Writing Hypertext

Planning    (Designing)   (Writing)    (Linking)   (Seeing) 

Like a conventional essay, a hypertext presentation requires planning. A collection of pages randomly linked together provides neither pleasure nor enlightenment for the reader. Nor will it allow you, as thinker and writer, to transmit all your ideas fully to the reader.

In planning a conventional essay we build a linear trail for the reader: our points should follow each other in a straight and logical line. And you can present material this way in a webbed environment. But a genuine hypertext presentation involves planning spatially, thinking about which pages (or parts of pages) should be linked to each other, or to external sources. Remember that hypertext writers compose for the screen, not for the page. 

Think, too, about the function of your site. If you are trying to present your hard-won research to an audience, you want to create an environment in which readers will consume all your ideas and conclusions. There you need to construct all your linkage with care and, often, deviousness, to persuade readers to stay within your site and hear you out.

If you are trying to introduce your audience to sources of information on a particular topic, then the links, and the way you describe them, are the reason for your site's existence. The more relevant links you include, the more rewarding the reader's experience. But, again, you might break the links into sections, perhaps each with a separate introduction. Or you might include a capsule review of the site, allowing readers to decide whether they need to open that particular site. A long list of links is like a long text block - very hard on the eyes.

If you want to intrigue, amuse or tease your reader, perhaps in a creative piece, use linking to offer partial answers, clues and diversions from the main theme. Or you can mix multiple linking approaches: one set of links is linear, another traps readers in a particular place, a third offers multiple choices.

Ways of Planning
Before you begin writing, you should draft out on paper (or screen) an outline of how your presentation might develop.

Here is the beginning of my outline for the web site for a media-themed English 101 class:-

Writing the Media: intro page contents and menu to direct students to:- 
  • Syllabus 
  • Classwork 
  • Our Writing 
  • Mediawatch 
  • Other Sites of Interest 
  • a) Syllabus Page

    Directly into syllabus: links in the text to 

  • Papers 
  • Writing resources 
  • Internet resources 
  • Sources of graphics 
  • b) Classwork Page

    Menu to direct students to:-

  • Paper #1 
  • Paper #2 
  • Research Paper 
  • Writing Resources 
  • Internet Sources 
  • The Library 
  • etc.
    Or you might plan out your site graphically. Draw your main introductory screen in the middle of a large page, and sketch out the subsidiary pages and their links. Then you can draw on a separate sheet the design for each page, a process called story boarding. Keep your outline sketch and storyboards: you may need to add extra pages and link them into your existing structure.

    Designing   (Writing)   (Linking)    (Seeing)   (Planning)

    Begin with a separate front page for each new project. You should include all essential authorship information, an e-mail link and an update line to indicate the currency of your information. 

    If you are creating your first website, your site will probably grow. Therefore set up a front page that introduces you, and allows you to list and add to the projects you have completed and to which you wish to refer readers. You might consider including a resume, or details of your work experience. Then you might want to refer prospective employers to your web site.

    Hypertext in a webbed environment is a mixed medium. Use it, especially on your front page. Think of varying type sizes and colors, for example. Look at newspaper front pages on the web for a good use of the multiple resources available in this environment: color, size, font, photographs, layout. All the items are not set in a straight line: materials are offset to create visual interest and unpredictability on the first page.

    Writing   (Linking)   (Seeing)   (Planning)   (Designing)

    No reader has any incentive to stay with a boring site. If you want to keep your reader, your prose should be dynamic and direct. All the criteria for good text writing apply, only more so. Avoid passives, and avoid weak verbs such as 'is' and the ever-present 'get.' You also need to write succinctly so that you convey all necessary information before you activate your reader's boredom threshold. Concision and creative vocabulary choices keep your reader alert and interested.

    As a hypertext writer, you have to think about more than words. Thus writing for hypertext is more like writing a script than writing a paper. As you draft each section of your site you might want to think of breaking up the page to allow you to think about, and note down, all the elements of composition at once.



    Or draw each page out on a separate sheet of paper.

    Text Blocks
    In hypertext, the author composes small units, called text blocks, and links them together. On the one hand, this eases the stress of writing, allowing the author to work on discrete units, rather than a single long text. 

