Introduction to Hypertext Writing Style
by Christopher B. Daly
- Getting started
- The top is very important.
- The bottom is also important.
- The margins are important, too.
- Whenever important, help the reader skim your document.
- Keep your readers oriented.
- Where possible, offer your readers a guided tour.
- A train of thought is precious; don't derail it.
- Always remember the reader.
- Avoid the Himalayas Symdrome.
- The basic unit of composition remains the paragraph.
- Date your work.
- Always be concise.
- Given a choice between brief and long, choose brief.
- If you have a large document or lengthy narrative, consider ways to break it up.
- New media can restore the richness of reading and writing.
- The role of the writer is expanding.
- There is no substitute for writing.
- There is no substitute for editing.
- When there is good reason to break one of these rules, do so.
- Closing Thought
Good writing comes from having something to say and saying it well. This simple fact is equally true in any medium. It was true in the time of the ancients and was true in the time of the medieval monks. It remained true through the invention of the printing press, the typewriter and the word processor. It is truer than ever in the age of on-line publishing and hypertext.
The problem of what to say is one that plagues most writers in one way or another. Very often, journalists interview people from different walks of life who must from time to time write something - - either legal briefs, or case notes, or reports of some kind or other. Although these writings usually contain the odd nugget of interest, they are on the whole pretty dry and dull. But what journalists find when they talk to these same people is that they do in fact have wonderful, interesting things to say. But they rarely write them, and more is the pity. They have skipped the first step, which is to find something to say.
The question of how to say it is, happily, a quite different problem and one that can be attacked and usually subdued, if not conquered. Whatever you are trying to say can usually be said better, by knowing and applying the principles of composition.
As you compose your material, keep the following guidelines in mind:
The top is very important. Good hypertext supplies lots of information AT THE TOP of each item. Writers have long recognized that the first few words of any work are crucial. That is why they labor over their beginnings. In my work, I often find that the opening sentence or paragraph takes as much time as the rest of the piece, combined.
In different fields, writers face various particular challenges in composing the opening. For a journalist, the beginning is the "lead" -- that is, an opening sentence, paragraph or section that sums up the news, grabs the reader's attention and launches the story. Done well, they are irresistible.
For the lawyer, it is the "statement of the case." For the writer of reports, it is the "executive summary." In every case, it is a matter of special concern. Over the years, writers and editors have developed many mechanisms for orienting the reader at the start of a piece of writing and for providing the reader with prompt cues about what follows. These devices include "slug lines," headlines and sub-heads, bylines, dates, version numbers, word counts, datelines, and summaries.
These devices are even more important in hypertext.
The reason they are so important is that a reader using a computer usually gets to see only the first few words, or perhaps the first few dozen words, that you have prepared in any one text. On that basis, the reader must decide whether to continue reading, skip to another section of prose you have written, or sign off and go walk the dog.
When you write, think of the reader. Remember that the reader is a busy person like yourself who could be doing something else besides reading what you have written. Attention must be paid to the effect each word has on the reader. Otherwise, you have no sure way of deciding whether any word is the right one.
Some forms of writing do not operate this way. For their own reasons, these forms favor putting the most important material at the end. In most fiction, for example, the big moment is the ending. Most story-tellers deliberately parcel out information to the reader, saving the resolution or climax for the end. Mysteries and thrillers are the epitome of writing where the denouement is all. I salute the writers of these works but would not presume to offer them help.
Other forms of writing have their own demands and peculiarities. In academic and scientific writing, it is often difficult to know where the essential nugget of information or insight will be found. To compensate, the journals in some of these fields have developed yet another version of the important top: the scientific abstract. Many scientific and medical journals, for example, require researchers to supply an abstract, which involves brief statements of Background, Methods, Results and Conclusions.
This approach has some virtues. It is standardized, so it is familiar to readers. It is clear and logical, so it is comprehensible. It also helps guard scientists against the kind of treatment the same findings get from, say, journalists. When medical or scientific findings are snared by the news media, they are quickly stripped of any context or qualifiers, translated into a promise of immediate consequences, and simplified beyond recognition.
Because the new media put such a premium on what appears at the top of a piece of writing, writers will have to give that area special attention.
