Internet Writing…and More

I just read an interesting article in The New Yorker: Is the Internet Making Writing Better? It’s a review of Gretchen McCulloch’s new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

Although I haven’t read McCulloch’s book yet, the article is fresh and worth reading. Writing tends to be a stuffy and stagnant subject. I often feel that I keep reading the same ideas everywhere I go. McCulloch argues that technology opens up new possibilities for writing.

Here’s a paragraph from that New Yorker article that got me thinking:

As with online irony, online civility emerges from linguistic superfluity, the perception that an extra effort has been made, whether through hedges, honorifics, or more over-all words.

If you pull your copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style off your bookshelf, you’ll find this advice in the “Elementary Principles of Composition” chapter: Omit Needless Words.

“Vigorous writing is concise,” counsel Strunk and White. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a machine should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

But I’d say that Strunk and White were only partially right. First, it’s not always obvious which words are unnecessary. Second – and this is the point McCulloch makes – sometimes it’s better to take extra time and say something more.

When I taught at a business school, I told my students to “say yes quickly – but say no slowly.” Make your reader feel that you took the time to think about the situation and come up with your answer. It softens the disappointment.

Here’s another example of taking extra time: I often tell writers to add an extra sentence to the end of a paragraph (a strategy I used in the paragraph before this one!). That might seem odd in light of Strunk and White’s insistence on brevity. But that extra sentence adds a professional touch – like a bow on a package.

Here are some closure (final) sentences that impressed me:

  • I still think about that weekend.
  • He keeps her picture in his wallet.
  • That rosebush blooms every year, without fail.

In today’s post I’ve offered two pieces of advice about writing. One is to pay extra attention to the ends of your paragraphs. Often an additional sentence can add some pizzazz. (But don’t try it in every paragraph!)

My other suggestion is to keep looking for new ways to learn about writing. Don’t get stuck in the tried-and-true advice we’ve all heard a hundred times.

I discovered the closure trick by reading student papers at a community college. A few students did it naturally, others imitated them, and I soon realized we were on to something.

When you read something you like, slow down and ask yourself what made the difference. Then try it yourself. It’s one of the best ways to develop your writing skills.

Yes, I think Gretchen McCulloch is on to something. The Internet is going to teach us a lot about writing. I can’t wait!

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