We are living in the Information Age. Never before have we been able to create and share material with such dazzling ease and simplicity.
Technology made this a reality, but it isn’t technology that keeps information front and centre in our lives.
Words do that.
And nowadays, words are everywhere. From the second you wake up, they’re coming at you from every direction.
Imagine how many thoughts and opinions whirl through smartphones, laptops, tv screens, advertising billboards and interfaces in 24 hours. The demand is insatiable and, with an estimated 5 million terabytes of data on the internet, there’s a seemingly bottomless supply of words.
But how many of those words do you take in? Really take in. Appreciate the beauty. Celebrate the craft.
Do you take the time to linger and absorb, or do those words have to fight for your attention with all the other stimuli?
When there’s an excess of anything, it’s possible to lose appreciation. Today we’re all photographers and journalists, sharing our pictures, ideas and opinions via the wide range of platforms available. In many ways, human culture has become more visual with words forming just another part of the image or statement.
Back in 1839, the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton declared that “The pen is mightier than the sword”. He meant that debate, discussion and written communication is more effective than violent action in achieving social and political change. But the pen (and, now, keyboard) has to make room for more instantaneous methods nowadays.
Perhaps the phrase should now read, “The pen is mightier than the image.”
On certain new platforms, words play second fiddle to images. In fact, many social media platforms are designed to limit the use of words and prefer to emphasise the sharing and celebration of photos. So it’s understandable that pictures have become a more favoured form of expression. It’s easy, it’s quick, and it provides a reaction for less effort.
And so, perhaps inevitably, our relationship with words has changed.
You don’t have to be a professional writer, a novelist, a playwright or a journalist to value word-craft, and nor should you.
Words belong to us all. They are part of the ordinary as much as the exquisite. And in many ways, it’s actually technology that made this possible.
Throughout history, of course, literacy was for only the wealthy. Even as recently as the early twentieth century, it was unlikely a low-skilled manual worker or servant would be able to read and write their own name. The written word was too good for them.
Not anymore. Words have always been functional as well as a thing of beauty, but never more so than in the twenty-first century with the overwhelming range of communication methods. There is beauty and skill to be found in all of it; an email, a text message, a hand-written note in a greeting card, a tweet, an article, a poster, a radio jingle.
Words are now, more than ever, the most powerful tool at our fingertips. Because we’re all writing them. Everywhere. All the time.
So it’s worth taking the time to learn how to use them well. Not just type words into space; but express, persuade, captivate.
Look at this way; these days, anyone can point a camera take a photograph. And we do, whipping out our smartphones at any opportunity. But who can take one really well? Who can make a work of art?
Just 20 years ago before the widespread use of digital technology, everyone took photographs on a roll of film. You couldn’t retouch or reframe afterwards. You couldn’t cheat. But if you took a truly great shot, there was a huge sense of satisfaction because you’d achieved it with your own skill.
The same principle applies to good writing. Our ability to communicate more efficiently doesn’t make us better at it. You still need to learn and respect the power of words.
It’s easy to rush to an opinion in our world of instant news and punchy social media posts of 140 characters. Without giving reasoned argument and well-formed opinion the respect it deserves.
The pressure for brevity and exposure can lead to strongly expressed, but perhaps not strongly held, views. We fight for attention with punchy headlines and reductive statements, oversimplifying what is complex and nuanced.
There’s a tendency to use words bluntly. To proclaim. To wound. To celebrate. To warn.
We just want to be part of the discussion and gain approval or disapproval.
But in doing so we overlook the age-old principles of debate; the skill or even art of respectful persuasion.
What if we were to focus not on what is being said and how we react to it, but how well it has been written? What if the reward were in the process, not the reaction?
What if, in the digital world, we loved and curated words with the same passion we devote to pictures?
Imagine if we couldn’t wait to share a piece of writing with our friends, rather than a photo we just took on our phone. What if we ‘Liked’ a well-formed sentence, a beautiful phrase, rather than a photo of a sunset or a dog on a trampoline?
Use it or lose it, as the saying goes.
Let’s use technology to enhance and celebrate, not inhibit, word-craft.
Every now and then, we should stop to remind ourselves what a remarkable thing language is, and just how well we can use it.