Hypertext and writing

Hypertext and writing:

An overview of the hypertext medium

by Kimberly Amaral


There is literally a glut of information available about hypertext. Hundreds of articles announce and hail the "phenomena" of hypertext--a system of non-sequential writing.

But most seem to be caught up in the technology of hypertext. Many books talk about the development of the software and hardware, while magazine articles proclaim the glories of the latest hypertext software system.

There's quite a bit of theorizing about the applications of hypertext to education, and even making analogies to literary issues (such as an essay by John Slatin in "Text, Context and Hypertext" that calls hypertext a "literary concept," citing problems similar to intertextuality in poetry). Quite honestly, though, not much has been written on how to write for this new medium. Besides trying to overcome the mechanics of "marking up" documents to appear properly in hypertext, professional writers should be equally, if not more concerned over the application of their writing to this different medium. After all, we know that writing a movie script requires a much different style and approach than if we were going to write a novel. Why then, should we not investigate this concept of writing for hypertext as well?

In this article, I have attempted to answer some common questions about hypertext, specifically for writers not familiar with the medium. But readers familiar with the concept, history, and reason behind writing in hypertext may wish to jump directly to some guidelines on how to write for hypertext. I have approached that section by applying hypertext to some of the essential elements of writing: content, organization, style, and audience.

What is hypertext?

Hypertext is simply a non-linear way of presenting information. Rather than reading or learning about things in the order that an author, or editor, or publisher sets out for us, readers of hypertext may follow their own path, create their own order-- their own meaning out the material.

This is accomplished by creating "links" between information. These links are provided so that readers may "jump" to further information about a specific topic being discussed (which may have more links, leading each reader off into a different direction). For instance, if you are reading an article about marine mammal bioacoustics, you may be interested in seeing a picture of a dolphin. Or you may want to hear the sound it makes (~80K). Or you may even be interested in seeing what a marine mammal sound "looks like" in a spectrogram. You might even want to find out more about sounds made by other animals in the sea, thus leading you on a completely different, detailed path.

As you can see by these examples, this medium is not limited simply to text. It can incorporate pictures, sound, even video. So it presents a multimedia approach to gaining information--hypermedia.

The history of hypermedia

The idea behind hypermedia is not a new one. In fact, 50 years ago Vannevar Bush, the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, proposed a method of cataloguing and retrieving information prophetically like today's hypermedia.

His "memex" machine would use a series of gears where a reader could sit at a desk and call up information--both text and pictures--associatively. This, argued Bush, is how the mind really works:

"Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain...

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways, he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized."
("Classic Technology: As We May Think." Atlantic Monthly. July 1945. Reprinted November, 1994.)

The only problem with Bush's mechanism, however, was that gears would act out the thinking. That's an analog system. (At the time of his writing, it still wasn't clear if the future of technology lay in analog or digital machinery.)

Since then, researchers have carried on the ideals of hypertext in a digital arena. Doug Engelbart was the first to be influenced by Bush's concepts of associative links and browsing in the early 1960s (Byte, 10/88). His system, Augment, stores information in a sophisticated hierarchical structure allowing non-hierarchical branching. To make viewing easier and increase user speed, he also developed the "mouse" and viewing filters.

But it was Ted Nelson who coined the term "hypertext" over 29 years ago to mean non-sequential writing. His publishing system released in 1989, Xanadu, attempted to hold the world's literary treasures under one roof. It interconnected linked electronic documents and other forms of media, such as movies, audio, and graphics.

Other hypertext systems and "browsers" have since been created, one of the most popular being Macintosh's HyperCard. While all of these work well self-sufficiently, there still wasn't a universal system of exchanging information freely and making links between it.

That was, until Switzerland's high-energy physics laboratory CERN developed the World Wide Web, the skeleton of computer networks upon which all on-line information can be placed. The U.S.'s decentralized networks--designed to survive a nuclear attack--were created roughly a quarter-century ago for researchers in the defense industry.

And in 1993, the National Center for Computing Applications (NCSA) released the software Mosaic, a graphical information "browser," that allowed users to pleasurably view all the information now available on the network.

