R U &%$@$% kidding me?

☺ An Ode to the Decline of the Sentence ☺
by Melissa Steele, Winnipeg Public Library Writer-in-Residence 2010-2011

I am so used to typing on a keyboard that I don’t know how to write with a pen anymore. It’s pathetic but true. When I’m forced to write a note by hand on a birthday card or in the margin of a story or poem, I sometimes have to stop and form the script in my head, reminding my fingers how to form the letters. Writing by hand must come from a different source in the brain than typing; I’m Photograph of a hand writing with a quillcertain that I have a different writing voice when I use a keyboard than I would if I were trying to write the same story or scene with a Bic pen; imagine the difference if I had to dip a quill pen into an inkwell every time the muse called.

Before the printing press, when texts needed to be copied by hand by a few literate and dedicated monks, imagine how precious each word must have seemed. Compare the laborious but valiant act of writing before the printing press to writing on a computer. Word processing software (though perhaps the ugliest three word phrase ever to find its way to a page) gives writers the freedom and the burden of infinite revision and the sense that no text is ever finished until the book is printed (at which point a multitude of mistakes are inevitably uncovered). Surely this ability to revise ad infinitum creates a different kind of text than one that is painstakingly written and copied by hand.

Cover of the book Extra Lives by Tom BissellAnother technological obsession, the video game, is also having an effect on the content of contemporary literature. The plot of a video game is different than the traditional novel (a game is all about beating one level so you can get to the next; a story has a beginning, a building up, a climax, and then a leveling off). This game structure has already invaded fiction so that popular books like the Harry Potter series combine the patterns of the novel and the video game.

Email, blogging and text messaging are all considered more casual writing forms than say letter writer or fiction writing. Casual means doing away with formalities such as introductions, ambitious and complex sentences, paragraph cohesion, and even the smaller niceties of language such as italicizing or underlining titles, capitalizing names and spelling words correctly.

The need to be brief and the frustration of those miniscule keyboards for text messaging has led to a creative flurry of new writing styles where brevity and humour trump grammar and syntax any day. As Writer-in-Residence I read a lot of manuscripts filled with hurried, run-on sentences. Instead of seeking clever and smooth transitional phrases to express complex or contradictory ideas à la Henry James, writers accomplish detailed description through long lists joined by commas. Like text messagers, these young writers have no time for perfection and feel no shame about their blatant disregard for the rules of English grammar.

The hurried style we see in contemporary writing is a mirror of the frantic way we live now as a result of all of our gadgets. As writers post on Facebook, text their spouses and children, follow Donald Trump on Twitter, and read a plethora of texts on their computers or iPads while watching YouTube videos and listening to podcasts of the 6:00 news at four in the morning, who has time to write languid, complex, beautiful sentences anyway, let alone read them?


Melissa Steele’s term as WPL Writer-in-Residence was over at the end of April.
Applications for the 2011-12 Writer-in-Residence are being accepted now. If you’re interested, you can review the W-I-R requirements on the Library website.

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