In an old medium, newspapers, we have a term for it. We call that crucial space that makes up the top half of the front page "above the fold." Indeed, the newspaper as a whole can be thought of as a system for organizing and presenting information. The first order of organization are the pages themselves, and the most important information is located on the front page. Within the front page, newspaper editors make a further distinction, at least at the wide, folded papers known as broadsheets. Editors draw a distinction between stories that appear above the paper's waistline, that "fold" in the middle, and those below the fold. Stories that appear on the front page above the fold are the most important of all, because they are the ones that will catch people's eyes as they pass a newsstand or a vending box.
The same holds for electronic media. On the screen of any given computer monitor, a reader can see only so much at once. Material that is below the screen is invisible -- at least at first glance -- and you cannot hope to make much of an impact on readers with material they cannot see.
The bottom is also important. Good writers have always taken pains over their endings. Just as the opening is your way of making a first impression on the reader, so the finish is your way of leaving a final, and perhaps lasting, impression on the reader. With the coming of hypertext, writers must also consider some other issues along with the enduring question of how the finish should sound or what information it should convey. Now, the ending of any text must address the question: What next? Which choices do you as the writer want to offer the reader? By deciding which links to supply at the end, you can start a new conversation even as you are ending one. Don't fritter away that chance.
But it is important to note that in hypertext, the bottom is not always the end. Indeed, a writer in hypertext has no way of being sure where the reader will begin reading or where the reader will end reading. All the writer can control is the ending of each lexia, or page, however long. When a reader gets to the bottom, the reader may decide to go backwards rather than forward. The reader may decide to scroll back up the page and follow a link. The reader may quit altogether.
As a writer, then, you must address two issues. One is substantive; the other is navigational. That is, you must decide, as in traditional text, the content of the ending: which image or information or question or quotation you want to leave off with. Will it be a throw-away line, such as the last line in a classically structured hard-news story? Will it be a carefully wrought, emotionally freighted finish that supplies the satisfying finale to a long tale? If so, you may want to consider a preface of some sort that tells the reader what kind of document you have prepared and encourages the reader to hang in there to the end.
In any case, you must also address the additional issue specifically raised by hypertext _ that is, whereto next? Do you want to provide links beyond the minimal Next/Previous or Back/Forward choice? If you are providing a skimmable version, you will want to give clear guidance about the next available stops. [More detail on all these issues follows in Chapter 3] In other documents, you may want to provide an array of choices. The rule for writers is, you must decide.
The margins are important too. In ordinary text, margins are usually blank white space. Editors use them to mark up corrections or instructions to the printer, and some readers like to fill them with handwritten notes called marginalia, but publishers generally leave them empty. In hypertext, what was once a blank margin can be used as a dynamic field that complements or supplements the main text. The margin can be used to offer readers options, such as links to the top, bottom or elsewhere. The margins may be used to supply commentary on a main text, as the Talmud does. Or, the margins may be used to display citations and references that appear as footnotes or endnotes in traditional text. It can be a place to park navigational aids.
It can move with the text and provide info that always maintains the same relation to the main text. Or, the margin can be fixed and offer readers a constant message.
Margins may also be used to display graphs, charts, maps or photos. The principle is that writers must decide whether and how to use this space, which was once off-limits.
Whenever appropriate, help the reader skim your document. One of the great virtues of electronic media is their tremendous ability to let readers riffle through large numbers of documents at high speed. But hypertext can be swift only if it is not clumsy. Many readers will want to read for the gist, just as in traditional text. With a paper document, a reader can quickly look for headlines, sub-heads, blow-up quotes and the like to penetrate to the heart of a story, paper or report.
In hypertext, writers can help readers in new ways. But first, the writer must ask: Am I writing something that should be skimmed? If so, should I provide a separate summary, or should I provide aids to the reader throughout the text? Many business documents, for example, provide more detail than most readers want. But readers naturally want to feel that they have perused or mastered the whole document. In hypertext, writers can help these readers.
