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What Does 21st-Century Writing Look Like?

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A press conference about "Writing in the 21st Century" hosted by the National Council of Teachers of English today here in the nation's capital promoted two seemingly different strains of thought concerning the teaching of writing to students.

Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor of English at Florida State University, spoke about the value of teachers' supporting students in writing through new modes of communication, such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. People are writing "with new audiences, for new audiences, and to new audiences," she said. She stressed that the emphasis on audience with the new modes adds relevancy to writing for students. Yancey authored a report, "Writing in the 21st Century," released at the press conference, which calls for the creation of new curricula, teaching models, and teaching methods for teachers and college professors to engage students in using new technologies for writing.

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But a second purpose of the conference was to announce the council's partnership with the Norman Mailer Writers Colony to establish a national writing contest for high school and college students for creative nonfiction. Gay Talese, a best-selling author and the late Mailer's friend, was on hand to promote the contest. Talese said the dominance of technology over students, writers, and even journalists is "dangerous" and cautioned against "Googling our way through life," while sitting in front of a computer screen rather than "getting up and getting information." During a Q & A period, he gave details about his own process of writing and the importance of spending time to listen to the people he is writing about and to understand them. In order to write a book about people who built a bridge, for instance, Talese said that he spent two years "hanging out" with the bridge builders.

Yancey steered attendees away from thinking that teachers had to make a choice in embracing new technological modes for writing or rejecting them. "It's not an either/or world," she said.

1 Comment

This topic brings to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne's quote, "Easy reading is damn hard writing."

The technologies / communication mechanisms mentioned (and most other new communication technologies) are geared to support the frequent creation of many, short pieces of writing. While there's certainly nothing wrong with having students write frequently (quite the opposite!) and nothing wrong with having them write short pieces, there is definitely something wrong with encouraging them to write quickly and without much thought or without revision.

The democratization of communication has led millions of people to share millions of ill-conceived and ill-communicated ideas. While I support the right for people to think what they think and post what they post, I don't think teachers should be encouraging this type of writing, at least not as the primary environment for their students to learn how to write well.

We must help young writers think carefully and thoroughly, in an organized way. We must help them realize that the job of making sense of their thoughts and feelings is their job, not that of their readers. This means taking time to think things through, time to pick just the write words, and time to edit and revise.

And... I say all this as a technologist, someone who has spent 20+ years in Silicon Valley creating and using leading-edge technology. These amazing products and services are great... just not as a (primary) platform for the teaching of writing.

-Mike Fine
Co-author, Young Writers' Toolkit (www.youngwriterstoolkit.com)

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