Is the internet making it harder for me to be a writer?
It’s possible. Seems a lot of people out there are noticing how technology affects their creativity, and it’s not great.
Research suggests that the internet is having a big impact on how we process, store and compose ideas. We’re getting really good at multi-tasking, given the number of interruptions and distractions we have each day. But this improvement in one area comes at a cost in another: Your average person is showing new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes, like abstract thinking, mindfulness, imagination and critical thinking.
We have more content to consume, but we are processing it poorly, which means it’s harder for us to make new connections that lead to creativity. We’re so used to multi-tasking that we’re losing the ability to think deeply about one topic at a time.
As one researcher commented:
The constant distractedness that the net encourages—the state of being, to borrow a phrase from T S Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction” — is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking. The cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.
Even if you can find the space to sit down and create, your creativity can be stunted by trying to make it more marketable. So much content online means you’ve got to fight for your right to rank on Google – so it behoves you to include keywords, phrases and tags that will increase your chance of being searched. Appealing to readers isn’t enough; you’re better off keeping your word choices literal, because Google doesn’t laugh at your clever headline.
It’s no wonder people think the internet is killing our creativity.
Creativity has been on my mind recently. Three months ago, I began my first full-time job as a writer after years of editing and communications. Two months ago, I took a deep breath and started this blog. I enjoy being creative, but I’ve been especially aware of when it’s been hard. If I’m not careful, it’s overwhelming and confusing to create anything. But slowly, I’m working out what keeps me writing despite the noise.
Here’s what I’ve discovered.
Creating with the door closed
I find many more ideas and inspirations, but the flow of information and ideas is so vast that I never find time to develop them. I need to get off the internet.
I write articles, and that means I research. I research probably too much. Sometimes, I discuss the topic with others, externally processing what I’ve learned and hearing what their opinions are. I search for articles on similar topics. There are thousands. I get distracted by an article on a tertiary topic that’s not quite related. There’s so much to take in that I can’t focus on my original idea.
Sometimes, I find inspiration in researching. More often, though, I get overwhelmed, and what I create starts to suffer. It’s too self-conscious, it’s garbled and muddy, it’s overwritten.
I’ve discovered that, to produce my strongest work, I need to shut the door and just create. I don’t necessarily mean literally shutting a door – I mean shutting off, shutting the internet browser, shutting off from distractions. Doing my basic research needs to keep within a confined time limit, and then I just get on with it. My rewrites are the time for adding the statistics and quotes to boost my argument, if I really want to.
Maybe I’ll shut the door and just daydream, which is another thing that we do less often in today’s busy world. Or maybe I’ll go on a walk. The principle is the same: I’m just spending time with my thoughts, which leads to making new connections and creativity, and that helps me to write.
I don’t find it easy to switch off, and I know I’m still terrible at it. But if I’m drowning in other people’s ideas, I can’t make my own.
George R R Martin uses an ancient DOS computer that’s not connected to the internet for his writing. It’s not a bad idea.
Creative first, technical second
Because there are left-brained and right-brained people, there are left-brained and right-brained writers.
Today’s world tries to make everyone into content marketers, and this is where Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) comes in. Adding keywords and phrases may be important to building your audience, but I need to take it with a grain of salt.
In my workplace, our SEO advisor has given me recommendations both before and after I’ve written my content, and it’s been interesting comparing how it affects my work. Writing with the technical recommendations in front of me first felt like mental gymnastics, and I quickly got bogged down. Ultimately, my work was weaker. I found it much easier to write away, and then go back and switch into technical mode to add phrases or keywords.
Creativity uses the right side of my brain. Data and strategy uses the left side. No wonder I found it a hard slog. Some people may be ambidextrous, but I find that I need to focus on one half of that equation at a time.
My biggest times of creative block were when I was so preoccupied with best practices for getting my work out there that I stopped focusing on the work itself. If you’re worried about what catchy headline you’ll have or how you’ll incorporate buzzwords into the caption, your work is going to be weaker. I don’t ignore these things, but I do make a conscious effort to put my idea as first priority.
Like any creative work, I need to give it room to breathe. I don’t know how or why, but it’s obvious in the final product when I don’t.
Maybe content promotion is a science, but focusing too much on the science will lose part of the art. And that means less engagement from readers. For me, I do creative first, technical second.
Keep being original
Blogs are not dead, but yours will only ever be as effective as your ability to innovate the format and produce something that no one else has thought of yet.
For all the doom and gloom about the internet killing creativity, originality seems to be holding its own.
You may have read how content shock is setting in on the internet. Blogs, videos, images and other sites have grown so much that there’s simply too much content for users to consume. If you’re posting a “me too” post, chances are your market is already inundated, and your work will have to fight that much harder to stand out amidst the hundreds of other offerings. Even major websites are struggling.
But there’s change happening. Reports suggest that Google is getting smarter about pushing duplicate content down the chain, focusing on content that’s unique, is a reasonable length and avoids jargon. It may not be able to appreciate your fancy prose, but it can calculate how many audience members you have and how they interact with your page.
If you take someone else’s content and rewrite it, it’s likely to get you penalised. Experts suggest that pre-empting trends – not chasing them – is the way of the future. If you’re already thinking outside the box, and writing for human consumption first, you could well be onto a good thing.
Content shock is bad news if I’m a writer who wants to do a listicle that everyone else is writing on. Content shock is good news if I’m a writer who’s brave enough to write on a completely new topic that appeals to my audience. It requires forward thinking and originality to be ahead of the curve.
Of course, the rules can change. It’s still not easy to be noticed, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Maybe natural selection will make its move, and content that’s there for the sake of it will slowly become less profitable. Maybe creative offerings will rise to the top of the heap more frequently. From killing creativity to rewarding creativity, the internet could be coming full circle.
I’m still learning lessons as I learn how to be a writer. Maybe I’ll share more of them one day. In the meantime, I’m going to shut my door and get back to daydreaming.