Invisible commands embedded in the original text format it so it appears in Mosaic with stylistic characteristics, such as spacing between paragraphs; larger, bolded text as a heading; and making links between one document and another. For instance, if I want some text I'm preparing for Mosaic to appear in italics, I would simply place <i>markers around the text indicating that it will be viewed in italics</i>. This markup language universal to hypertext systems is called HTML: hypertext markup language. For a complete tutorial on creating HTML documents to be published on the World Wide Web, see "Publishing on the Web: A 'How to.'"

Other "browsers"--software that reads HTML documents--have followed, such as Netscape, MacWeb, and Spyglass. Together with the World Wide Web, they form a system of associative information retrieval accessible to anyone with a computer and a phone line.

Why use hypertext?

Because in general, humans learn better associatively. That is, we are better able to figure out material if we are allowed to move at our own pace, investigating that which interests us, and stimulating more senses through multimedia.

As Bush says in "Classic Technology," "All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one or the senses--the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?"

Also, hypertext operates very similar to the way our brains do--in a series of networks, or associations--as opposed to a linear path. "Hypertext software provides for the human element in the management of information...Since hypertext analogizes the way our minds normally work (that is, not in a straight line but in several dimensions at once), hypertext can be considered a thought machine. Some have claimed that the hypertext idea is one of those crucial ideas in intellectual history, akin to the development of the printing press of the computer itself" ("Manage Information the Way you Think." Home-Office Computing, 11/88).

The ability for people to learn more, or at least learn more pleasurably through hypertext, has been demonstrated again and again through testing. Researchers at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, for example, created self instructional electronic texts on aplastic anemia, and compared students who used the electronic texts to those who used traditional learning methods. While test scores showed no significant difference in retention, time spent in study of the multimedia program was on average 15 minutes longer than for the syllabus. "Evaluation responses by the students were extremely positive and indicated a desire to have electronic texts available for required courses" ("Interactive Computer Based Programs," 1994).

And in two separate studies, learning disabled, remedial and regular education students were separated into three groups: lecture, lecture/computer study guide, and computer study guide. Results indicated that while the two latter methods were as effective as lecture, posttest and retention test scores were higher for computer study guide group ("Hypertext Computer Study Guides," 1990).

As Pat Ward and Kristopher Davis wrote in an article presented at the Second International WWW Conference, "In the midst of an information driven society, tomorrow's educational system must provide an environment where students are actively involved in learning and have action to the world's information sources...Students encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, creativity, problem-solving approaches and cooperation are actively engaged in their own learning" ( "Empowering Students in the Information Age," 10/94).

And because the author is no longer in control over what path a reader will take, hypertext creates an environment for independent critical thinking. In a sense, the readers are also the "writers" of the material, by making connections themselves. And making those connections on their own, pulling together different bits of information and creating a whole new meaning, entails critical thinking.

How to write for hypertext

For writers, whose job is to create order and meaning for readers, the medium of hypertext might at first appear to be disappointing. The readers are left to organize the material to suit them, making them in a sense, co-authors of the piece. In some advanced hypertext systems, the reader may even "add" to the document, making links to their own work, or tacking on comments. What purpose then, does the writer serve?

Believe it or not, writers do not have to relinquish all their control over a document when they enter the realm of hypertext. Rather than handing over the controls to an inexperienced pilot of information, it is the writer's job to make the destination extremely clear so that anyone could find it. At the same time, the writer should also anticipate any needs the user may encounter.

It is the same thing as writing a persuasive argument, where the writer must consider ahead of time all the arguments that may surface and provide beforehand suitable counter-arguments. Except in hypertext format, instead of holding your reader by the hand and dragging them step by step towards your irrefutable conclusion, you must have all arguments, all counter-arguments ready at all times.

This, of course, makes it very easy to end up with a confused, disoriented reader. There is that inherent danger--that your reader can become so side-tracked with ancillary information that they lose interest in or even track of where they begun. Paradoxically, it is also the joy of perusing information in hypertext. Gary Wolf, in his Wired article (10/94) "Why I Dig Mosaic," shares his "vertigo" experience:

"Many documents are linked into the NCSA demo page, which is full of links leading out into the Web. I scanned down the lines of gray text and selected a blue link that had nothing to do with my official mission: 'An experiment in hypermedia publishing: excerpts and audio from a book reading by author Paul Kafka of his novel LOVE Enter,' it said. This I hoped, would be a nice breather...

