Where Science Meets Muse

The Slipping of Writing Skills in Those Under 40

Posted by Plish on May 19, 2009


I was reading about the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing and Criticism and looking for what I needed to do to submit to the competition.

I was reading the eligibility section and came across the following requirement:

“At the time of submission, the writer must be under the age of 40.”

Whoa! What? Under 40?  What the????

I was stunned. 

I clicked on the FAQ page to see if perhaps there was some explanation.  There it was:

“In recent years, AIGA has noticed that younger designers seem not to share the same inclination that earlier generations had in articulating their reactions in reasoned essays. Educators who have encouraged students to express themselves report the same phenomenon. “

The article continues:

“We believe it is important to encourage design writing and criticism, both for the strength of the profession and to explain design to other audiences. Our particular concern is to encourage a new generation to write. Hence, we have developed an award program aimed at designers under 40 as of this year’s deadline: June 1, 2009.”

At a time when the world is in need of creative solutions, it’s mind bending to think that those under 40 are under-equipped to partake in a global innovation dialogue.

Good writing is thought provoking, compelling, inspiring and challenging. 

Good writing can seed innovation and elicit creativity.

While one can complain that those under 40  over-utilize other communicative modalities (texting, etc.), this phenomenon is also the responsibility of those over 40 who have shaped curricula and systems in which their students and children received less than optimal creative preparation for their lives, and the world’s future.

While I don’t think things are beyond repair, it does sound an alarm for educators and parents everywhere.  It is important that we do not further the ‘culture of the inarticulate writer’ (Plus writing is good for you!). 

  1. Don’t underestimate the power and value of the written word.  Encourage writing – descriptive, inspiring writing.
  2. Encourage the reading and writing of poetry – three lines of poetry can often say more than three pages of prose.
  3. Encourage reading period.  Reading is a school for writing.
  4. Encourage the penning of logical and spirited disagreement over designs/issues.
  5. Try writing without a computer

What are your thoughts on this?  What would you suggest be done?


6 Responses to “The Slipping of Writing Skills in Those Under 40”

  1. Scary. I’ve definitely noted the loss of basic grammar skills over the years (even among those over 40). I’m appalled at some of the poor spelling and grammar skills I see displayed by journalists, on the Web and in print.

    I am curious why you suggest writing without using the computer? I’ve blogged about the death of handwritten letters and what would seem to follow, the loss of handwriting skills in general. Do you think taking physical pen in hand lends itself to more thoughtful writing?

  2. Plish said

    Thanks DD for the comments and I totally agree with you. I believe that when someone writes using pen and paper there is another level of thoughtfulness that goes into the process. Writing takes on an elements of the visual arts as well. Often there are rough drafts written and then the final draft. This differs considerably from the process of typing something on a word processor where, I would venture, most people seldom consider what they’re working on as a ‘draft’ per se, but as the finished piece ‘under construction’ so to speak. A subtle difference but I think it changes the way we view our output.

    The other reason for using pen and paper is the convenience/immediacy factor. It’s easier to have a pad and paper around to jot ideas, words, phrases, etc. and then build upon them by scratching words out, drawing arrows, etc., without changing the form- the original is still there. I think that partaking in that process helps build relational and spatial thinking while also seeing and participating in the evolution of the piece. I think doing that can only make one a better writer.

    Second to that would be the process of typing something and then printing it out and doing the above exercise prior to reprinting.

    Make sense?

  3. Yes, I like to be able to go back and look at earlier drafts, see what I was thinking earlier. Often as we revise we can lose sight of our original intent, and if we still have a copy of an early draft we can regain the perspective. On the computer, it’s all lost with the backspace/delete key.

    I definitely look at the early stages as drafts. Sometimes I keep old electronic copies, too (they don’t take up any physical space, so why not?). And I also like to print things out sometimes so I can see more of it all at once. It’s hard to look at more than two pages at a time on a computer screen (or more than one on a small monitor). I find it easier to move chunks of text if I can see it laid out, even taking scissors and cutting and moving it. I don’t go to those lengths often, but it can be helpful to keep track of things.

  4. Plish said

    I also prefer to see everything “all at once”. It really is a more interactive, roll-up-your-sleeves process when holding real paper in your hands and manipulating them in that fashion. I usually save ‘drafts’ as well because I do want to see what my original intent was. I think it’s common to lose perspective when typing/backspacing and cutting pasting on a screen.

  5. I’m not convinced there has been a decline in communication skills. While we certainly have no shrtge of txt lingo, 1337speak, or hilariously incoherent Craigslist postings, that doesn’t say much empirically about ability or knowledge of usage. I think, instead, that the information generation, the me generation, or whatever you want to call under-40s online, have simply stopped editing what they write.

    Writing has become faster and more like spoken communication as it has become easier to do so. For example, I can type 90 wpm corrected at my best, but that is probably not even 1/2 as fast as I can talk. When I’m doing hand-writing, I don’t even want to guess how slow it is (not to mention adding in time for corrections). My adjusted correction speed for doing an essay is still about 40 wpm. Now, of course I know typewriters have been around for a long time as well. The internet is what has changed things. When you can publish something instantly to either one friend or the entire world, why edit it if you’re in a hurry? Maybe writers are simply increasing speed and quantity, rather than decreasing quality.

    As a teacher, I’ve noticed that if you can get kids to slow down their thought process and revisit ideas, most of them will surprise you with their work.

  6. Plish said

    I agree with your last statement. There is a statement in the business world, “Cheap, fast, High Quality – Pick two.” Quality will suffer at the expense of speed and lack of critical thought (which I would say is roughly equivalent to “Cheap”.) Thanks for your insights!

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