I’m Asking George Orwell’s Question
Why Do We Write?
Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries, and this chapter is a mystery story, thinly disguised.
— Strunk & White
With typography, as with philosophy, music and food, it is better to have a little of the best than to be swamped with the derivative, the careless, the routine.
— Robert Bringhurst.
Books and writing have been so integral to society — the written word is impossible to live without in some form. Just think for a moment how many times we interact with the written word each day. We read labels, texts, books, documents, articles and many other new formats for the expression of ideas to exist. Books still hold their own right of importance — we need them for deeply researched sources of specific information. Because there is a lesser barrier to entry when you publish online, the research in a well written physical book will (almost) always outperform an online source.
Although letters are inherently functional, their appearance can evoke a surprisingly wide range of emotions and associations — everything from formality and professionalism to playfulness, sophistication, crudeness and beyond.
— Bruce Willen
Have you ever opened a book and struggled to make meaning of the words on the page? The type may be set too small, too close together or printed in a font that is difficult for the mind to absorb. Other signals or images are easier for us to capture and remember.
Since we have discovered that capturing the written word does not always translate clearly to readers, we have branched out into other ways of expressing ideas. We used to typically see bookshelves laden with poetry, literature and dense how-to guides. Now we see infographics, sketchnotes, live data feeds, visual information feeds and a significant increase in visual data. So why did we start writing? How has it evolved and why do we write now? What’s the future of writing?
History: Why Did We Start Writing?
Can you remember what you ate or all the interactions you had with others yesterday? Unless I have it recorded in some form — an app, a calendar or in my photos, I know there’s no way I’ll remember much. But we did not always have the problem of forgetting.
We Wrote to Keep Business Records
As Yuval Noah Harari explained, our brain capacity is limited, we die, and our brains have adapted to store only particular types of information. The economy gradually became more complex when we discovered that business disputes happen. And taxes came. We had to keep a record of our assets so governing institutions could ask for some of our cash too, please and thank you. So keeping records became a necessity.
As humans advanced and data grew rapidly, we grew aware of our limited capacity to store a large amount of data in our brains. Even if we could, the information would die with us unless we found a way to preserve it for future generations. Enter Kushim.
We Wrote to Externalise Information…
External information storage began around 3500 BC — 3000 BC with Sumerians in Mesopotamia. In today’s geography, that’s the region of Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria. The Sumerians constructed a system for numbers and a system for images, so that an image of an animal and a symbol for a number could record a business transaction.
Good old Kushim from Mesopotamia recorded the first business transaction on a clay tablet. It took significant time and effort to record anything, and literacy was limited to a very small percentage of the population. So only what was necessary for external storage was recorded.
There was also Andean external information storage system devised by the very, very first South Americans. It was not even a script! Rather, they used fabric knots in different colours to show the amount of a tax collection or a property record. Egyptian hieroglyphics appeared around 2500 BC, and China developed its own writing system around 1200 BC. The writing systems even brought on education for scribes, clerks, librarians and accountants so the societies could retrieve information effectively.
Although these societies developed writing systems and we might think they were mighty intelligent, put that aside for a moment.
Consider your own brain. It filtered out what you ate yesterday — unless that was important to you. You most likely cannot immediately remember what you ate unless you’re on a restricted diet of some kind (and so you needed to remember it) or had a memorable meal (and wanted to remember it).
Your brain effectively knows how to retrieve information and use filters far more efficiently than any other system we recognise today — even Google. You actually have to search for a little while to find what the right answer on Google. But think to the times when someone asked you or you asked someone else, “I’m going to xx and need a great place to eat! Where would you recommend?”. Chances are the answer is prompt and direct. Even if we don’t remember the name of the place, our brain keeps prodding us until we remember and can retrieve it. That’s where the evolution of retrieval devices — like Google or photos — are very useful. Writing and external storage can work well together.
… But There Were Not Strict Standards for Writing
When we established a way to externalise information, we established a way to standardise it. We accepted that writing needs to be organised into rules rows or columns and that the lines should be read in a constant direction (left to right or right to left), and that we should read from top to bottom. But it wasn’t always so.
The Phaistos disk was discovered in 1700 BC on Greece’s largest island, Crete. This disk was proof of an early attempt at printing. Stamps were created and pressed into the clay, each stamp specifically designed to be used for repetition. Moveable stamps and printing were also developed in China in the 1040s, and in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg in 1456. The methods did not gain popularity and movement in China, despite it being invented earlier than Germany.
Developing alphabet, printing and record keeping were all vested interest and energy, and as writing systems were established by Sumerians and early Mexicans, they spread to other civilisations rapidly. Standards became easier to adopt.
We Wrote to Preserve for Future Generations
We wrote to record major events and to inspire future ones.
Written accounts of earlier expeditions motivated later ones, by describing the wealth and fertile lands awaiting the conquerors. The accounts taught subsequent explorers what conditions to expect, and help them prepare themselves.
— Jared Diamond
Suffice it to say that writing changed significantly over three major empires of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Greek alphabet and Phoenician alphabet. It moved into old English and became a highly important part of education.
Why Do We Write Now?
George Orwell believes we are motivated to write for egoism (to leave a legacy), for the desire to share an experience (story), for the desire to see things as they are (journalism), or to push the world in a particular direction (political writing). Consider the purposes that drive us to write in 2019.
