reading.  It turns out I was listening to an abridged version of Wuthering Heights.  Now, I’m not going to pretend like this isn’t a dense novel because it is, but it is also a major work of western literature and shouldn’t be subjected to an abridgment by anyone.  This is something that speaks to a larger concern that older generations have about younger readers and that is that younger readers have a short attention span.  This is not a new phenomenon.  People spoke out against the proliferation of writing in the Middle Ages because they thought it would detract from thinking.  Through the advent of new technologies there has always been the always lonesome critic who argues that technology is corrupting our youths.  Criticizing new generations of people is something that critics will never cease to do.  This is something that has always been there and always will be there.

What gives me fits of apoplexy at times isn’t so much dealing with the opinions of previous generations, but adapting to a changing world in terms of how I produce my own content.  It’s not that difficult to respond to criticism when you hear it your whole life and this is what we do – whether intentionally or unintentionally– to our children when we insist that they “try and see things someone else’s way.”  If you’ve ever had to change operating systems on your computer or update to a new, supposedly improved version of what you were used to then you know that the brain struggles to adjust even to the slightest deviation from routine. 

The smallest software update can cause the biggest headache for consumers, which makes it all the more striking that software manufacturers insist on making so many changes to their products.  It often feels like when we finally feel comfortable using something the decision has already been made to release a new edition of what we’re using.  This gets rather annoying after a while.  As we navigate our way through life however we begin to realize that complaining about every small change in the world – or worse dwelling on the small changes in the world or even in our own lives – is a quick way to drive ourselves crazy.  Many times we need to simply accept things for what they are and stop trying to change things into what we would like them to be.

I’ve struggled over the course of my career to decide which method or rather what kind of balance needs to exist in the writing world between computers and notebooks.  There are benefits to doing both and there are some instances where it makes a lot of sense to hand write something before you type it up.  Anything that is going to be delivered orally should be prepared by hand because the process of writing things out by hand forces you to think about text in terms of delivery whereas writing something on a computer tends to make us think of text in terms of processing.  Processing can be a good thing – you want your readers to process what you’re saying – but you don’t want your readers to just glance at the information that you’re trying to get across and that is what we tend to do with written text on a computer screen. 

Believe it or not we program our minds to think like a speed reader.  That is, our mind is subtly trained to get “just the facts” from a text rather than processing all that information.  Our minds can’t capture all that information at the same time.  Think of text on the page like sunlight hitting the Earth it doesn’t hit us at the same intensity everywhere on the globe.  The sun hits different areas of the Earth at different times depending on the time of year and the point that the Earth is at in it’s rotation around the sun.  Similarly, when we read a sentence we need to process each part of that sentence in our mind and we do that bit by bit.  That’s why reading something twice is a necessity if you want to truly understand something because chances are that you didn’t even process most of the information the first time around.

Writing is a creative force of self-discovery, but it is also a vehicle through which we deliver our most profound ideas about the world.  The world would be a much different place if we had never discovered the means by which to write with.  Furthermore, our decision of whether to write in a notebook or on a piece of paper or on a computer or on a tablet has consequences that extend beyond the page, especially for writers, who write as a vocation.  It can be distressing to me how different something appears on the computer vs. how it looked when I first wrote it down.  Sometimes things get better when they go through multiple channels sometimes they do not.  Too much attention to something can be a problem.  Just how much attention we devote to our writing probably depends on the value that we place on our writing as people. 

If you just write on your computer to send e-mails or correspondence then you probably view this medium differently than someone who writes for a living because a professional writer is judged on their word choice, sentence structure, and overall development of their ideas.  E-mail is much more low stakes.  I do wonder how much time we should spend writing things by hand and writing things on a computer.  It would appear that there is some advantage to writing things by hand.  You get the benefit of sifting through your ideas a couple times and you get to process them in different ways.  At the same time we all have a limited amount of time with which to do things.  In other words, we cannot write out everything by hand anymore or rather we shouldn’t.  It would be wasteful not to use the technology we have at our fingertips, yet at the same time we must find the balance by which we can use the processes at our disposal to deliver the best possible writing to our audience, whoever that might be.