Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Declining writing standards?

Someone on LinkedIn Answers asked the question "Has writing gone the way of the Dodo?" and wrote that he didn't mean that writing was extinct, just that standards of business writing appear to have declined. He provoked a lot of responses from writers, and his question certainly hit a nerve with me, so here's what I wrote in reply:

"Mass literacy has been replaced by mass communication, and many people don't read any more they just watch or listen. I don't think you can master the complexities of written language - particularly written English - without reading widely or studying deliberately.

Modern school education hasn't done a good job of teaching the mechanics of English, and I have taught non-specialist undergraduate university students who have come to a class on writing and been unable to explain what an adjective is. "I didn't think this class was going to be about grammar", said one. But if you can't tell what the parts of a sentence are how can you ever hope to write a meaningful one? These students had clearly passed their GCSEs and A-levels even though they didn't appear to know much about language, and without devaluing their achievements it does suggest that the English language standards expected by examiners can't be that high.

Technology and market forces also play their part in keeping down the value of writing. There are people out there who will write you 250 words of SEO-focused junk copy for about 5p, making it difficult for professional writers of any kind to charge reasonable rates. My own approach to technical communication makes this aspect of the problem even worse, as I generally find myself telling clients they need to publish fewer words. Shouldn't that be cheaper?

I am constantly amazed that although people who have Microsoft Excel on their Windows PC don't immediately think that they can be accountants, everyone who has a copy of Microsoft Word thinks they can be a writer. Worse still, everyone who has a copy of Microsoft Word appears to think that they can be a typographer as well (and don't get me started on how "ICT Skills" are being taught in UK schools).

So I'd blame the decline in writing standards on a combination of a number of different expectations all coming together - people are offering very cheap writing services, so it's not worth paying for; there's a tool on my computer that "does" writing so it must be easy; I passed my exams at school without making much of an effort at writing skills so why should I bother to make an effort now?"

1 comment:

VaishVijay said...

David, I can think of yet another reason for declining writing standards to the wide spread use of horrible short forms in day to day communication with peers and colleagues, particularly in instant and mobile text messages.