White Paper: An analysis of the differences in hypertextual and linear discourse

“Hypertext” can be defined as the use of the computer to transcend the linear qualities of traditional text, and there are many...

“Hypertext” can be defined as the use of the computer to transcend the linear qualities of traditional text, and there are many differences to consider between the two mediums

Consider a work of Shakespeare. Imagine, as you read it, being able to call up instantly the Elizabethan usage of a particular word, critical commentary or historically relevant facts. This is the sort of richly interconnected, immediately accessible literary universe that can be created by hypertext.

There are a number of key differences between online and paper documentation, and one of the most important of these is structure. The assumption that reading is a sequential and continuous process is the foundation upon which traditional documentation is based. The reader is expected to begin at a clearly marked point, determined by the author, and to proceed to an end which is just as clearly marked and also determined by the author. The reader's progress from the beginning to the end of the text follows a route that has been carefully laid out for the single purpose of ensuring that the reader does indeed get from the beginning to the end in the way that the writer wants them to.

Reading in hypertext is a discontinuous or non-linear process and is associative in nature, as opposed to the sequential process envisioned by conventional text. Associative reading is more difficult to follow than linear reading. Linear reading specifies the steps it has taken; associative reading is discontinuous - a series of jumps, similar to the lateral hops that the mind takes in creating a metaphor, for example. This discontinuity is not fortuitous; it is a basic aspect of the digital encoding of information. As an illustration of this, think of the contrast between the surface of a traditional phonograph record, with its continuous grooves, and the surface of a compact disc, with its distinct, discontinuous pits.


Writing in the hypertext environment is a more comprehensive activity called authoring. Authoring may involve not only the compensation of text, but also screen layout and other things that fall under the general category of interface design. It may involve a certain amount of programming, and the creation and management of links between topics.


Hypertext exists and can only exist in an online environment. This is crucial, as Douglas Hofstander suggests in Metamagical Themes (1986), because "...it is the organisation of memory that defines what concepts are." Hypertext uses computer memory in a way that has no analogue in the traditional text environment, where composition relies on the organisation of human memory. It is the organisation of memory in the computer and in the mind that defines hypertext and makes it fundamentally different from conventional text.

In such an environment, the problem is not to develop effective strategies for implementing well-known and long established principles of effective communication. On the contrary, one of the chief functions of rhetoric in the hypertext environment is to discover new and appropriate principles of effective communication and then develop ways of implementing those principles through the available technology.

The rapid evolving technological environment makes hypertext possible by permitting the embodiment of a very different set of assumptions about readers and reading - and about thinking. These assumptions, in turn, form the basis for decisions made in the process of creating a hypertext document.


John Slatin, author of Hypermedia and Literary Studies (1994), suggests that hypertext documents envisage three different types of readers: the reader as a browser, a user or a co-author.

The browser is someone who wanders aimlessly, but not carelessly, through a series of hypertext documents, picking up things as curiosity or interest dictates. In this respect, the browser is someone who reads for pleasure, with the important difference that there is no expectation that the browser will go through all of the material available; often the expectation is just the reverse. It is important to consider the browser's pathway through the material and therefore to include a facility that allows the browser to navigate clearly through any documentation.

The user is a reader with a clear purpose. This is someone who enters the hypertext document in search of specific information and then leaves it after locating that information. The user's path is relatively predictable, provided that those who have created the hypertext document have a sufficient understanding of the task domain. In these respects, the user resembles, for example, a student reading the assigned text for a course.

One of the most notable differences between conventional text and hypertext is that most hypertext systems allow readers to interact with the system to such an extent that some readers may become actively involved in the creation of an evolving hypertext document.

Co-authorship may take a number of forms, from relatively simple brief annotations or comments on existing material, to the creation of new links connecting material, to the creation of new material. Hypertext's capacity for literally interactive reading and co-authorship represents a radical departure from traditional readers and texts, and the implications of this are enormous.

