Declaring that writing is a medium, and industry, in irreversible decline isn’t something new. From the apparent meaninglessness of book authorship wrought upon by market logic to apocalyptic visions of a post-text future (as The New York Time’s Farhad Manjoo and Gawker’s Jordan Sargent had purported), writing appears headed for perpetual crisis.
These omens of impending doom ostensibly have the numbers to back them: a 2015 piece published by MarketingProfs predicted that 84% of communication will be visual by 2018, with 79% of internet traffic being video content.
84% of communication will be visual by 2018, with 79% of internet traffic being video content.
And it’s not just the medium of writing that is in a pickle; people’s attitudes to writing published on the web are also changing, and not for the better, it seems. In 2013, Slate did an analytical piece that revealed two facts: one, that a significant chunk of site visitors don’t give online articles a chance at all, and two, that most visitors only complete 50 to 60% of an article. In contrast, most visitors viewed all audiovisual content (images, videos). And rather than reading word-for-word, most people who do read prefer skim reading, giving rise to the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of “cognitive impatience”.
And so, all the noise seems to suggest that the written word is about to be screwed over, and that the writing is already on the wall. Writers of all shades and stripes are in for a long winter, and aspiring ones had better think twice before committing career suicide.
Except writing is not dying.
Semantics aside, writing is simply due for disruption. 4 reasons why:
(1). For a long time, text had virtual dominance over human, and computer-based, communication. Audio-visual media had not yet reached a level of technological sophistication that allowed for mass usage and distribution, and the written word was not only the most effective way of getting messages across, but in some cases, THE ONLY WAY to ever get your message across.
(2). By extension, text was prized over other forms of media in a wide range of fields. In academia, papers and essays took precedence over oral testimonies and visual depictions (aka the tyranny of text). In business, marketing and sales collaterals were visibly way heavier on text.
(3). And since text had such overwhelming dominance, assessment and evaluation was predominantly focused on the written word as well. From professional documents like CVs, cover letters, college admission essays and resumes to text-based interviews and exams, literally anything and everything was directed towards, in varying degrees, gauging proficiency in text.
(4). Even when video and images became more viable as communication media for mass consumption and distribution, many argued that nuance and complexity can only be fully accommodated by the written word. That monopoly no longer holds with the advent of data visualization and storytelling.
It’s better to think about what’s going on in the world of writing today as not so much an irreversible decline but a much-needed correction. It’s often quoted that only 7% of communication is verbal. Of the 93% that is nonverbal, about 40% is audio, and 53% is visual. Let that sink in for a moment and translate this over to the written word. I’d like to think that the fact that we are communicating in such a diverse array of media today is a beautiful thing (sans issues like echo-chambering, fake news etc. of course), and with audio, video and the written word all so accessible to anyone today, communication has never been easier and richer.
It’s better to think about what’s going on in the world of writing today as not so much an irreversible decline but a much-needed correction
With easier and richer communication, it also means that communication is more democratized nowadays. What exactly do I mean by that? It means people can communicate not just by writing stuff and sending it to each other; everyone can converse in the language of Instagram stories, Tik Toks, Snapchats, gifs and memes. A girl in the far-flung, remotest parts of rural China can gain a million-strong worldwide following just sharing videos of her simple, rustic life online. A grandpa cooking plus-sized meals in outdoor kitchens for orphans got to share his slice of life with a global audience. Music around the world is also readily available on streaming services like Spotify and Kkbox. When we bridge language and cultural barriers, the ways we communicate become evidently more inclusive and accessible.
Writers should not lament the changing winds. If anything, this is a sign that writers need to rethink their place in the world of communication, and what writing actually means. What does good writing even mean today? What kind of communication is writing about? What kinds of writing should we focus on? For what sorts of audiences? These are some of the questions that I grapple with myself.
Everyone should also stop conceiving of things as a them-or-us scenario. It’s never so simple, and in communication it’s just plain nonsense. Whether you are a graphic designer, videographer, photographer or writer, the shared vision is building a community that loves and gains something from the creative work we all do. And as writing, and writers, evolve and grow to accommodate, I believe tomorrow’s storytellers are versatile hybrids that pack a bit of every creative element, plus a knack for data, around a core of strong writing.
And I think that’s the most important bit here. Tomorrow’s creatives cannot afford to think in silos. Writers, especially, cannot afford to do so. As writers, we want to write compelling stories that persuade, convince and incite people into action. And if compelling stories require more than just a metaphor and parallel narrative to capture attention, we would do well to broaden our present understandings of what writing includes, and extends to. Already there are tons of lists that highlight key skills any writer worth their salt should possess. I particularly like this one from Entrepreneur, as well as this list from Make a Living Writing. There’s a lot of talk about data these days, and I personally believe that data-driven storytelling is where the future is at.
What happens now, then? A lot needs to be done. Today’s writers are already feeling the heat — some sort of retraining or skills upgrading may go a long way. What about tomorrow’s writers? In a world where instant gratification, intolerance for the lengthy and complicated and distractions aplenty are the norm, what should we do? Pointing out the right skills is just the start — inculcating the right mindset is the hard part.
One thing’s for sure — those that can’t evolve, die out.