The Writer's Page
“All Kinds of Predictions Are Wrong.”
Joel Swerdlow Image
Joel Swerdlow on assignment in Burma
Photograph by Steve McCurry
An interview with Joel Swerdlow,
Senior Writer, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Joel Swerdlow summarized the challenges of the electronic publishing age in his October 1995 article, “Information Revolution.”
      A staff writer for the magazine since 1990, he is currently working on an article about the history of writing. Armed with salient facts from his recent research, Swerdlow gave us some timely insights into what lies ahead. Scroll down for interview.

Will the Internet change the way we write?

          “Yes, writing has always changed with new technology. For example, we have a growing channel-surfing mentality. A writer has to grab people early. Readers who don’t see something early on, move on. But some fundamental things will never change. People like stories—with beginnings, middles, and ends. Real life doesn’t have many beginnings and ends; it’s mostly a series of middles, strung out one after the other. We pick up stories to experience beginnings and ends. So storytelling has always been the same thing—someone by the campfire, saying, ‘Come on, I’ve got an interesting story to tell you.’ But the techniques by which you get people to that campfire and keep them from drifting off into the night, always change.”

Is this a true revolution?

          “This is a subset of a revolution that began in the 1840s with the telegraph, but technology has always changed writing. When Homer’s poems were not written down and were recited in rhyme to help people remember them, their content was somewhat different than when they were written. When writing first emerged, everyone simply assumed that people would read out loud—that reading was another form of talking. That someone would read alone was revolutionary. In his Confessions, St. Augustine has a great description of someone who reads silently. Augustine just can’t get over it—that someone just sits there and reads and nothing comes out of his mouth. How can that be?
          “The Internet is a true revolution, but it’s not revolutionary that a format for language and writing changes.”

Will people read serious writing on a screen?

          “I think the Internet is going to be a very sophisticated free mail-delivery system. People will not read long things on the screen; they’ll print them out and read them. So writing that is strictly electronic will be a limited type of writing. But it will be the realization of what has been a dream and a goal in communications for generations, to have no economic relationship between distance and cost.”

Have readers simply developed a shorter attention span?

          “Not necessarily. Movies are not getting shorter. Books aren’t getting shorter, and book sales in this country keep going up. Books that are being read by people in their 20s are not getting shorter. A recent survey showed that younger baby boomers, who grew up in an electronically saturated environment, are reading more than older baby boomers. The more we get involved in electronics, the more we get involved in books. These things are additive—they don’t replace each other.”

Have you been writing for an electronically aware audience?

          “I’ve been writing for a graphically aware audience. To me one of the great and positive challenges of writing for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC is that your words are on the page among these stunning, world-class, attention-grabbing photographs. If you’re going to get your story read, you’d better do writing that grabs people in a way that survives in this environment.”

Is the English language changing because of the electronic media?

          “Sure. One of the reasons people like e-mail is that you don’t have to call someone up and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ No formality. You don’t worry about your spelling, and you can write with bad grammar. You don’t have to have complete sentences. It can be short and punchy.
          “When the telephone came in, you had a social behavioral revolution as extensive as anything the Internet can foster. Suddenly people were not communicating face-to-face, but through voices coming out of a wire. Did that change narrative technique? Did that change the way characters acted in novels? Of course.
          “The next question is, if you have this change, so what? Is it promoting different values, leading you to different truths, or is it forcing you to adapt just like you adapt to changing weather?”

How will the magazine format survive on the Internet?

          “It will be on the Internet, but it will be something different. Go back and look at what was done with television at first. They would focus fixed cameras on a stage play and they would put that on the air. On radio they would read the newspaper, or they would take a stage play and would take the exact dialogue and stage it. These efforts failed. Every technology evolves to its own; it’s market driven. All kinds of predictions were wrong. When TV came in people thought movies were finished—there would be no more movies. But you can say with certainty that the Internet is a new technology with new capabilities, and we will have to find new uses for it.”

So you can’t just put NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on online as is?

          “You can’t any more do that than you can put your camera on a Broadway play and expect people to sit at home and watch it.”

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