Write Less, Say More
On March 19, The New York Times published an op-ed by Andy Selsberg, a professor at John Jay College who advocates teaching students how to write for the digital age — which means writing shorter. Later in the week, the same newspaper ran a story on the Twitter contest that media company Campbell Mithun used to hire 13 paid summer interns. And in the same week I turned in a paper that didn’t have a page limit.
My first exposure to the challenge of short writing was in high school. I had a professor who was an advocate of short writing. For his exams and papers we had to fit all the ideas we’d usually spread throughout a multi-page essay into one paragraph. Thus the essograph was born — no fluff or bust.
The days of 10-page essays aren’t over. But college students pursuing careers in news and entertainment writing are in the midst of a change in standards — a change in the question of just how relevant writing a 10-page paper is when attention spans are limited to an average email length. Or blog post. Or a seven-line preview of a news story. Today, those seven lines are crucial: they have to snatch up the reader’s attention amidst a frenzy of other stories and photos and ads. The over-stimulation that comes with reading on the web doesn’t call for short stupid pieces. It calls for well-crafted sentences — each word with a purpose. Online writing holds more at stake than it used to because more people read online. So what’s at stake for college students being taught how to write?
According to AdAge, an online marketing group, the top 10 marketing blogs (determined by their daily hits) post an average blog post of 1, 278 words. Far longer than a tweet. Far longer than any piece ever published in this newspaper. In my own research, I found that in blogs and websites popular amongst my contemporaries like Gawker, Mashable and Gothamist, word counts ranged from 200-450, which suggests that perhaps part of the reason these blogs are all being read is because they write the story short and sweet.
Then I looked at the Twitter feeds for the Campbell Minthun contest. Did the years of online communication prove that we as college students don’t need to be taught online writing? Absolutely not. With the exception of one student whose daily tweets linked to a website where he posted a new time-lapse video each day, the tweets were surprisingly uncompelling and lacked the cadence of a good writer — one candidate wrote, “I am enjoying my third cup of coffee today with textbooks on American masculinity, environmental history and media. Life is good. #L13 #CMcpm.” Another wrote, “Studying advertising at an art school has perks; my profs encourage creativity and I get to collaborate with students on ads! #L13 #CMcr8.” So the next question is, how and by whom can web writing be taught?
The ever-evolving trends on the web make teaching one particular style of web writing impossible to pin down. A writing class curriculum might change each semester from including exercises like writing blog posts to Facebook comments to tweets to who knows what will be the latest character-limited form of communication. If writing for the web is about writing for what’s important right here, right now, then the medium is bound to change. But good writing is good writing. In the case of the web, it’s brief but still brimming with information.
Writing with a small word count needs to be treated by students and professors like any other writing class: with utter seriousness. If web writing is what’s being read, then it needs to be the best it can be. If Twitter is going to replace the cover letter, then let’s learn how to tweet expertly. If our word counts are limited to 250, then we need to learn how to edit for the essograph. Learning how to write great short pieces isn’t solely to make sure we as students with possible careers in writing have a chance of succeeding in the workplace — we need to learn short writing to ensure that writing, as an art, as an academic practice, as a medium for information, doesn’t lose its power.