What is Hypertext?

Hypertext is writing on the web that incorporates the use of hyperlinks. This is its main feature and what makes it different from regular writing. While we read most book text or papertext from top to bottom, left to right, front to back, we don't necessarily read hypertext in the same linear way. 

Hypertext is read differently by each reader, and therefore each hypertext document continues to change. The reader is as much a part of the writing as the writer in making meaning. Maybe I can explain what I mean with the following analogy

Let's say you're on a nature walk, like one that you might go on at the Elwood H.May Environmental Park. It is linear. The park board has created a circuit trail that begins and ends at the parking lot. You begin at the meadow and the prairie flowers and follow the signs, continuing on the path as you've been directed. You stop to read the signs pointing out such things as a 200-year-old oak tree, a butterfly house, an eagle's nest and so on. While you learn a lot and see a lot, the path you're on was designed for you by the park board or the "writer." Your friend who came on this walk with you took pretty much the same walk. Oh, sure, you may have looked at the trillium a bit longer than she did, and she noticed a woodpecker that you missed, but overall, you saw all the same things, you stepped over all the same tree roots in the path. You took the same linear walk.

We can think of that walk as being like the way we read papertext (a book, a story, even a newspaper article). Instead of the park board, the writer creates our path. We start at the beginning and read to the end. Our experience reading papertext is linear. Two people will read the same book and have nearly the same experience. This is pretty much what happens when we read papertext. However, hypertext is different.

Pretend now that you're on a "hypertext" nature walk.  You start at the parking lot, just like you did on the papertext nature walk. But this trail is different. This trail has hyperlinks to nature parks all over the world and to reference books and to virtual places in history and to all kinds of things that defy time and space. So, on this walk, you stop to see that same 200-year-old oak tree, but instead of reading about it and continuing on, you decide you want to learn more about ancient species of trees. So you click on the hyperlink (click your heels like Dorothy) and you are transported through time and space to a lecture on forests (which is of course a web page) from which you learn all about ancient trees. This is so interesting to you that you decide to click your heels again and go to India to see banyan trees, a type of tree you once read about in a novel.

Remember your friend? You both began reading your hypertext at the same place, but what if your friend did not go to the lecture on ancient trees with you because she is not that interested in trees. Instead of finding her way to India as you did, she continues on a different path, past a pond teeming with tadpoles, until she comes to an eagle's nest. She wishes she could see into it, up there so high, and she realizes that if she clicks her heels, she will be able to view the streaming eagle cam, a nature camera set up to show eagle eggs hatching in real time (though there is also a taped version that she can watch in fast motion). So, now she's in Alaska on her way to view a spectacular aerie  while you're in India gazing up at an amazing banyan tree.

You started out together on the same path (the same home page) but you ended up clicking on different links that took you literally worlds apart through time and space. Where you go, as a reader of hypertext, once you open that first page is determined more by you (the reader) than it is by the writer, and it is based on what you want or need to know. This is how hypertext works. The direction of your reading is determined by the choices you make and your path is not necessarily linear.

In the same way that reading hypertext is different from reading papertext, it is also true that writing hypertext is different in some important ways from writing papertext. Each of you will become writers of hypertexts as you create documents on your web pages or blogs.

When you make hyperlinks, you need to consider what your reader already knows (or what you think he or she knows). You also have to think about what information your reader might need in order to understand what you are writing. Will a word need to be defined? Could a link to background information help? Sometimes a link to an image is the best way to provide understanding.

Hypertext writers also need to be concise (not wordy).Since hypertext is being read on a computer screen, it is generally more tiring reading. Add to that the fact that people have grown accustomed to reading small bits of information quickly, assessing satisfaction (do I like/need this or not?) just as quickly, and moving on.It is therefore, also important to organize a hypertext in a careful, logical manner with logical, easy-to-navigate links (that work). Well planned paragraphs are more important than ever.

To reiterate, good hypertext writers also need to incorporate more traditional aspects of good writing:

  • a purpose (thesis or main point)
  • effective organization
  • good transitions
  • support for main points
  • excellent control over conventions
  • word choice appropriate for the audience

Writing hypertext presents some new challenges to writers, but it is also fun and represents a new way of thinking about a very old human experience.

Dawn Hogue, 2001, rev. 2010


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Key Words/Ideas:
  • Linear/nonlinear
  • Each person reads hypertext differently

Reading strategy: continue to make a list of key words and ideas.

What is a hyperlink?

A hyperlink is a line of text that you click on that takes you to another page on the Internet. Wikipedia on hyperlink