Before finding out, I glanced at the rest of the document, and it was then that I began to experience the vertigo of Net travel. On the lower parts of the page were abstracts of Paul's scientific papers, some co-authored with Benjamin Grinstein...

It was a type of voyeurism, yes, but it was less like peeking into a person's window and more like dropping in on a small seminar with a cloak of invisibility.

One thing it was not like: it was not like being in a library. The whole experience gave an intense illusion, not of information, but of personality. I had been treating the ether as a kind of data repository and I suddenly found myself in the confines of a scientist's study, complete with family pictures...

It was late. I'd been in Paul Mende's life for an hour. I turned the computer off. It was not until this morning that I remembered I had never made it back to CERN."

So the dangers of disorientation are not always so devastating for the reader. It simply means that something has caught their attention--just not the same document they began with. However, there are going to be readers who will want a more linear approach, or may be looking for a specific piece of information, and will want to move directly and easily to it.

Herein lies the first and perhaps most important challenge to the hypertext author: organization. Maintaining that balance between control and using the hypertext format to its full potential takes careful planning--and the open-mindedness to recognize valuable links when you stumble upon them. The other categories that follow simply provide some guidelines in writing for hypertext, dealing with the most basic elements of writing: style, content, and audience (yes, you do have some control over audience!).

1) Organization
While readers do develop their own methods of moving about a series of documents, the author does create the master plan of a piece. Where the author provides links or doesn't, what content is left in or left out, and the placement or prominence of content (will it be encased in a "main text," or will it be located "outside" the main document in a link?) all contribute to the organization and impact of a piece.

Greg Stone, Director of Publications at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and co-director of the university's Advanced Electronic Communications Project, likens the approach to journalism. The reporters and editors are always making subjective judgments about what is more important. Now, the reader has control over that. According to Stone, the author is essentially saying, "This is really more important than that, but if you really think that's important, here's a link to it."

So you can present your information dominantly with links to "not so important" related material. Even if you do place "important" information in a separate link (either because it's a stand-alone piece, or simply too big or long to include with the original document), you can make that link pronounced in several ways. You could either place it in a dominant location in the text (at the beginning or end or by itself--much like the critical areas of other writing), or draw attention to that link by bringing in graphics or another attention-getter. Again, it still relates to other forms of writing in that you're trying to interest your readers, only now you have a multimedia format at your fingertips to draw in an audience.

2) Style
Rhetorically, a hypertext writer's style should still be generated for the intended audience. But the writer should also keep in mind the limits of readers' electronic capabilities. Most people accessing information will be doing so from networks with 9600 or even 2400 baud modems. The speed of their computers will vary, but you can bet that most won't be working from exceptionally fast mainframe computers. Because of this, large sized documents with long download times will not be appreciated. Neither will exclusive graphic displays bode well with users on a non-graphical browser (such as LYNX, which most students at UMass Dartmouth use to get into the university's server). A good example of this problem is Wired magazine's on-line publication, Hotwired. Anyone without a graphical browser just won't be able to view their main menu page, which consists of a brightly colored calypso graphic, "mapped out" for different sections of the magazine.

Keeping this in mind, authors might want to consider breaking up very large files into smaller ones. Or, in the case of graphics or audio, provide the user with alternatives: a smaller document with a shorter video or low resolution picture, and for those who think the final product will be worth the wait, a full-fledged longer movie or high resolution graphic.

The concept of breaking down information into smaller, easier to manipulate pieces is also important when considering the medium it will be viewed in. Text on a printed page and text on a scrolling screen are very different: it is much more difficult to orient yourself geographically in a scrolling document (to relocate information, or just to find your spot) than on a page. We tend to remember, if not on which page number, at least where on a page certain passages are located. This is not the case for a scrolling screen. Therefore, the hypertext writer might want to consider breaking up text into smaller pieces and linking them together, or providing internal links that divide the document into categories that the reader can easily jump back and forth to.

These links are very important. They provide easy access between documents, so users can jump from one document to the next, but still be assured that they can get back to the original point of entry. However, don't break the piece up too much so that the users have to plow through several "menus" before they get to the final product. They may get impatient and lose interest.

