Home » Mike Shatzkin » The written word is losing its power and will continue to

The written word is losing its power and will continue to

22 February 2018

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

If there were a futures market in literacy, it would be dropping. It is a sad fact that the value of written words, in relation to spoken words and still and moving pictures, is sinking like a stone. Changes like this happen for structural reasons.

Since the invention of moveable type and the printing press, printed words have been advantaged for creation and mass distribution. Printing pictures first required “engraving” and then shooting half-tones (showing the picture as smaller and larger black dots to add “shades of gray” to black and white) while type just got set, locked up, and printed.

And the primacy of words continued into the early years of digital information as well. Keystrokes choosing from among letters and punctuation marks instructed computers. Rendering words was easy for them.

Between the era of ubiquitous personal computers (starting in the mid-1980s), through the era that brought us ubiquitous laptops (from the 1990s forward), words could be delivered on smaller and ever-more-widely-distributed devices: personal digital assistants like Palm Pilots and cell phones. Still images didn’t really render well on either of them and moving images were a non-starter.

But all of that has changed in the past ten years. Most people now have smart phones and tablets that show images beautifully through broadband connections. On top of that, the same devices will record the images or videos, so everybody has “creation” capability in their hands as well. And the process 20 years ago had to begin on film and then somehow or other get to a digital form. Now all the images are born digital, cutting out a whole lot of complication and cost. And nobody has to learn a keyboard — or how to spell — to use the capability effectively.

. . . .

Being able to craft good prose quickly has been my personal competitive advantage for my whole life. Meanwhile, I’m not so facile with images. Writing a better sentence is something I’ve been practicing for more than 60 years. Framing a better image is something most people can do much better than I can.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files


Mike Shatzkin

27 Comments to “The written word is losing its power and will continue to”

  1. Perhaps one challenge in the written word competing with images is that fewer and fewer young people seem to be facile with the written word. Why is open to vigorous debate, but if you have an increasing percentage of the population that finds written texts difficult to understand or who have been taught to avoid books/short-stories/articles, that has to affect sales of things-in-writing.

  2. this is the same thing people said about radio, and then film, and then TV.

    And yet text is still around.

  3. Yes, Nate, but children and young people today have infinitely more things to distract them, provide instant gratification, and eat up their time. I’m old (over 60), and during any free time while growing up I could play outside (not fun in the long winters for me), play inside (quietly so as to not disturb a chronically ill parent), or read. We had one landline phone with a five-minute time limit, one tv, and that was it. I read a great deal, and my second home was the local library.

    Now kids — this includes all my grandchildren — have cell phones and computers and various hand-held electronic devices and even screens in their family cars on which they can watch DVDs. Their college-graduate parents, my three children who also grew up reading a lot and are now good writers in their various professions, too often find themselves at a loss (or in a battle) when trying to get their kids to read more.

    Just one example: A few years ago, I took care of two of my grandchildren, ages about 6 and 8, while their parents went out with friends one evening. Bedtime came, and I gave them permission to read for an hour before falling asleep. I checked on them after about fifteen minutes, to see if they had fallen asleep, and the 8-year-old was playing Minecraft instead of reading on his electronic device (he had earlier assured me that all of his ebooks were on it and that’s how he usually read). I took the device away, and turned out the light. It was a hard way to end the evening with him mad at me, because I don’t see them very often.

    Reading used to be great fun for children, didn’t it? Now too many things seem to be much more fun, many are equally quiet activities (and thus give parents a respite from noise and commotion), and trying to get kids to read instead of waste enormous amounts of precious time (my opinion) doing something else on whatever electronic device is handy at the moment appears to be a constant challenge.

    • I read to my Offspring every night but reading didn’t take hold until said Offspring found a purpose for reading. Now the Offspring writes as well as reads. 🙂

    • My five grand kids also have all the devices. And extensive, well pawed through home libraries.


    • I am one of three siblings and the only one who took to reading. Children will read or not read, even if you encourage them to do so. It’s not a matter of the times necessarily. My parents never stinted on books for me. My brothers would constantly complain when my dad bought me a book and they wouldn’t get anything. “Pick out a book and I’ll buy one for you,” he told them. They did not.

      Having said that, um, the TV shows and movies that the kids watch? Even the videogames? Does he think they spring from the forehead of Zeus? They all have writers. The written word, translated to visual technology. I’m fine with that. Storytelling is storytelling.

