Do We Write Too Much and Read Too Little?

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I don’t remember where I saw this yesterday—which might be a symptom of the very disease under discussion—but I wanted to pass along the following from Alan Jacobs:

One of the most reliable ways to sharpen your own thinking is to find out what other smart people have thought and said about the things you’re interested in — that is, to take the time to read. But the content-hungry world of online publishing creates strong disincentives for writers to take that time. Almost every entity that has an online presence wants to publish as frequently as possible — as long as the quality of the writing is adequate. And often “adequacy” is determined by purely stylistic criteria: a basic level of clarity and, when possible, some vividness of style.

….So writers tend to trust the first thoughts that come to them, rarely bothering to find out whether others have already considered their topic and written well about it — and in fact not wanting to know about earlier writing, because that might pre-empt their own writing, their publication — the “content” that editors want and that will keep readers’ Twitter feeds clicking and popping with links. In the current system everyone feels stimulated or productive or both. And hey, it’s only reading and thinking that go by the wayside.

Actually, in some circumstances it’s best not to know what other people are saying and thinking. In particular, there are times when I keep myself deliberately in the dark in order to avoid groupthink.

But that’s fairly rare. In general, I think Jacobs is right, and I’ve certainly found it to be a problem. When I’m in full-bore blogging mode, I just don’t have time to read anything longer than a thousand words or so, even if it’s something that I should read because it would inform my own thinking. Instead, I try to save it for later in the afternoon, which is when my writing pace slows down and I can spend more time reading longer pieces. But I’m only moderately successful at this, and in the end I find myself simply not reading enough these days. The pace of blogging interferes with my ability to slow down even when I’m not sitting at the desk and actively typing characters for a post.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just chatting about stuff, and to a large extent that’s what blogging and tweeting and tumblring is. Nor is it a crime to repeat something that’s already been said. Some things are worth a lot of repetition. Finally, despite a lot of wailing to the contrary, it doesn’t strike me that the rise of blogging and social media has actually hurt the production of books and long form journalism much. It’s all still out there and it still gets read.

Still, this is something to be aware of. Ironically, it’s also something that’s been written about to death. But it doesn’t hurt to write about it again.


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