20 December 2009

Christmas circulars and the rise of undisciplined writing in the digital age

The mass availability of computers has brought about a new Christmas ritual, as more and more people use their recently acquired word-processing skills to insert family newsletters into envelopes that once conveyed nothing but a card and the occasional hand-written note about births, marriages and deaths.

But now we get extended boasts about the writer's children, exotic holidays, new cars, cats, dogs and grandchildren. As the years pass by, we've also noticed a depressing increase in the amount of news about illnesses and bereavements.

Length and lack of care
One thing these circulars have in common is that they're far longer than the hand-written notes they've replaced. They can go on for anything up to four pages. This year's verbosity victory went to one that looked like only two, but was printed in a font so small that the author managed to pack in 3,000 words that were unreadable without the help of a magnifying glass.

Another common feature is that the quality of writing leaves much to be desired. Elementary grammatical mistakes abound, as do apostrophe abuse and the curious but widespread belief that sentences should end with exclamation marks! One of this year's scribes seemed to think that one such mark is never enough and that there should be at least four of them!!!!

Worst of all, the writing is undisciplined, long-winded and shows little sign of any editing at all - even though the technology makes it so easy to delete words and sentences as you go along.

This brings me to why I think word processing has a lot to answer for when it comes to explaining why something that might have been expected to improve the way we write has actually had the opposite effect.

One step to the finished article
The trouble is that professional-looking fonts make a first draft look just as finished and professional as the final draft used to look after you'd been through quite a lot of stages - at each one of which there would be further scope for correction, editing and stylistic improvement.

As you went from one step to the next, the manuscript gradually looked better than it did earlier on, until you eventually reached publication day when the pages looked as pristine and professional as today's word-processed draft already looks at stage (1).

For those too young to remember the process, it went something like this:
  1. Hand-written version (for one particularly difficult chapter of a book I wrote 30 years ago, only about about one sentence a page survived without being crossed out or amended, which meant throwing out 19 pages for every one I kept), followed by
  2. the author's amateurishly typed version, with much Tippex and scissors & pasting before handing it to
  3. a secretary who typed a neat version which
  4. still needed further editing and amendments before
  5. the final typed version was submitted to publisher who would eventually send back
  6. galley-proofs for copy editing (with minor changes still possible) before
More means worse?
I realise that, in saying all this, it might look as though I'm taking a 'holier than thou' attitude towards writers who regard the Christmas circular as a practical way of improving their communication of family news to friends and relations.

But I'm not claiming to be immune from the negative impact that computers are having on the way we write - if only because I know that I rarely spend as much time, or take as much care, when writing posts for this blog as I do when I'm writing for a more traditional form publication.

But I do find it all rather worrying because of the way that computerised word-processing has reduced the amount of quality control that once went into what we wrote.

This, coupled with the seemingly infinite expansion of written information made possible by the internet, means that more very often does mean worse - which might not matter were it not for the fact that you have to plough your way through so much poorly-written prose to discover what's worth reading and what isn't.


Jeremy Jacobs said...

Excellent post Max. We must all be careful about what we write and to whom.

Aidan said...

Post is true enough. See Simon Hoggart's _The cat that could open the fridge: a curmudgeon's guide to Christmas round-robin letters_ (Atlantic, 2004) and _The hamster that loved Puccini: the seven modern sins of Christmas round robin letters_ (Atlantic, 2005) for some splendidly ghastly examples of this genre.

The dilemma has been between the hand-written note (personal but very labour-intensive) and the round-robin (easy to mass-produce but impersonal, and risking all the pitfalls of quality that you describe).

A resolution of the dilemma comes in the form of the e-card. Text can be copied and pasted from e-card to e-card, making for easier production than the hand-written card; the text can also be edited for each e-card, allowing it to be personal, and as well-written as you've time for.

Max Atkinson said...

I'm extremely grateful for these comments, as I wasn't sure about whether a rant on this particular subject was a good idea at all - risking, as it does, offending the senders of such epistles.

So it's good to know that we're not alone - and, on second thoughts, if it prompts any of those who do send them to us to have second thoughts about including us in their mailing list, it may be no bad thing (!).

Ms Duffy said...

I am not sure that we can blame computers/word processors for this phenomenon, and I'm not sure that the medium is really the issue. I get carefully hand written cards that are clogged with the detail of this year's roof repairs and composting tips, and I get round robins of glorious wit which provide huge amusement to me and their many other recipients. I think it's just the Christmas version of that age-old problem: people communicating without first taking account of what works for their audience.

Max Atkinson said...

Ms Duffy - you're very lucky indeed if you get round robins'of glorious wit'.

But I'm afraid I do still blame word processors because, in the pre-digital age, people could have perfectly well used an earlier technology - i.e. photocopiers - to mass produce such round robins. But, in so far as I can remember Christmases in the 1960s, they didn't, or at least didn't send any to me.

pintosal said...

Hi Max, and Merry Christmas
A couple of your blog entries are unreachable, eg "Sounds of silence" and "Why does a government department force visitors to watch Sky News in silence?"
Is this an example of ultra brevity on your part, or a glitch with the blogs?

Max Atkinson said...

And a Merry Christmas to you too, Sal !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

No, not an attempt at ultra brevity so much as digital dementia !!!!!!!! Thanks for drawing my attention to the said glitches, which are now fixed (I hope !!!!!!!!!). Let me know if you spot any others !! (that's enough exclamation marks, ed.).

Livia said...

Lol, I'm so guilty of this! You should see the emails I write -- they're absolute disasters :-)

Ms Duffy said...

Hi Max...you do have a point, the witty Christmas circulars are the minority. I wonder if it's different because I live in Australia. We did get photocopied - even roneo'd (if that's the correct past participle)round robins from the UK and America when I was a kid in the 60s.I remember my mother disapproving because they were impersonal but tolerating them because they were efficient. They came by sea mail (took weeks) so the weight of the paper/cost of the stamps would have controlled the length, and perhaps that tightened up the writing as well.

John said...

Max: we met in 1989 when you coached a group I was part of at Henley Management College. I have just found this site because my wife has come home tearing her hair out. Some young work colleagues have prepared overhead slides with full long-hand text. Your maximum number of words was 14 per overhead page I recall: is this still your view I wonder?

Secondly I clicked on your Christmas letter blog. I send one out each year but like you (I think) I despair of receiving letters describing friends' offsprings' extraordinary academic and other achievements. So mine is - I hope - a self-depracating and humorous piece, which I always hope could be enjoyed people who do not know my family.

I still use your 1989 sessions as a benchmark. If you would like to 'mark' my 2010 Christmas letter to see if I am still a good student I would be delighted to send it to you and get your views !!! (three exclamation marks).