One powerful tool is the use of summary headlines. Writers can use different fonts, different type sizes, boldface, underlining and other techniques to make headlines stand out. When one headline is linked to the next, an entire document can be viewed and summarized at high speed. [But note: you don't want your headline graphics to misleadingly duplicate your linking graphics and tempt readers to explore links that aren't there]
At newspapers and magazines, writers often complain about having to write headlines, summary lines and the like. They see them as extra chores that must be tackled after the writing is done. I disagree. The writing of headlines is a good discipline for a writer because it forces you to ask and answer a terribly important question: What am I writing about? When a writer has trouble writing a summary line for a section of a work, that is a sure sign that the section is in trouble. It is probably vague or unfinished. And if it is vague to its author, imagine how it will strike a stranger. The headline is the clue to whether it's done or not. Seen this way, headlines and summary lines are tools that not only help the reader but also help the writer.
When writing headlines, bear in mind that they fall into two basic types. One provides information; the other provides enticement. The first is intended to give the reader the gist or most important piece of information about the text that follows. These headlines may encourage the reader to skip the accompanying text altogether and move along to another section. The second type of headline is intended to tease or tempt the reader into the text. These are often deliberately cryptic, or they are presented as questions.
The informative headline and the teasing headline are simply alternatives. One is not always superior. At times, you will want to provide an informative headline, perhaps as an aid to the reader who wishes to skim. At other times, you will want to draw the reader into the text.
As always, you the writer must decide.
Keep your readers oriented. Especially in a long document, it is important to give readers the electronic equivalent to the intuitive sense of location that readers have in a printed article, report or book. In a long printed work, readers can tell without thinking about it roughly how much they have read, how much is left, where in the book they could skip ahead for more information, how to find a word in the index, and the like. A book offers random access, and it deploys a host of time-tested techniques for orienting readers.
Hypertext can do the same and should do it at least as well as traditional print. There is no reason for a reader to be stranded in a single screen of text and lost in relation to the whole document. Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, you should share your navigational plan with the reader. Supply a map of your document, and offer the reader the chance to jump to other appropriate sections.
Where possible, offer readers a "guided tour." Let readers who wish to wander do so, but don't force all readers to wander. A reader may want to follow the summary path, or the "recommended" path or another path that you devise. Help them. Other readers may want to graze, nibble, roam and snoop. Help them also.
Write for hedgehogs AND foxes. That is, consider that your audience may include different kinds of readers. Some will want to trot along, fox-like, investigating quickly and learning a little bit about a large number of topics. Others will want to stay put, hedge- hog fashion, and bear down on a small number of topics. Many readers will want something more than random access to your document; they will want to be offered the overview, the quick tour, the fly-over. Links can be arranged -- and coded -- to accommodate different readers.
A train of thought is precious; don't derail it. Respect the reader by steering the reader's eye and attention to what's important. Also, let the reader use your document in the way the reader chooses. Don't clutter the margins with distracting invitations to "click here" unless there is a good reason. Let the reader follow an argument or sustain a mood. Where appropriate, offer the reader the choice to hide the links or turn them off altogether.
Conversely, when you write, maintain your own train of thought. When you think of a word, phrase or image that ought to be linked but you are not sure what the link should be, reserve that spot with a blank link. Later, you can go back and decide where the link should connect, or create a new destination. The point is to take advantage of the medium to strengthen yourself as a writer.
Always remember the reader. Always consider the experience of reading your writing FROM THE READER'S POINT OF VIEW. Ask yourself: Does the choice of hypertext contribute to the experience or detract? Is there an inviting "ambiance" that will hold the reader? Am I adding value?
When you supply a link, make sure it's a worthwhile diversion, not just another roadside attraction. Wherever possible, indicate what KIND of link it is. Is it a traditional footnote, supplying an academic citation? Is it a glossary entry? Is it a commentary on the text, or a digression? Is it a link to a source document? Is it a dynamic link to documents "outside" somewhere? Look before you leap.
As you make links, however, take care not to burden the reader with repetition. In labeling the link, avoid restating the information contained in the link. In many settings, you may want to use a system for signaling the type of link graphically. Scholarly notes, for example, could be presented in the traditional way, with a numerical superscript , while another type of link, such as a glossary entry, could be distinguished in a consistently different way, such as ALL CAPS UNDERLINED.