If your hypertext project is meant for advertising or marketing, you might also want to consider "branding" your document. According to Andrew Fry, "Branding reminds your audience that they are within specific boundaries. It is because of the modular, free flowing nature of global hypermedia that branding is so important. You want your audience to know where they are so they can get there again, and not only through one specific entry point" ("Publishing in the New Mass Medium," 10/94). Branding, to a small extent, seems to counteract the goal of the web--presenting a seamless world of information accessible by free association. But it is a necessary element if you are to have your audience associate the page they are viewing with your organization or product.

Branding is accomplished by creating a very tight series of inter-document links, and by maintaining a set style guide for all the documents within the piece. Fry also calls for maintaining a mood and a common bond across several media documents.

3) Content
The amount of competition on the web is nearing that of the print medium. In January of 1993, there were 50 known web servers providing hypertext information. By October, there were more than 500. By June of 1994, there were 1,500. And obviously the list is still growing.

Which makes content even more important--yours should be interesting and accurate. And it should maintained and kept up to date. Because a new copy doesn't have to be printed out for each reader, there's no reason for him or her to wait around for a "new, expanded and revised" edition of your work.

Again, be sympathetic to the limits of your reader's electronics. Keep documents to a reasonable size for downloading. Test documents by downloading them yourself. If an element is exceptionally large, perhaps provide smaller and larger versions for the user to select from. Gratuitous graphics, such as "buttons" that open up into pictures that you must press again to move on, should be avoided--at least until the speed of hardware catches up.

Writing for the web is certainly much different than writing for print. Instead of writing and submitting an article for "Chronicle of Higher Education" intended only for subscribers, publications on the web may be stumbled across by anyone with access to them.

However, you do have a small amount of control over your intended audience. Just as the placement of books in a bookstore herald a certain audience (for example, the cooking or "how to" section of a bookstore), so too does your placement of documents on the web wave a red flag at an intended audience. Careful selection of which "pages" you link your work to will help to define your audience. For example, if you write a column on amateur astronomy, you might want to link it to an astronomy page like Shoemaker-Levy's (if they will allow you access), or to a university's astronomy department.

And although initially you can't determine without a doubt who will read your work, the web allows you to track how many people come to "check out" your page. The database will also show you where in the world these readers are coming from (another determinant of audience), and the peak times of readership. This is definitely an advantage over the print medium, where you can only guess who your readers are.

In determining the success of your work, this ability is extremely valuable. You might even experiment with different links and strategies to see if readership improves or declines.

Finally one very important element that you might include in your creation is the capability for audience response. This audience interaction creates an "information community," according to Andrew Fry, much like building an audience for a television network or increasing circulation for a newspaper. Providing the ability for the audience to e-mail the authors, submitting to the final publication, and creating bulletin boards where readers can discuss topics (for example, Time magazine on-line provides bulletin boards for readers), add to this sense of community and connection. This sense of connection can help develop a following of dedicated readers.

And in terms of scholarly and academic publications, it can truly bring them to life. Readers can reply, comment, and make citations to an article online. Andrew M. Odlyzko predicts the impact of this capability on scholarly journals:

"The growth of the scholarly literature, together with the rapidly increasing power and availability of electronic tools, are creating tremendous pressures for change...Traditional scholarly journals will likely disappear within 10 to 20 years. The electronic alternatives will be different from current periodicals, even though they may carry the same titles...However, I am convinced that future systems of communication will be much better than the traditional journals. Although the transition may be painful, there is the promise of a substantial increase in the effectiveness of scholarly work. Publications delays will disappear, and reliability of the literature will increase with opportunities to add comments to papers and attach references to later works that cite them. This promise of improved communication is especially likely to be realized if we are aware of the issues, and plan the evolution away from the present system as early as possible."
("Tragic loss or good riddance?: The Impending Demise of Traditional Scholarly Journals." 11/6/94.)

These guidelines are, of course, not etched in stone. They are simply the result of one writer's experience and research. But for territory as new as hypertext, they might provide a valuable starting point for writers.

  • Bibliography

  • Go to "Issues in Hypertext: Theory and Practice"