I read an article a few weeks ago that made my blood boil. In it, writer (and linguistics professor) John McWhorter proposes that teaching students anything beyond “functional writing” is worthless in today’s tech-driven society. He cites Kim Kardashian’s tweets and Cornel West’s recent lack of published books as evidence that our society no longer needs or wants formally written prose.
I went to hear a lecture by Steven Pinker a few months ago wherein he advocated for a less formal style of writing (which he elaborates on in his most recent book. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century). His argument was not that formal writing is no longer necessary or important; rather, that the rules of strict grammar are outdated and even make writing worse. He makes a good argument. I’m a textbook editor (of English textbooks, no less) and I agree that some formal grammatical rules do nothing but complicate otherwise good prose. I think there’s wiggle room in terms of language, and I agree that language, especially in America, is a constantly shifting and evolving, living organism.
But what he doesn’t say is that writing in and of itself is outdated and useless.
We’ve been hearing some form of this argument for years now. No one reads anymore. Print is dead. Everyone’s attention spans are too short to do anything for longer than 30 seconds. We should be preparing for robot overlords. Blah blah blah. Look, I’m not completely naive. I know I work in a dying industry (publishing) and I know that most people would rather watch videos on YouTube of dudes hurting themselves than read a 2-page article. I get it. I’m not immune–I’m a slave to my Twitter and Facebook feeds and often spend a night in front of the television rather than cracking open a book. But here’s the thing–Facebook and Twitter are powered by words, and so is television. Someone needed to write those Amy Schumer sketches that I find so hilarious and smart. It’s not true 100% of the time (“reality shows” don’t have scripts [sure….] and most of my Facebook feed these days are pictures of other people’s babies), but words still have incredible power and influence.
I spend the better part of my workday editing textbooks for students in college English classes. Most of the students my books cater to do not quite have a grasp on writing. I consider it one of the most important aspects of my job to make sure it’s clear how vital writing is to life beyond the classroom. Even though McWhorter writes that there are only a “sliver” of jobs that require writing, this is a fallacy. In order to even get your foot in the door in any given industry in today’s cutthroat job economy, one must demonstrate a grasp of the written English language, via a resume, cover letter, or other communications with hiring managers. Trust me–I’m in the midst of the hiring process right now, and if a cover letter is poorly written or a resume contains a typo, it immediately gets rejected because there are literally one hundred more applications to sort though (and this is for an entry-level position). There are only a handful of jobs that require no writing once you start–even jobs in the medical and science fields require authoring reports, memos, and emails.
Beyond the workplace, words dominate our lives. Sure, the Internet is a haven for those seeking cat videos and funny gifs, but it’s also the home of countless blogs, discussion boards, comment sections, and social media apps where communication is dependent on words. Written ones. Don’t even get me started on online dating. Even Tinder requires written communication–and if you can’t put together a convincing argument that I should date you or meet up with you, I’m going to swipe left real fast. And though McWhorter calls texting “talking with your fingers,” it’s not. It’s a swift form of communication using abbreviated text, but it’s still written. Studies have shown that with so much user-generated content on the Internet, people are writing MORE than ever before.
So let’s leave the selfie books to Kim Kardashian–she can have them. Let’s be honest–no one is really interested in her for what she has to SAY anyway. The rest of us, though, should continue to strive to express ourselves well in the written word, because it still matters, and always will.