  4. Yes, it’s lost a lot of the power. Been doing so for years.

    I mean, when did you last see a golem? They’re almost extinct, now.

    Take care.

  5. And the Music Man warned of Captain Billy’s WhizBang…

  6. Wrong adjective: it’s not the written word that is !osing power but rather the *printed* word.

    Newsprint is in a serious fade, no question. And tradpub books are in a unit decline. But neither is the only way to transmit information of all kinds. Email, phone texting, and blogs are all healthy and growing. Ebooks, too.

    If the written word were losing power there wouldn’t be so much angst over social media and websites.

    They’re looking in the wrong places and using the wrong metrics.

  7. What are they doing online? Reading and writing.

    Yes, they’re snapchatting and instagramming and sending memes around. But they’re also reading and writing.

    • Unfortunately, in my opinion far too many are reading the equivalent of junk food, or at best fast food. And as for writing… To apply a computer truism to kids’ brains: Garbage in, garbage out.

      Ask any teacher who has been in the profession for a long time what has happened overall to students’ literacy levels during the past 15-20 years, especially. It’s not a positive trend, and the consequences will be considerable.

      • And how much of that is about the newer curricula, social promotion, and hiring practices that deemphasize mastery of the material in favor of teaching certificates?

        It’s not as if today’s students were being trained by the same techniques and failing to perform. By now the differences are enough to make it a matter of apples and oranges.

        Blaming the kids is just a way of obscuring the failings of the system. So yes: GIGO applies, just point the finger in the right direction.

        • By no means am I simply blaming the kids. Learning anything of value, mastering anything of value, takes a great deal of hard work and self discipline plus a lot of focused time (and there’s often not much immediate gratification involved), and I remember the schools I attended expecting that from students. All of the students, regardless of race or class or anything else. Misbehavior was not tolerated, teachers were not expected to be social workers, and there were minimal days off for students and teachers. Apples and oranges indeed. I agree with you.

      • Just out of curiosity, what Reading and writing would you consider the equivalent of junk food?

        • Guess.
          Come on, you can do it. 🙂

        • Just a few examples:

          Anything devoid of context and facts (truth) that is only geared toward eliciting a knee-jerk emotional response with no thinking involved.

          Anything longer than a conveniently-truncated message (a quick email, for example, between people who know each other and use understandable shortcuts) that does not follow even the most basic rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar — fiction or nonfiction.

          Propaganda — on any topic — no matter how well written.

          Anything that devalues, prevents, or discourages critical thinking skills.

          I could go on…

          • Anything devoid of context and facts (truth) that is only geared toward eliciting a knee-jerk emotional response with no thinking involved.

            Example? And how do we know the motivation of the author?

      • So it’s not that they aren’t reading, it’s that they aren’t reading the things you approve of. That is, actually, one of the best ways to turn kids away from reading–to tell them that what they like isn’t good enough and that the only things worth reading are things they don’t like. That doesn’t turn reading into something to love, it turns reading into a duty to perform.

        Have you read the things they are reading? Do you actually know it is “junk food”? Because in my experience this argument usually only comes from people who have pre-judged based on personal biases and refused first-hand experience.

        • I was thinking that kids need a gateway book in order to get into reading. It may be the equivalent of popcorn or cotton candy. It does not matter. Don’t give them the literary equivalent of spinach and expect them to like it. Look for stories that excite them and spark their imaginations. If the goal is to get them to read for fun, then make fun stories the priority, not the spinach stories.

          My oldest nephew is currently into a children’s series with a horrific premise that he thinks is fun, about a cop who somehow ends up with the head of a dog grafted in place of his own. Or the other way around. I’m not going to insist on giving him “Old Yeller” when he asks me to get him the next book about the dog man.

        • As for the issue of propaganda, I don’t think that there is any more or less propaganda than there was in the past, it’s just that nowadays, peoples biasses are more evident and there is a greater variety of flavours of propaganda to choose from.

          • I have to disagree with this statement about the nature of propaganda, then vs. now.

            One key difference now: our own government’s intelligence agencies no longer have any legal prohibition (as they used to) against their aiming propaganda at the citizenry to whom they are otherwise responsible. We have no idea today how much of what we think we know… is B.S.

        • @ Anonymouse

          Hear hear.

  8. It just dawned on me that in the years I’ve been perusing TPV, never once have I read a post…in hard print.


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