    On the other hand, George Landow, a pioneering hypertext writer and theorist, argues that hypertext writers need to pay particular attention to 'arrivals' and 'departures' - the first sentences your reader encounters in arriving at a text block and the last sentences she encounters as she leaves. 

    Each text block, of whatever length, needs to be shaped like a mini-essay, with a beginning, a middle and an end. New hypertext writers often think the medium eliminates the need for introductions and conclusions. In fact, it multiplies them. For example, if you have five text blocks in your hypertext, you have to negotiate five beginnings and five endings.

    The Screen
    Reading a computer screen can be distracting. The colors may be too bright, the background too distracting, the type may be too small, or it may be in such a continuous block that your eye loses its place on the screen. You need to think of your primary writing unit as the screen, not the page. 

    Choose restful, clear colors for your text and background. Break your writing up into blocks or units, as the newspaper does. Or give the reader's eye a rest by separating your main points with a line and a space. Or use relevant graphics to break up the text blocks on the screen. Use the possibilities of a flexible visual medium to animate your writing. Always, always, always make sure you include margins on either side of your text. And keep each line of text short enough to avoid 'tennis match syndrome.'

    Finally, hypertext allows you to concentrate on your ideas, your research and your writing. You can use links to refer readers to background information, and to the sources you cite. And you are able to expand the remit of your assignment by linking to other information that creates a context for your whole project.

    Linking    (Seeing)   (Planning)    (Designing)   (Writing

    The hypertext link is the equivalent of the TV's remote control. Bore your audience for a moment and Zap! the readers are somewhere else. You can combat this by including links only to your own page (which is the tactic favored by many commercial organizations) but that ignores the potential of the webbed environment to link multiple sources of information. Think about the points within your presentation where it would be most useful to the reader to link to another part of your site, or to an external site.

    A simple linking scheme (for example, linking the end of the one text block to the beginning of the next) allows the reader a quasi-linear exploration of your work, which ensures that all your work is read, and in an order which you, as author, largely control. A more complex or playful linking structure (one which follows themes, for example, through a sequence of blocks, and/or one which offers the reader more than one link from each text block) exploits the medium's associative potential. But it may also confuse the reader, or set up a sequence of paths which miss some of the key text blocks in your writing. 

    Use the drafting process to experiment with linking structures. Most writers have both an idea of the structure of their work, and its content before they write. Most hypertext writers have an idea of what their content might be and how it might be linked before they write, and tend to develop both content and linking pathways as they write. For your first hypertext, it might be easier to develop your text blocks first, and then work out how they might be linked. 

    Perhaps you want to keep your links to external sites close to the end of your text blocks. Or perhaps you should open external links in subsidiary windows (put _blank as the Target for the external page.) 

    Perhaps you should ensure that internal links always allow the reader to return easily to every section of the site. Or you might think of creating links that return the reader to the point from which they linked. See the links to and from the highlighted words on the Wilfred Owen site. You might even build pop-ups, rather than links, for small sections of additional information.
    Place too many links too close to the beginning of your site, and readers will often start opening links without even reading the text. A popular design feature now is the inclusion on every page of links down the left, and often along the bottom of the page as well. This offers the reader ease of navigation. But for the writer it creates multiple difficulties.

    First, the moment the reader is bored, s/he will link somewhere else. Second, the linking blocks take up a lot of space on the page, thus cramping any text you have. This, in turn, makes the reading experience less pleasant for the audience, and forces you, as a writer, to compose in blocks suitable for a very small screen. Another popular technique is splitting the page via frames, as I have done here. Just remember not to clutter your main reading pages so much that visual and reading experiences is fragmented. 

    Seeing   (Planning)   (Designing)   (Writing)   (Linking)

    Hypertext also allows authors to create visually aesthetic text and text blocks. Color and formatting (font size, style, type; placement on the page, etc.) can create a powerful visual communication that parallels the textual communication. Again, this is great fun. But please read a few words of warning. 

    Your ideas for the visual may occur as you plan & write, and may even inspire you to write. Experiment briefly with your ides. But you should try only to execute them fully once you have planned and written. The spending of too time working on the visual presentation is so seductive (and so creatively satisfying) that you can easily run out of time to develop your content. 

    Any hypertext writer runs this risk/pleasure, but new hypertext authors are more easily sucked into the text as art object than most. Without relevant content, a visually exciting presentation offers little meaning.

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