For writing, it's the best of times and it's the worst of times. Best, because more people are engaged in the act of writing than at any other time in human history. When I was young, the written word belonged to professionals, who had to pass through stern gatekeepers before reaching that status. (For most everybody else, writing was limited to a postcard here and there and the occasional thank-you note; reports of letter-writing in the pre-Internet era are greatly exaggerated.)
But now our culture is suffused with written expression: e-mails, texts, status updates, blog posts, comments, product reviews, and short articles in thousands upon thousands of websites, including the one you're reading right now. All but the last category operate without old-fashioned gatekeepers. You write something, you hit a key, and it's published. A lot of this writing is really good, too: sharp, funny, informed, personal.
But a lot of it is really bad, and that brings me to the worst-of-times part. As comfortable and frequently adept as people are in writing for their friends or affinity groups, they tend to get spooked when called on to produce more formal kinds of prose. This is something I've experienced for the last twenty years, during which I've taught advanced undergraduate writing and journalism classes at the University of Delaware.
If you read more than a couple of online pieces about the state of writing today, you're likely to come upon the charge that smiley faces, "LOL"-style abbreviations, and slang terms are rampant in young people's prose. I think this is whack. In fact, I don't remember a single example in all my years of grading papers, except for a handful of ironic parries. Students realize that this kind of thing is in the wrong register for a college assignment.
But they have trouble finding the right register. And it's not just students, either. I find a lot of the same problems in business e-mails, and in much published prose as well. Here's an analogy: you've spent your life in sandals, Hawaiian shirt, and yoga pants, and you're invited to a Bar Mitzvah where a suit and tie, plus appropriate shoes, are required. You're definitely going to make some fashion blunders.
In the same way, people who are used to informal writing tend to lose their way when called upon to write for publication or in a business setting, not to mention classroom assignments. In my new book How to Not Write Bad, I take a look at the most common problems that come up (surprisingly, not a very long list), and suggest ways to address them.
Here's a list of some highlights--or should I say lowlights. If you master all nine, I can pretty much guarantee you won't be writing badly. In fact, you'll be on your way to writing well.