An interesting piece from MinnPost, a Minnesota-focused nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism site, popped up in my Feedly account yesterday. Arik Hanson tackles a question that seems to pop up every once in awhile: is there a shortage of good writers? According to Hanson, the answer is yes, a clear violation of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. He approaches this question from the perspective of the marketing and communications industry, but he is not alone in voicing such concerns.
It might seem odd to cheer this. After all, shouldn’t we be concerned that the ability to write well is on the wane? In the aggregate, probably yes. But as someone who wants to make a living as a writer, it’s hard to see this as anything but good news on a personal level. Unlike most of you namby pamby writerly types who can barely count to eleventy, I minored and economics and can speak with authority on such matters. There can only be a shortage of something if there is demand that exceeds supply. If quality writers are in short supply, it implies that there remains unfulfilled demand for good writing. Awesome! I would like to give you some of that in exchange for a reasonable fee.
But is it true? And if it is, what does it mean for those of us who want to write for a living?
Them Kids Don’t Write Good
I was part of the first generation to begin to have broad access to computers and the internet, both at home and in school, as part of my education. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hearing that both writing and social skills are getting worse using one argument or another with technology as the most common culprit. Popular variants include:
- People no longer know how to spell because of spell check software.
- Writing skills are deteriorating because of text messaging.
- Interpersonal skills are dying because of social media.
So does all that mean we have a real shortage of good writers now?
If people who are in the business of either training or employing people who can write well are saying they have trouble meeting the demand they see in the market, I’m content to take their word for it. I don’t really doubt that the factors above and others have contributed to a shortage in writing and communication skills.
But I think the arguments are incomplete. Most articles look at this mainly as a failing of the supply side of the equation and ignore what I think is a pretty profound increase in demand for writing skills (and this is the part that really is good news).
We Are Writing More than Ever
If we blame technology for the decline in writing skills, we must also credit it for an increase in demand. The composition of the American economy has changed remarkably over its history, moving from an agriculture to a manufacturing base and then evolving again to services. In each of those revolutions, technology replaced the need for at least some human labor and forced people to shift to different skill sets over time. These structural shifts in the economy are often difficult and painful for those caught in the middle of their machinations, but they undeniably create opportunities as well.
Though the growth in service industries is not a perfect proxy for writing skill demand, it stands to reason that service industry jobs will, on balance, require stronger communication skills than farming or manufacturing. Indeed many of the links above talk about how a big part of the problem with weak writing skills is how many modern jobs require it.
What’s more, for all the concern about how technology is making people poorer writers there is evidence to suggest the opposite, at least in some ways. Using some of James Joyce’s, ahem, lesser prose, webcomic xkcd explains at right why something that seems counterintuitive actually makes quite a bit of sense when you think about it.
Kids these days! All they do is text and tweet and message each other CONSTANTLY! How will they ever learn to write?
That’s exactly how they are learning to write. By doing it all the time. Note very well here, there are valid concerns that they may not be learning to write with style proper to the setting, poorly differentiating between when causal or formal writing is required. That seems to be the biggest issue that the linked articles bring up. We may not be doing a great job of preparing people to write well, but make no mistake, young people are writing and often doing more of it than any previous generation.
So the economy has shifted to place increased importance on writing, and young people are writing more, just in different formats and styles. What does this mean for those of us trying to make a go of it as writers? Isn’t it getting harder to make a living by writing?
The increase in demand for good writing and communication skills, and the apparent existing shortage, point to this being a good time to want write for a living. When I told people I was leaving my job to be a writer, it was not uncommon for people to bring up changes in the book industry and the decline of traditional journalism jobs as things I needed to think about. This seemed like a fairly explicit assumption that these were the only forms of writing that existed.*
I’m not that worried about that stuff. Here’s some version of what I say in those circumstances.
I think it’s likely true that it’s harder to become a super rich megastar author à la JK Rowling or Stephen King and maybe harder to reach the tiers just below that too. But that was always hard, and in spite of industry changes there will continue to be some who reach those lofty heights. And, yeah, journalism is changing and lots of jobs have been lost.
But overall, there are more opportunities than ever to get paid for writing, and I am open-minded about what that looks like for me. While I hope that novel writing works out, I’m pretty certain it won’t be the only thing I do. I think there are many ways to be a “writer.” It’s the thing I enjoy doing the most, and above all else I am pursuing ways to use that skill.
The open-minded part can get tricky, and this has been part of the reason I find it hard to explain what I’m trying to do. But the sheer volume of information produced and consumed has increased at an incredible pace, and much of that content is written. There are brand new career paths like, say, social media marketing, that need people who write and communicate well. Blogging is an actual career option now, not just something you do in your spare time. People make full-time livings doing it. That’s writing!
There are plenty of possible opportunities that may not be precisely what you want to do, but there is a creative and writing component to them. If you want to be a writer, I think it’s powerfully helpful to think in terms of writing being the skill you want to use most in your work rather than confining “writer” to categories like journalist and author. The most important thing is that you get to keep writing, which is the only way to keep getting better at it.
*I did not love unsubtle implication that I had not thought about those things already, but I am going to assume these people were just worried about my well-being.