Writing for the Web

One of the things that traditional journalists find unsettling about the weblog medium is the notion that you're "working without a net" -- i.e., without an editor. In fact, everybody edits your stuff, albeit after the fact. The other day I wrote a column in which I asked:

How do we tune networks to deliver the right information to the right people at the right times?
The triteness warning bell sounded in my head, but not loudly enough to force me to find a better way to express that thought. And sure enough, somebody called me on it. (How do I know? I found that URL in my referral log.) I really enjoy this kind of thing. Writing is infinitely improvable, and too often mine goes unchallenged. Partly, that's because of my brain wiring. I have an unusually strong built-in editor, watching everything I do as I write, and complaining loudly. As a result, what I write for print publication is very close to what you see in those publications. If you added up the diffs, over the many hundreds of articles I've written over the years, they wouldn't amount to much.

That's not an ideal situation. Every piece of writing can benefit from being challenged. Years ago, while in a graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins, I taught a freshman writing course. I used to bring in published articles, for example from the Baltimore Sun, and ask the students to work with me on analyzing and rewriting them. The idea was completely shocking to them, at first. "But it's published!" they'd say. Yeah, and so what? Then we'd tear the stuff apart and put it back together again. What was interesting to me was how the process forced me to articulate strategies -- both the basics, like active voice, parallel construction, and the like, as well as more subtle aspects of mechanics and style -- that had been largely unconscious. I'd been doing software before I took a year off for that writing program, and I remember thinking at the time how the self-editing process was a lot more like code refactoring than I'd ever realized. But I haven't taught writing since then, and that awareness has again largely receded into my subconscious.

What makes me think about this today is a really interesting email comment from Lisa Spangenberg, in response to a recent posting in which I said we are not very aware of our own linguistic processes:

We know a lot about the processes that shaped most languages, especially those in the Indo-European language family (pretty much any Western European languages, with very few exceptions), so much that we can date inscriptions in say, Gaulish or Tocharian, very very accurately based on the language alone, and find that date corroborated by other methods of dating. We know even more about the underlying architecture -- you yourself know far more about it than you seem to realize, as a native speaker of English. The deep structures of English, the grammar and syntax rules that underly and structure it have quite literally structured your neural pathways. Moreover, computer languages, right from the start, were deliberately modeled on human languages -- there are even human linguistic structures that are essentially those of object oriented programming. [ The Digital Medievalist]
Excellent point, Lisa! I'd be interested to learn more about the relationship between linguistics and OOP. In any case, you're right. Although the mechanics of writing are not always or often available for conscious analysis, they certainly can be. The ever-strengthening feedback loops of the two-way Web are surely going to help move things in the right direction.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2003/03/09.html#a631