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 physicaloften slowmovement 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 itessay ittogether.