Don’t Abandon Formal Writing Skills Just Yet
I’m old. There are three ways you can tell.
1. I have more gray hairs than brown ones.
2. I remember the theme music to St. Elsewhere.*
3. I write using complete words and sentences.
Social networking sites like Twitter and the phenomenal popularity of texting have changed the way people communicate in writing. All the old rules are out the window. Now, the faster you can write it, the better. The more acronyms you can use in your message, the less likely your parents or your boss will understand what you’ve said. It’s a new language – a useful language – driven as much by the capabilities of electronic devices as by the need to express information or thoughts. And by itself, it’s a good thing. I’ve already hinted that I’m a purist when it comes to writing, but even I can appreciate the practicality of being able to say in a few thumb taps what I might choose to convey in an entire luxurious line of carefully constructed prose.
So what’s the problem? You write your way, I’ll write mine. But there is a problem, and it’s reflected in the growing numbers of people who can no longer write in the formal, professional style that businesses and academia demand. It may be fine to text a buddy in ten keystrokes about meeting at a favorite hangout, but that sort of shorthand doesn’t cut it when you want to explain or discuss anything of substance or depth. It certainly won’t suffice for college application essays, letters to prospective employers, or the content on your website (if you’re trying to sell to anybody over the age of 18). And the more young people use the short writing style, the less practice they get using correct English.
I’m not just guessing about this; I see it every day in my work as a Writing Repair consultant. People who are unable to write clear, correct English are limited in their careers and in dozens of ways necessary to simply conduct the business of life. Schools aren’t doing enough to impress upon students how very important it is that they develop strong writing skills. Too many teachers are more interested in having the kids feel self-esteem than in having them earn self-esteem through achievement. So they avoid pointing out writing errors, choosing instead to praise the content – as though content and the ability to articulate it well were two unrelated things. They send young people out into the world with an unrealistic idea of what is acceptable. What a huge disservice they are doing! You can probably tell that this is one of my pet peeves.
Texting-style short writing is probably here to stay, and that’s fine. If all you want to say is: GF, R U THERE? NE14KFC? BBFN**, then use whatever means you like and enjoy that delicious salty, crispy, greasy meal to your heart’s content (or heart attack – whichever comes first). But if you want to serve up ideas that can’t be contained in the 140 characters that Twitter allows for, if you want to be able to handle nuance, explain a process, build one thought upon another until you’ve said something worth reading, worth thinking about, then please recognize that there’s another way to write that’s just as practical and just as useful as the short style you’re so adept at. Remember that English contains immense variety, subtlety, emotion, and beauty that enables us to express in the most precise way, every shade of meaning imaginable; and that the more capable you are of using this fantastic language, the more you will connect. And isn’t that the purpose of writing, after all?
* A great little piece, by the way. You can feel the heartbeat in the bass line. Click here if you want to hear it.
**Translation: Girl Friend, are you there? Anyone for KFC? Bye bye for now.