To College Division Homepage Writing Online: A Student's Guide to the Internet and World Wide Web
    [Back to Teaching Tips and Advice]
Why Ask Students to Write Hypertexts?

Hypertexts are essays in the most delicious sense of the word. We tend to think of essays as codified forms with fixed parameters. We forget the origins of the form. When Montaigne first experimented with his personal essays in the 16th century, his purpose was to explore and compose, to ruminate but not necessarily to conclude. The word essay comes from the French verb essayer, which means to try, to attempt, to drive out. Hypertext offers a structural realization of what an essay means to examine, to drive out, by moving out from the home page to other pages via links.

As Vannavar Bush noted in his 1945 essay As We May Think, hypertext shows us that we think by association and reminder as much as by linear progression. Often we read a book from cover to cover, but we can also use the index to jump to a particular page if we need to. Sometimes we read a book or an essay straight through; sometimes we stop what we're reading to follow up on a footnote or a citation. There is a physical—often slow—movement from different sources to locate different information. With computers, that movement happens instantaneously.

We usually tell students to avoid tangents in their essays. There are times when students need to do that, when the writing situation demands it. But there are also times when a tangential thought should be followed and developed. Likewise, there are times when an idea should be organized spatially, as perhaps in a geodesic dome rather than an outline. Hypertext is a way to do this. For a hypertext to work well, however, the writer has to work more diligently, as the structure is more complex and requires more planning.

Good writing is good writing. You know it when you see it. It can be found in a four-page freshman essay just as easily as in The New Yorker. It can come in many forms: critical, reminiscent, episodic, narrative, pithy, jargon-packed, linear. Hypertext is another way of writing essays, one that still requires attention to the details of writing. The prose or poetry on the page must follow the conventions readers expect to see in writing. A writer can choose to ignore or play with conventions. But a writer can only intelligently ignore conventions if he or she knows what the conventions are.

It is important to teach students how to compare hypertexts to traditional essays. Although writing a hypertext is much like writing an essay, there are added concerns. Creating links, designing a layout, and establishing a clear organization present an additional layer of responsibility and possibility. The possibilities make the responsibilities worth taking on.

Teaching hypertexts is no easy task, especially for the newcomer. Though we may often think hypertextually, few of us actually have experience writing hypertextually. So one final advantage to introducing students to hypertext is they can learn along with us. We can explore it—essay it—together.

  [Back to Teaching Tips and Advice]