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Linear Text: It's What We're Used To...

We all grew up writing linear text, but the Internet demands a different form.

Anyone older than 10 has been raised to read linear text, to write linear text, to think in linear terms, and to consider linearity essential to good exposition of information and ideas.

We consider linear thinking the "right" way to think and to present information. As they said in Alice in Wonderland, "Start at the beginning, and when you come to the end, stop."

Optimized Hypertext™ is as different from linear text as a prix fixe menu from an open buffet: dining prix fixe, the chef decides what you will eat and in what order, dining buffet you decide what you'll eat and when.

Simple enough! But because we have all been raised on linear thinking and writing, we must actively train ourselves in buffet-style "hyper-thinking" in order to write good hypertext.

First, we must realize and accept that there is another way of thinkinghyper-thinking—and that this is as valid and useful as linear thinking.

Actually, we already know a lot about hyper-thinking because our lives are patterned that way. Although biological life is a continuum and other aspects of life—education, child-rearing, financial success—often appear to be linear, in fact much of our life is discontinuous: we move from place to place, we change partners and jobs, we take and lose interest in people, ideas and things.

Each of these life experiences may be seen as a discrete "meaningful object." Many do not depend on linearity for their meaning to us: we could encounter them in a different order and they would still have meaning to us.

Back to our prix fixe vs buffet analogy: in designing a menu, the prix fixe chef works to make a harmonious, varied succession of presentations and flavors. She avoids repetition (pasta in the soup, pasta in the salad, pasta in the main course). She works to create an interesting and satisfying experience on the diner's behalf.

The buffet chef thinks differently: variety is not constrained. He can have pasta in a half-dozen dishes and this will be a virtue rather than a fault. He concentrates not on the progression and harmony of dishes, but on the presentation and quality of each dish itself. He leaves the linear dining experience—what is eaten and in what order—to each diner individually.

Note: the buffet chef thinks differently! He must anticipate a broader range of likes and dislikes. He knows the diner may pick up any dish first, and any dish last, and he cannot depend on linearity for a satisfying dining experience. Each dish must be a delicious experience in itself.

In fact, the variety of a buffet is its main appeal: you're hungry for steak, I'm hungry for fish, and we can both satisfy our cravings as we like, at once. If we're very hungry we'll take many dishes. If we're not, or are dieting, we'll choose and dine quite differently. It's up to us.

So how does the writer think in order to write so that readers can start anywhere, go from there to anywhere else, and stop anywhere, satisfied? More...


Linear Text: What It Is & Why It's Not Right for the Web

How to Write Optimized Hypertext™

All About Optimized Hypertext™

What Makes a Good Web Page?

What Makes a Good Website?

Links: Inbound & Outbound

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Tom Brosnahan