Avoid the Himalayas Syndrome. When asked why anyone would want to climb a high and dangerous mountain like Mount Everest, someone once said, "Because it's there." That may be enough reason to climb a mountain, but it is not enough reason to make a decision about how to prepare a document. Don't write this way. Don't use a technology just because it's there. Don't make your document interactive just to show off. Before using a hypertext link, consider whether you have a reason. Ask, would ordinary text do just as well? How can I help the reader? (See above, on readers.)
The basic unit of composition remains the paragraph. The reason the paragraph remains serenely in place on its literary throne is that it still has such a vital chore to do: to express a unified collection of thoughts. Happily, most paragraphs will fit into one computer screen.
Date your work. Things change.
Always be concise. The medium puts a premium on what journalists call "the lead" -- the opening sentence or paragraph. That's because this is the material that fits on the typical screen of a monitor. Any material that goes there must be chosen with great care. But the job is not done when the top is written. Conciseness is a virtue throughout a text.
Given a choice between brief and long, choose brief. In the newspaper business, the story is often repeated about the reporter who submits a long story under tight deadline pressure, then apologizes to the editor for running long. The punch line comes when the reporter says: "Sorry it's so long, Chief. I didn't have time to write short."
The point is, writing concisely takes effort. Supply it. The best prose is the result of a process that only begins with the rough sketch, the brain-dump or the download. It is a process of selecting, arranging and selecting again.
In fact, hypertext offers writers a third choice: you may write long AND short, in the same piece. That is, the medium allows writers to supply readers with as much supplemental material as needed.
If you have a large document or a lengthy narrative, consider ways to break it up. Even the longest stories can be divided into chapters. Consider serializing your work. Many eminent authors have worked this way, or at least started out this way -- from Charles Dickens to John McPhee to Stephen King.
New media can restore the richness of reading and writing. Consider the best-made books. In the thousands of years in the history of the book and in the 500 or so years in the history of printing, authors and editors have developed many techniques for organizing the page and bringing coherence to the whole reading experience. Printed works -- including not only non-fiction prose but also fiction, poetry and drama -- have some or all of these features:
- title page
- table of contents
- cast of characters/list of persons/dramatis personae
- ribbon page markers
- thumb tabs
- chapter titles/headings
- footnotes/end notes
- "about the author" notes
- "about the typesetting" notes
In the past, a book might have had many of these sections or attributes. Now, even the academic presses, which are supposed to be the guardians of high culture and scholastic refinement, are shedding this richness and producing thin, anemic books.
Many of these decisions have long lain in the hands of publishers, and they were made based on economics. (costs of production, storage, delivery, returns, etc.). Always the cry is, It's too expensive. By upending the economics of communications, hypertext promises to put many of those decisions back in the hands of writers and readers. Together, writers and readers can decide how to present and absorb material.
The role of the writer is expanding. The job of writing will once again encompass many of the skills it involved in the days before the elaborate division of labor that characterized the industrial era. Once again, writers must think about design, layout, appearance, typeface, illustrations and the like. These are jobs that have been parceled out among copy editors, layout artists, photo editors, illustrators, font designers and others. Now, the writer can decide to try a hand at these allied crafts.
There is no substitute for writing. If you make a practice of grabbing chunks of text from here and there and linking them willy-nilly, it will show. The result will be an unreadable hodge- podge, or at best it will be a hodge-podge that does not REPAY the reading. You may also find yourself guilty of plagiarism or copyright violations. In the end, good hypertext will come from the same source as good writing in any discipline -- from a combination of good material and good technique.
There is no substitute for editing. No machine or program can do this for you. Spell-checkers, grammar guides and other electronic aides are useful tools, but all have their limitations. If they didn't, writing would be as easy as typing -- which, needless to say, it is not. You must edit your own work, or find someone else who will.
When there is a good reason to break one of these rules, do so. In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell, after handing down many specific commandments for writers, added, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."
This remains good advice. Any rule, guideline or suggestion in this book can be broken. But good writers only break rules knowingly and purposefully. Don't break them willy-nilly, or out of ignorance. To do so is both rude to the reader and embarrassing to yourself.
A closing thought...
For all the changes embodied in hypertext, writers ultimately find themselves facing a small number of age-old questions. At the end of the page, they come back to us:
- Have I said what I mean?
- Have I said it as well as I might?
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Copyright ©1998, Christopher B. Daly [Last modified: 1/8/98]