Slatin states, as many theorists agree, that understanding comes when the mind acts upon the material. Marshall McLuhan's distinction between hot and cool media is relevant here: a cool medium being one that invites active participation, a hot one being one before which someone sits passively. McLuhan was speaking about the difference between print and television, but one might argue that hypertext combines the heat and visual excitement of film, video and television with text's cool invitation to participate.

Information updates

When compared to text as it exists in print, hypertext is composed of varying combinations of arrangement. Unlike the spatial fixity of printed text, no one state of an electronic text is ever final; it can always be changed. This is because electronic links or reading pathways among individual topics permit different paths through a text. The numerating rhetoric of first, second, third, so well suited to linear text, may well appear within individual blocks of text, but cannot control the unfolding of understanding in a medium that encourages readers to choose various paths, rather than following a fixed and linear one.

From a literary perspective based on book technology, the effects of electronic linking may appear harmful and dangerous. The notion of an individual discrete work becomes increasingly undermined within this form of information technology, as it already has within much contemporary critical theory. Hypertext linking, reader control and continual re-structuring is not traditional in methods of documentation with which we are accustomed. The reader is now faced with a kind of textual randomness. The writer loses certain basic controls over his or her text, it appears to break down into its constituent elements (the lexia or block of text), and these reading units take on a life of their own as they become more self-contained, because they are less dependent on what comes before or after in a linear succession.

Information technology that employs electronically linked blocks of words and images requires rhetorical and stylistic rules different from those for one employing physically isolated pages set in a fixed sequence. Within text blocks, the same transitional and organising devices apply to hypertext and book text. When blocks of text link together electronically, however, a new range of problems and possibilities appear. As our notions of the nature of text change, so must our means of composing it.

The modification of writing strategies

Hypertext changes the way texts exist and the way we read them, and therefore requires a new rhetoric and new stylistics. The defining characteristics of this medium derive from blocks of text joined by electronic links. This combination emphasises multiple connections rather than linear reading or organisation. The hypertext author cannot realise the enormous potential of this medium to change our relation to language and text simply by linking one passage or image to others. Simply linking one text to another fails to achieve the expected benefits of hypertext, and can even alienate the user. The author of a story, article or book does not expect to make much sense by stringing together sentences and paragraphs without various stylistic devices and rhetorical conventions. To communicate effectively, hypertext authors must make use of a range of techniques, suited to their medium, that will enable the reader to process the information presented by this new technology.

Hypertext as a medium conveys the impression that its links signify coherent, purposeful and useful relationships. George Landow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a set of guidelines that enables authors to write for the hypertext medium in 1991. The following is an example of some of these guidelines:

The very existence of links in hypertext conditions the reader to expect purposeful, important relationships between linked texts and images

The author of hypertext documents must provide devices that stimulate the reader to think and explore

The author of hypertext documents must employ stylistic devices that permit readers to navigate documents easily and enjoyably

Devices of orientation permit readers (a) to determine their present location, (b) to have some idea of that location in relation to other topics, (c) to return to their starting point, and (d) to explore materials not directly linked to those in which they presently find themselves

When creating documents for hypertext, conceive the text topics as brief passages in order to take maximum advantage of the linking capacities of hypertext

When adapting documents created according to book technology for hypertext presentation, do not violate the original presentation. However, when the text naturally divides into section, these provide the basis of text topics. The hypertext version must contain linkages between previous and following sections to retain a sense of the original organisation.

These guidelines provide useful suggestions for authors who are used to writing linear discourse to take consideration when designing and writing a hypertext document.

Although hypertext redefines some of the basic characteristics of page bound text, such as the rigidly hierarchical distinction between a main text and its annotation in scholarly works, it still depends upon many of the same organising principles that make page bound discourse coherent and pleasurable to read.

The general guidelines for the generation of on-line documentation are much the same as any documentation, for example:


The use of space, graphics etc.

Screen designs - are they effective?

Colour, does it enhance presentation?

Hypertext still requires stylistic and rhetorical devices just as the more traditional page bound text does. However, a new technology of information creates demands for new and novel devices, and as the behaviour of readers ultimately changes for a new form of discourse, so must the writing style.

Scott Snowden

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