New readers

I’m going to stray a little into my day job for a while (copywriting for commercial clients) but there’s a relevance that goes both ways.

I was part of a discussion the other day where someone suggested that technology would change the way we write: he meant that as speech-to-text software became more sophisticated and prevalent we would abandon the keyboard and simply speak our thoughts, watching them appear on screen. Though I can see this would make many tasks easier for those who struggle with keyboards, I’m not sure it would change anything fundamental at all. It’s not as if the keyboard is the only thing keeping people from being fluent writers. Most people seem to speak more eloquently they can write, but that’s because we have different expectations when someone is speaking. Inflection and tone come into play. Hesitation and repetition often pass unnoticed.

There may be a point here all the same. If the mass of informal writing is effectively dictated rather than written I wonder if that could influence formal writing itself.

This set me thinking that what matters is not so much the technology with which we write, but the technology which we use to read.

There’s already been a substantial shift away from print. It’s likely you’re reading this on a screen. I have no doubt that as screen technology continues to improve, that shift will become almost total. It’s not that the medium itself influences how we read, but the way the medium facilitates design certainly has an impact: think about how different it feels if you read a short story in a magazine rather than a book. But if designers can make the most of the new screens and formats, (which themselves are becoming ever more comfortable to read) my guess is we’ll read on as we’ve always read, the medium itself becoming largely invisible just as it does with the printed word.

The more difficult area of a change may be in our attention spans. We’re told that the children of the computer age are so used to everything being delivered in a nanosecond that they will have no patience with longer text. I’m sceptical about this. It’s not so long since TV programmers decided that people could no longer wait a whole week between episodes in a serial: the days of the Forsythe Saga or War and Peace were long gone. But then along comes 24 and in its wake a torrent of often brilliant serials. Of course people will wait. There just has to be something worth waiting for.

The same is true of reading. It’s the nature of the internet and the browser “experience” that people will expect a quick delivery of top level information, but that’s hardly surprising when there’s so much information about. I think they will skim surfaces in search of the things that interest them, but when they find that information you had better be ready to give them as much detail as they could possibly want.

It’s not that people don’t have time to read any more. They just don’t have time to read rubbish. And there’s a lot of it about.


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