Financial records are nearly obsolete and rarely used in written transactions. Our writing systems have developed to serve completely different purposes. We now write to entertain, to educate or inform, to give our opinion, to tell a story, report on truth or influence others. The purpose we write for should dictate how we write. We will not follow exactly the same rules if I am writing to entertain and you are writing to report on a serious truth.
Typography is a playful expression of ideas. That beautiful extravagant heading image at the top of this article is no longer necessary when we are writing legal correspondence to clients. And though business transactions have become more complex, recording them automatically has become easier. Instead, letterforms have taken a life on their own — a form of self-expression rather than a record. Typography and calligraphy are now a luxury. Typefaces are a product of their era.
The Future: Why Should We Keep Writing (and Some Actionable Tips)
- We should write to share ideas;
- We should write to organise information (Google’s vision);
- We should write to share our thoughts with others — not necessarily using Social Media as the only medium to do so;
- We should write to challenge ourselves.
- Challenge yourself: Try to express your ideas and get your inspiration using other mediums other than just using words.
- Remember the laws of narrative — we are wired for story and will always want to know what happens next.
- The best writing tips are contained in some excellent books. I’ve made a list below. One can’t go past Strunk & White, Stephen King, Roy Clark, William Zinsser, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Ann Handley and Ann Lamott — but I did, and found the condensed version in an excellent short essay by Paul Graham.
- Everyone is told to write. I disagree. We have so many other mediums — why do we choose writing? The thing is, we shouldn’t unless we really can’t help it.
One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
— George Orwell
- Rules are made to be broken once you understand why they were there. Originality is blocked if the way back to earlier discoveries is cut or overgrown. Robert Bringhurst said it well: Break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately and well.
Unusual, illustrative or otherwise hard to read letters often convey a highly specific visual or intellectual tone and are meant to be looked at rather than through.
— Bruce Willen
- If you’re writing to express a high-level concept, opinion or idea, it’s better to choose a sans serif font or writing that is easy for the mind to absorb. That’s why this platform (Medium) has gone to great lengths to use a single font, a single format and an easy page to read.
- Working clean and planning are imperative. It makes the job so much easier. Ryan Holiday writes about the importance of planning.
Planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle… is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.
— Strunk and White
- Challenge yourself by expressing ideas in other forms — not just writing. Think of (relatively) recent developments, like infographics, rapid visualisation, sketchnotes and ‘doodling’.
- Get feedback. Van Gogh and his friends wrote letters about their work to keep each other informed of their activities, by making sketches and enclosing art with their letters. This was one of the earlier forms of collecting feedback. Julia Child also spent 10 years writing her book this way, writing back and forth to friends and collaborators to exchange feedback.
- Writer’s block: I don’t like hearing about it.
Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow torture, a form of procreation without arousal and romance — all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing… the writer’s struggle is overrated, a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse for not writing.
— Roy Clark
Like many industries, writing continues to evolve. This is borne out of a desire to learn and preserve the craft rather than out of necessity. The intention of writing, to produce records or record history, is done by computers now. We’re learning calligraphy and typography to send social messages and as another form of self-expression. Handwriting and telling a story is now done because we have the facilities and we can, not because we absolutely must.
But like many human developments, writing developed a downside. Bureaucracy. A terrifying pile of paperwork is required to process simple actions in our daily lives. Kushim must be turning in his fossil grave. When you are going about your daily errands, ask how a kind of writing or information exchange might be done more efficiently. Every time you ask a question, a small seed is planted. That’s how writing and great ideas spread.
- Ever Yours: The Essential Letters by Vincent van Gogh
- My Life in France by Julia Child
- Mastering Calligraphy by Gaye Godfreye-Nicholls
- Designing with Type by James Craig
- Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
- Lettering & Type by Willen and Strals
- The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
- Storybranding 2.0 by Jim Signorelli
- The Story Factor by Annette Simmons
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- Why I Write by George Orwell
- On Writing by Stephen King
- Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
- Typography Essentials by Ina Saltz
- Typography Workbook by Timothy Samara
- Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe
- Nib & Ink by Chiara Perano
- The Australian Printing Copy Book
- The Australian Lettering Book
- Rapid Viz by Kurt Hanks and Larry Belliston
- Sketchnotes 2012 by Eva-Lotta Lamm
- Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
- Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
EndNotes: This essay is part of a series in my own Masters program. I developed my own Masters because I couldn’t find the right solution to educating myself in our slow-moving and irrelevant tertiary education. I deferred a Masters of Law (Corporate and Commercial Specialty) to focus on areas that are more relevant to the conceptual age. I’ll still be learning about the law, but in a way that’s more relevant and connected to the outside world. You can follow along with my progress on Medium.
Dedication: It’s a long dedication, but I have a big family:
To Dad, thanks for teaching us the power of persistence and Dettol. To Mum, I really loved my quattro-flavoured sandwiches. I never exchanged any of my quarters with anyone. To Jeremy, thanks for being prepared with the promise of a power wedgie if anyone tried to harrass me (they never did). To Jules, thanks for introducing me to Mr Bingley’s confession: ‘I have been the most unmitigated and comprehensive ass.’ I hope to return the same value to your life some day. To Mat, thanks for sharing my love of bacon. Keep cooking until crispy. Maybe one day we won’t have to hit the fire detector with pillows. To Dora, there’s a lot more to you than soap bombs. If you’re not careful we might start randomly posting your art around Sydney. To Tim, your flatulence may be powerful, but your inheritance of Dad’s persistence is even more powerful. May the force be with you. To Luke, your passion for fact books and finger pointing will take you far. Never give up your sense of curiosity.