Has the Internet Changed Writing for Better or for Worse?

Internet Changes WritingAbout every conference I attend—or even any occasion in which three or more writers happen to be talking—someone brings up the question, “Has the Internet changed writing for better of for worse?” I’m happy to say that there’s no longer any argument about whether or not the Internet has had any effect. The question remains how positive or negative.

I’m going to come down on the side of positive and here’s my defense: Acute mental self preservation.


I’m used to writers lamenting the ability to sell works with lengthy prosaic descriptions. Modern editors shun “to be” verbs and cringe at anything ending in “ly.” The reason being that the former creates a passive voice situation and the latter indicates a weak verb choice—writing 101. Bitter writers blame the “dumbing down” of the American reader who prefers to get their information in 30 second segments and hate being forced to trim their Emmersonian masterpieces down to accommodate the current marketplace.

I challenge that the American reader isn’t dumb at all. Rather, they’ve discovered, speed readers aside, that they will never be able to read all of the books they’re interested in reading. Yes, they’re overworked, but more importantly there are too many titles to choose from.

I came to this realization during a panel I sat on at Balticon 43. Well, it the the combination of several of the panels, but the one that made me think about it was called “Choose 5 Books for a Desert Island.” A light, fluffy and fun panel, we very quickly strayed from the panelists’ favorite five books into those that we hadn’t had time to read yet. A comment by me about ditching a book after 30 pages if it didn’t grab me was trumped by an elderly lady in the audience who said I was generous and that she only gave a book 1 page. Her reasoning: she didn’t have that much more time living and couldn’t waste it on reading stuff she didn’t like.

That got me thinking. This panel followed two I did on blogging where mention was made of being concise and entertaining in order to build and keep a readership. Thanks to the Internet providing more content than a single person could hope to digest, we Americans have become good at skimming through or ignoring that which isn’t well written. We expect the books we buy to be as gripping—perhaps more since we paid for them.

Too much literature + too little time = a demanding audience

The Proof is in the Math
Internet Changes WritingBowker, the global leader in bibliographic information management solutions, reported that 275,232 new titles or editions were printed in 2008. Compare that to 1970 when 20,995 books were published (The Book Publishing Industry by Robert N. Greco)

For those of you who don’t count non-fiction in the category of “books chosen to be read for pleasure,” you can use these figures: 47,541 works of adult fiction (Bowker) were printed in 2008 compared to 7,696 in 1970 (Greco).

For argument’s sake, let’s say that I’m interested in reading 1% of the fiction titles published in 2008. 1% of 47,541 is 475.41. That’s more than one book a day. Compare that to 1970 when it would have meant one book every 4.74 days. (1% of 7696 is 76.96)

What it means is that in 1970, there was a good chance that a person could read all of the books they were interested in, or could have taken the time to digest a more difficult read. In 2008, time constraints aside, it’s impossible. In order to read at all, modern Americans have to have a fast read.

I’m not suggesting that the literature shouldn’t be deep or meaningful. We need that. What I’m suggesting is that deep and meaningful doesn’t mean convoluted English and rambling prose.

Whether you agree with me about the effect being positive or not, the fact remains that the Internet has trained the modern reader to handle information overload. It’s appropriate that pleasure reading reflect that change in perception.

I welcome any thoughts you might have.

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This entry was posted by on Monday, June 1, 2009.
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