[IMAGE:  A convoluted map] The Nonlinear Essay

The new medium of hypertext requires a fundamentally new approach to writing. The traditional media by which we linguistically communicated information had fundamental limitations, which imposed a necessarily linear structure on the text. Oral communication necessarily takes place in time, and thus, must take the form of a linear narrative. Text written on paper theoretically could take on a nonlinear structure, but the practical limitations involved in implementing this for longer works, bound together in books, meant that almost all contemporary literary forms, from the essay to the novel, developed in a linear style.

Nonetheless, the forced linearity of the medium, instead of being a liability, has often become an asset. The development of written communication over the last 500 years has been about finding more and more efficient and effective ways to organise ideas and communicate them in a linear fashion. In the modern essayist or novelist, we find a highly developed skill at structuring and expressing ideas within this format.

The nonlinearity offered by hypertext creates new freedom for authors to structure their text in arbitrary ways. In so doing, however, it challenges us to develop new literary forms, new stylistic conventions, and new writing techniques, to take advantage of the nonlinear structure of the medium to enhance our communicative capabilities, rather than obscuring them.

How should a hypertext document be written? What is the ideal structure of a nonlinear essay? The World Wide Web has witnessed an explosion of creativity, wherein hundred of thousands of writers have tried to answer these questions. Some of their answers have been good. Many have been not so good. In the assorted essays which are listed in no particular order below, I offer some of my own thoughts on the subject.

Copyright (c) 1998 Marcus Pivato. Reproduction of this document, in whole or in part, is permitted and encouraged, as long as the original document and author are clearly identified via appropriate citation. Please contact the original author prior to any professional use or redistribution. Address all correspondence to pivato@math.toronto.edu.