How Google is Changing the Way We Write

Christian Allred
4 min readApr 14, 2021

The trend toward excessive brevity, simplicity, and facticity in writing can be seen everywhere across the web. Depth is sacrificed for immediacy, complexity for accessibility. The reasons for this trend are multifaceted, but most can be traced back to Google.

Writing is being fragmented into shorter texts, paragraphs, and sentences. Take the widespread adoption of one-sentence paragraphs, for instance. There is nothing innately wrong with one-sentence paragraphs, but their curious overuse reflects a decline in our patience for developed ideas. Blogs are religiously devoted to them. Innocent as they appear, too many one-sentence paragraphs not only break up a text to an excessive degree, they break up our thinking. Every paragraph break signals a mental break for the reader, however slightly. And too many paragraph breaks leave the reader with a rapid succession of disjointed statements they are not required to connect. Look at any number of posts on LinkedIn and you will find what I mean.

So why are short paragraphs gaining popularity despite their lack of cohesion? At the risk of sounding alarmist, I see the trend toward shorter, truncated writing as part of a larger trend seen everywhere: YouTube clips, social media posts, music singles. Each can be enjoyed context-free within a sea of other unrelated content, a phenomenon epitomized by the endless stream of unrelated 15-second videos on Tik Tok. Every video tries to win your attention anew before it fizzles out, like a never-ending revolving door from which you are not meant to escape. Unfortunately, writing is being caught in the same whirlwind. It is becoming text without context.

Of course, this begs the classic chicken-or-the-egg question: Do shorter texts reduce our attention span, or do our short attention spans encourage shorter texts? Either way, the dominant force at work is the medium itself — the internet. Writing on the internet exists within a giant index of content that most people trust Google to organize for them. No matter the question, Google is the go-to starting point. Consequently, texts compete for higher rankings on Google’s search results pages, spawning a whole industry called SEO (search engine optimization). According to Google, its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It aims to give searchers exactly what they want, to be the perfect matchmaker between users and content, and on its surface, this is a good goal with many benefits. But like all utilitarian maxims, it comes with unaccounted costs.

Google’s primary impact on writing has been to disjoin it at every level. Disjointed writing lends itself to being indexed and tends to better hold readers’ attention. By jumping from text to text, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, without much in between to link them, readers can consume more information. And because Google conditions us to read this way, writers respond by breaking their texts into smaller chunks.

Some might argue that fragmented writing is a trend restricted to cheap copywriting, which has the express purpose of generating sales. But again, the stilted style is spreading to other forms of writing due to the medium in which they exist — the internet. Many writers bend to the pressure to write in a noncontinuous style to appease Google’s index and a readership conditioned to demand immediate information.

In his 1985 jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman shows how the medium of television had a similar impact on the news. He criticizes the phrase “Now . . . This” spoken between news stories as a blatant example of discontinuity, used as a “conjunction that does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.” The ellipses that separate the two monosyllables epitomize a larger dissolution effected by the media in news clips and sound bites, for example.

Postman associated the rise of television with the decline of typography and lamented the fact. What he did not fully predict in 1985 was that the pressure to fragment information would begin to affect writing, too. With the arrival of Google in 1998, texts are being deconstructed to be indexed and consumed. Now, “traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations,” writes Nicholas Carr. “Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.”

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, there is a minor character named Helmholtz Watson, a gifted writer that the world government puts to work writing propagandic slogans and rhymes at the “College of Emotional Engineering (Department of Writing),” where one newspaper is written “in words exclusively of one syllable.” At points, Helmholtz complains that he has something to say with no way to say it: “If there was some different way of writing … Or else something else to write about …” Unless we are careful, we may, in some hopefully distant future, find elaborate, ambiguous writing not only unnecessary but inexpressible.

Not all short writing is bad, but the general trend towards disconnected, simple brevity has its source in Google and carries worrisome implications for the future if left unchecked.