The devaluation of writing

What do the Oscars, the SAT test, and the content marketing industry have in common?  Last week, all three of them signaled that the value our society grants to good writing is on the decline.  Let’s take these in the order they occurred.

Credit: UB David & I’ll B Jonathan

There are two dozen Oscars given each year, 23 of which go to individuals who played a significant role in making their film a better one. That’s quite a lot of individual awards, so naturally, major media coverage centers on some more than others.

Best Screenplay in Oscar Lists
Position of Best Screenplay in Oscar Lists (click to enlarge)

I cannot imagine who could deserve more credit for a movie being good than the original screenwriter, the one who came up with the idea in the first place.  However, when reading the winners lists published by various media outlets, I notice that “Best Original Screenplay” usually sits pretty far down in the list.  To quantify this, I grabbed the first 20 or so Oscar Winners Lists that come up on Google and jotted down where they placed it.

On average, Best Original Screenplay ranked 13th out of 24 awards listed.  One third of the media placed this particular Oscar at or near the bottom of the list. Only two placed it in the top five — and then just barely so.  The message to the movie-going public is clear: actors, actresses, directors, cinematographers and even the film editors and sound mixers are all more important than the damn writer.  Yep, a guy who spent five years researching his script is deemed less news-worthy than someone who spent a few weeks cutting-and-pasting together the shots based on it.

Just when I was getting over that, there came the big announcement concerning the SAT (originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test).  For the first time in its history, the essay portion of the exam will be optional. Am I to understand that being a good writer is not that big a deal for entering college any more?  It used to be that high school students who were excellent writers, but perhaps not the best aces at math, could use the essay to stand out against some other SAT test-takers.  Now, the math whiz who can do matrix decompositions blindfolded, but who couldn’t write a smooth greeting card message if his life depended on it, gets to absolutely dodge this.

That’s the re-ranking of abilities that the SAT lords are encouraging by this egregious sin against literacy.  Nevertheless, the blame can’t be placed entirely on them — they are just reacting to what educators want, and educators are just reacting to what the market wants them to produce in the way of college grads.

Finally, we have the world of content marketing.  A relatively large sample — over 2,600 content marketing pieces — were analyzed by Ripenn to determine how certain writing characteristics related to the level of social amplification.  One of the findings was that listicles dominate among the most successful articles.  In case you’re not familiar with this neologism, a listicle is an article that is predominantly just a numbered list of very short blurbs that share a common theme.  For example, “7 Embarrassing Things that Happened at the Oscars,” and so on.

Why do I say this devalues writing?  Because with listicles we are training ourselves to  consume simplistic ideas that are spoon-fed to us in bite-sized pieces.  It’s saying “No thank you” to what good writers are capable of giving us:  thoughtful, discursive prose. The reason why most people who have read a novel on which a movie was based, say that the novel is much better, is that a novelist is able to go into much more depth than you will ever see in a movie.  But you know where you really can’t go very deep into anything?  In a listicle.  It’s the epitome of shallow writing.  It’s like wading in the kiddie pool because you’re afraid of getting into deep water. The only thing shallower is the tweet, wherein the author teases you to read their listicle.

At Temnos, we work at the cross-section of publishing and advertising, where quality writing is prized above all else.  We spun out of Federated Media Publishing, which when we joined still had the company motto “author-driven.”  So, we’re part of the culture that values writers and their work.  I guess that means I’m biased, but I’m getting a sick feeling about our increasingly video-centric, short-attention-spanned cultural shift.  If we deprecate writing — treating it as optional, unimportant, or something we can only tolerate in small amounts — then we’re eventually going to be a shallower society.

It’s no wonder that our average reading level has been sinking for the last couple of decades. We should not be surprised if our continued over-emphasizing of any kind of content that replaces or minimizes writing, carries with it a literary impoverishment unknown by previous generations.

3 thoughts on “The devaluation of writing

  1. Hey Tim – great piece. Thanks for including our research on the viral headlines. I’m afraid you are spot on with this post. Writing, along with other disciplines (e.g. face to face communication), has been devalued in the deluge of information disseminated through the web.

    Two thoughts. First, despite our collective diminishing attention span and dumbed down listicles, there has been a positive trend in favor of creating long-form content. This is what Google rewards in search results, and frankly, it’s what creates brand authority. More publishers are catching on and this will only raise the bar for the overall quality of digital content.

    Secondly, in the wake of so many crappy, regurgitated blog posts, great content (and I would argue, great writing), will be rewarded exponentially. Consumers are starving for something creative and thought-provoking. Those who go the extra mile to stand out, won’t be disappointed. After all, titles may impact click through rates, but it’s the content that influences a user’s likelihood to share it.

    Keep up the great work!

    1. Josh, that’s an excellent point about the Google search ranking effects — it definitely should encourage more in-depth writing, over time.

      I’m hopeful about your second point as well, but less convinced. Yes, richer (and longer-form) writing should get shared the most. Yet I fear this may apply only to a subset of the total social media landscape. A previous study of ours found that long posts written at a high grade level received more amplification on LinkedIn, but it was the shorter posts written at a lower grade level that were shared more on Facebook (sigh).

      1. Thanks, Tim. Sounds like your study revealed some interesting (albeit disappointing) results from the bigger picture of average internet users. I suppose only time will tell if the new long-form content rewards are strong enough to condition “the masses” to follow suit with their sharing.

        Maybe our hope lies with the editorial guidelines of new publishing platforms like Medium and LinkedIn? If the “gatekeepers” of content are more stringent with what they circulate, this might also have an impact on what the average Joe finds in his newsfeed.

        Of course, gossip magazines and tabloids have long preceded any digital, click-bait nonsense. A lot of people buy them (have you been grocery shopping lately?) So we might just be fighting human nature 🙂

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