So what did I learn through months of producing great, good, mediocre and fairy bad writing online? How has the experience been different from producing vast quantities of writing meant to be printed off the printer? How has the experience of writing online been different from traditional writing?
The first lesson I learnt through writing online was that you’ve got to be constantly on your toes and keep learning new trends if you’re going to survive this world where more writing is produced every second vying for readers’ attention than major sections of big libraries.
But apart from that lesson, the act of doing online writing made me realize that I’d have to re-think, re-learn and even un-learn some aspects of the writing process that years of traditional writing had ingrained in me.
Online writing wasn’t just going to be about learning a few new tricks. It was going to be about learning to value a whole set of different tenets that offline writing had taught me to be wary of or even to devalue.
It wouldn’t be enough to tweak my approach to writing just a little bit here and there. It was going to be about thinking of writing as something new and about being able to let go of a few ideas hardwired into my brain as valuable. It was also going to be about valuing a few things not traditionally seen as good writing practice.
I. The idea of permanent as good and ephemeral as bad
The shelf life of online writing isn’t just short, it’s subject to being morphed beyond recognition. A piece gets circulated and re-circulated online until readers come across the synopses and reactions far more frequently than the originals even when properly linked and attributed.
Although it’s nice to think that we might remain in people’s minds associated with a piece for ever, perhaps that’s not going to happen a lot here. It might help to remember that the idea of authorship and absolute claim over created works is a relatively new idea anyway. Although it seems natural to us, a contemporary of Homer or Shakespeare may not have been as surprised as we are to see clones of our work floating around in popular consciousness.
II.The idea of focused as good and dispersed as bad
As writers of print essays, we assume we have control over what is read and how it is read. We also assume we are the only voices the reader hears as s/he reads our essays. At most, if the print book is an anthology, we expect that the other voices in the book will have some commonality with us. We don’t expect widely divergent modes of communication to co-exist with ours vying for the reader’s attention.
But a twenty page research article can co-exist with the video of a flash mob at Penn Station and a Five Ways to . . . list post in the reader’s consciousness while perusing writing online. In stead of seeing this co-existence as a deterrent, writers might need to make themselves more adaptable to being able to communicate in those different modes themselves, not just compete with others.
After all, just because we cry often, can’t we laugh sometimes or make small talk?
III. The idea of linear text as a long essay with paragraphs and the hypertext simply as the same thing branching out into other text through links
No, this small amount of alteration to the writing process isn’t enough. Perhaps one has to re-think the flow of logic itself in the way one writes much more fundamentally. The meaning-making process itself has to become multidirectional if one is to successfully write online.
I am not quite sure what form this mode of communication will take in years to come, but I think if I were to write this same blog post ten years from now, I wouldn’t make this linear list of five things here in the way that I have done already, in the way that a print magazine would have done ten years ago and advertised the fact on its glossy cover if my post happened to be attractive.
IV. The idea of a strong writerly voice as good and a multiplicity of voices as bad
We are all familiar with times when comment threads become more interesting than the main article or when a deluge of spin-offs submerge the original. This is a part of the online experience.
The author’s control over meaning-making is changing. It is time to expect this and become more interactive. It is time to build this interactivity into the writing process much more fundamentally than by simply asking a question here and there within a long monologue. It is time to take in the possibilities of the multidirectionality of the thought processes of readers into the core of what we write, to talk with readers rather than just talk to them.
V. The idea of specialization/depth as good and being amateurish/shallow as bad
On the one hand, there is a lot of talk out there online about producing one’s brand and sticking to it so people keep writing the same kind of content in the same tone and style to be instantly recognizable. Serious content offline sticks to a similar mode of thought depending on whether a journal is scholarly or a magazine is popular and one cannot mix with the other.
Yet, there is a potential online for writing to become, to use a food analogy, an all-you-can-eat-buffet where anyone is free to walk in and pick and choose what they want. Instead of viewing this as a drawback, I think there is possibility here for the same writer to produce different kinds of interesting writing for the same venue so that readers can walk in and sample various kinds of fare and also learn to acquire a taste for variety. This vision might seem rather utopian at first but aspects of it might be possible to achieve.
What fascinates and intrigues me about online writing as it exists currently is that it defies planning, strategizing and control. The only thing sure about this changing landscape is that readers are very smart about spotting quality whether the goal is to be scholarly or to go viral and it is very simplistic to think that achieving either is easy.
But no matter how hard one tries to control what they see, readers have a will of their own to find what they want and share what they see fit. Ultimately, writing online is a playing field more for the reader than the writer.