How is the web changing prose?
Of all the innovations the to revolutionize prose forms, the most important device on the web is also the most common: The hypertext link.
Until the advent of internet-based writing, whenever a writer referenced anything, he or she faced the problem of the reader's knowledge of that reference. If the reference is Dennis Miller-esque in obscurity, then the writer takes a risk that few people will know what he's talking about. So then he faces the dilemma of whether to let the reference stand alone, or explaining the reference at some length. Lengthy explanations can make the writing clunky and awkward, but omitting an explanation can also lead to confusion. Also, writers often cite other works of interest or works that relate to their own writing, perhaps in an appendix. In the case of books or magazines or other printed media, finding these books can often be a chore, even if itâs only a matter of going to a newstand or the local library.
With articles published on the Web, however, referencing or citing other works is extremely less problematic. Writers can provide links to pictures, technical schematics, and other webpages. If I were writing about pop-culture references on TV, for example, I'd probably mention the show The Simpsons. Even if someone had no idea what The Simpsons was, I wouldn't hesitate to include the reference. The simplicity is remarkable. The difference between "as seen on television shows such as The Simpsons," and "as seen on television shows such as The Simpsons," is miniscule in appearance, but enormous in content.
If the link provided by the writer does not offer adequate information, or if the reader wishes to learn more on the subject, the chances are that the author's link will provide links of its own, to other related sites. Other useful links, such as a link to an online dictionary can help the reading, without dumbing-down the language, which could hurt the writing. If you were writing an article and hit with a sudden, ultroneous afflatus, you certainly would not want to compromise it by having to change your word choice for the sake of simplicity. It can also provide comfort to a reader to see a link to an online dictionary. If he doesn't know the meaning of a word, he won't feel a sense of hebetude for not knowing since it's clear by the inclusion of a link to a dictionary that the author assumed some people would have difficulty with the words used.
A common hazard of links, however, is the aforementioned links provided by the original links. The simplicity that helps so much is also problematic. Given the nature of the Web- its easy, interactive interface- it is very easy to get lost in a maze of links, to the point where the original document is lost, buried under several other linked documents. And no writer wants that to happen. However, a simple little trick can eliminate this to a point. By simply having the HTML coded to launch a new browser window, the original document will stay in its own window, while the other links compete in a separate window. True, the original article may still get lost or forgotten, but at some point the reader is likely to notice the original document that was the source of all that extraneous reading. If I were writing a piece and made reference to an article posted on the ABC news homepage, where there would almost certainly be other points of interests other than the one I mentioned, I would certainly make sure the ABC news page launched in a new window.
Also, the ease of providing a link can often make writers lazy. While providing a link is an effective way to eliminate a long, drawn out description, some of the most beautiful writing has been of the descriptive sort. Would The Iliad be the same if Homer had just taken pictures? "The Siege of Troy- click here for pictures," doesn't seem quite as provocative
Another problem with providing links is the transitive nature of web documents. The half-life of all links on the Web is rumored to be about 50 days. In contrast with print media, pieces written specifically for the web are rarely "classics." As they age, they just look old and dated. Web-based documents are "living" documents, and naturally some parts can "die." Links must be checked and changed if they are dead. So web-based writings must be constantly maintained and revised.
You might be saying "But all this is technical jargon that a lot of writers don't have the time or knowledge to do." And it's true that, while these methods help to enhance the writing, the writing is what is still key. But that has always been the case. How many writers actually physically published their books? That's what publishers are for. And that's why almost every online publication is always looking for HTML editors. If the writer can do the technical work herself, it would be a bonus. If not, it will hardly be expected of her. For the foreseeable future, anyway. Word processors such as Microsoft Word and Word Perfect already provide control bars to easily add hypertext links, so perhaps someday knowledge of these skill will be as expected as knowledge of these word processors is now.
Hypertext links can also benefit a web-writer without his knowledge. Someone may read something on the web, and send the URL via email to a friend. Whereas in the past, "You should read (such and such)," would rarely lead to someone actually reading it, now all one needs to do is click on the emailed link to read the article.
Speaking of email, the web-writer may also provide his or her email address somewhere in the writing. In the past, the interaction between writer and reader was limited and difficult. But now, any yuck with an email address can start an instant discourse with a writer. Embarrassing mistakes or misquotes can be pointed out and changed in minutes. Even if the reader has no email address, writers often provide guestbooks or discussion group links with their writing, where readers can comment on the writing. And thus, the original writer can change his original article, letting his readers help in the actual writing process.
The World Wide Web has revolutionized writing on both ends, the reading and the writing. It makes the writing accessible, and provides methods for the author to complement his writing. There also exists a synthesis of the influence of both ends: internet search engines.
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