Words of Value

A quest for real conversation.

It’s never been easier to publish your writing online. Whether it’s with a blogging site like WordPress or Tumblr, or just posting life non-events through Facebook and Twitter, there’s probably too much information online, and its volume is increasing exponentially.

I didn’t see the merit in Twitter when I first signed up to the service, but now I use it every day to chat to friends and harass minor Internet celebrities. I admit I was wrong: sorry to anyone who was discouraged from using Twitter as a result of my naivety. One thing that hasn’t really changed, however, is the quality of communication on Twitter and Facebook. As the popularity of these services extends beyond the usual friendly liberal early adopters and into the thuggish clenched fists of the wider community, we’ve seen increases in hatred and uncategorised stupidity.

This month, inspired by this blog, I’ve decided to write twenty-five genuine handwritten letters: one for every postal day. Instead of writing the usual sarcastic throwaway comments and lame attempts at humour, endlessly thrown at the metaphorical wall to see what sticks, I’ve actually thought about how I communicate with my friends.

In the past, I’ve tried using email to keep in touch with people and have serious conversations, but it never really works. Great conversations with friends get lost among the newsletters, automatic updates and online shopping receipts. Facebook is even worse, because it blurs the line between emails and instant messaging. Communication becomes inconsistent and ephemeral, not lasting and meaningful. For the letter writing project, I’ve tried something different: to write letters that are atypically personal and hopefully abstract enough that they’re still relevant in a few months’ time, if not a few years. It’s been great so far: exciting and liberating. It’s also easier to write when you know your audience!

Aside from the fun of writing and the challenge of essentially writing a novella in a month ala NaNoWriMo, hopefully my writing will improve. Writing a letter gives you introspective perspective. My golden rule of writing is: if you’re writing something that bores you, tear it up and start again, because if you don’t find it interesting then no one will! My workflow consists of getting ideas out of my brain and into a plain text document as quickly as possible, then fleshing out those ideas through iteration and revision.

However, it’s become clear to me that’s a very 21st Century way of writing. When I write, I’m thinking of things while I write them. You can’t get away with that when you’re writing by hand: you need to have a very firm gameplan before you put pen to paper, an idea of the points you want to make, and a clear exit strategy. Otherwise, you end up stuck in a grammatical cul-de-sac, with no way to reverse, or fighting a guerilla war against hidden ideas that weren’t around two sentences ago. You can’t just tear up sections and start again, especially if you’re writing on both sides of the page to save money like myself.

I wish people wrote more. For all that the Internet has done to facilitate communication, despite the huge amounts of personal information on public display, it seems to me that people communicate less earnestly and honestly than before. We build up avatars and personas; we steal others’ jokes for ourselves. Writers attach their names to articles that are dull, impersonal and victims of search engine optimisation. By increasing the number of words generated by society, have we diminished their value?


Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.