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Fryxell, David A. Ready for the future: for nonfiction writers, 'the
     good news from  cyberspace far outweighs the bad.'(nonfiction).
     In Writer's Digest July 1995, v75, n7, p50(2). 


If the Internet keeps growing at its current rate, some               
number-noodlers have calculated that sometime early next century      
everyone on the planet will have an e-mail address.                   
                                                                      
While the cyberspace boom probably will slow down a bit before the    
last aborigine goes online, there's no question the world is going    
digital, and at a rate that leaves even technomaniacs gasping. Last   
year, for the first time in history, Americans bought more personal   
computers than television sets. According to Infotech, a Vermont      
research firm, the number of CD-ROM titles aimed at consumers soared  
from fewer than 100 in 1990 to 1,383 by the end of last year. The     
count of gadgets to play these, discs on will grow from fewer than 1  
million in all of North America five years ago to an estimated 26     
million by next year. Subscribers to the five biggest online services 
have more than tripled in the past five years. And the                
growing-like-topsy World Wide Web on the Internet has ballooned from  
130 sites in June 1993 to more than 12,000 sites by the start of this 
year, according to Web-tracker Matthew Gray.                          
                                                                      
Is this good news or bad news for nonfiction writers? The answer, it  
seems to me, is: both.                                                
                                                                      
The cyberspace boom is good news in the sense that never before in    
the history of language has so much information been so available to  
so many people. In fact, nonfiction has probably never played, so     
important a role in the world. The future is being built on facts,    
not fiction, and those with the talents to mold those facts will be   
in demand.                                                            
                                                                      
With the exception of games, clip art and a few experimental          
novels-on-disk, the bulk of the content on all those millions of      
CD-ROMs boils down to nonfiction: reference, how-to, education,       
archives, "edutainment." Most of the traffic online--including        
bulletin board systems, the World Wide Web, and all stops in          
between--can be considered nonfiction, from digital 'zines to         
scholarly papers to technical tips. Even electronic mail requires     
skills most akin to those of the nonfiction writer (unless you're     
trying to impress a cyber-correspondent with fabrications about       
yourself).                                                            
                                                                      
No question about it: In the wired world, nonfiction is king.         
                                                                      
The bad news, though, is the information superhighway seems to be     
rolling right over some of our most cherished ideas about nonfiction  
writing. When copy reaches consumers by the screenful instead of by   
the printed page, everything nonfiction writers have long assumed     
about our audiences is probably wrong.                                
                                                                      
Writing for cyberspace, in short, win require some of us old dogs to  
learn new tricks. And we won't always be comfortable with the hoops   
we may need to jump through.                                          
                                                                      
The Long and Short of Text                                            
                                                                      
The bottom line of this brave new world is copy length--and here      
again there's good news and bad news.                                 
                                                                      
The good news is that, for all practical purposes, words in           
cyberspace are free. You can use as many of them as you want or need  
to communicate your message. In fact, all the words in a set of       
encyclopedias can fit on a single CD-ROM with room to spare. Your     
entire nonfiction book can squeeze onto one floppy disk, along with   
your notes and rough drafts. Even sending text across phone lines     
takes relatively little time or "bandwidth" compared to such          
modem-intensive tasks as transmitting pictures or sounds. (A          
text-only World Wide Web page," for example, appears on your screen   
almost instantly; complex graphics can cause agonizing waits.         
                                                                      
So forget those worries about newshole or column inches or word       
counts. No trees need perish for you to say as much as you want in    
cyber-nonfiction. Writing to fit? Heck, it all fits]                  
                                                                      
The bad news is no one may want to read it all. Indeed, cyber-readers 
will likely have even less patience for long copy than the print      
consumers of your nonfiction. Who wants to sit and read a whole book  
on a computer screen? It's the snazzy graphics and interactive games  
that keep eyes glued to these gizmos, not scrolling screens of text.  
Worse, the online reader may be watching the clock as closely as your 
text: When a reader is paying by the minute to read your article,     
you'd better get to the point in a flash.                             
The electronic flood of information has also increased the            
competition for your readers time a zillionfold. In his medium where  
the only raw matiarials you need are electrons, everyone can be a     
publisher--and, to judge by the profusion of copy on the Internet,    
everyone is. Who's left to read all this stuff? Since no one can      
possibly keep up with everything that's available, who can blame      
info-glutted readers for becoming ever more fickle with their time?   
For impatient cyber-readers, the next distraction or snippet of data  
is just a mouse-click away.                                           
                                                                      
Keeping the interest of this zaphappy audience while taking advantage 
of the computer's almost unlimited ability to serve up words will     
require writers--us--to think about writing in radically new ways.    
Some of these ways can be glimpsed in today's online and on-disk      
creations; others are waiting for innovative writers to discover      
them--which is part of what makes this emerging electronic medium so  
exciting.                                                             
                                                                      
It's exciting, too, because of the new markets opening up to writers  
able to adapt to this medium. Somebody has to write all this          
stuff--whether it's a CD-ROM exploring how the human body works or an 
Internet archive about Las Vegas tourist attractions--and it might as 
well be you. Every day some new magazine or newspaper announces that  
it's going digital--and those that merely funnel their print versions 
into a computer (shovelware, to the cyber-cognoscenti) without        
adapting to this new medium will quickly crash. Tomorrow's virtual    
publishers will be desperate for writers who understand the           
difference between writing for paper and writing for bits and bytes.  
                                                                      
Getting "Hyper"                                                       
                                                                      
One of the keys to writing for cyberspace, as best I can tell from my 
crystal ball, will be something called hypertext. Writing hypertext   
is like adding a third dimension to your prose; instead of the flat,  
one-way flow of the printed page, hypertext creates a branching web   
of possible information pathways. Hypertext also lets you break       
nonfiction into chunks small enough to be appealing on a computer     
screen, while linking these chunks in ways that make the most of the  
bottomless well of words the computer offers.                         
                                                                      
You can see an elementary application of hypertext already in the     
better works on CD-ROM. An electronic encyclopedia article on         
Gutenberg, for example, might have within its text certain key        
words--such as type or printing--highlighted in a different color.    
Selecting these highlighted words with a computer mouse instantly     
takes you to other articles in the encyclopedia. Key names--Johann    
Fust and Mazarin Bible in our Gutenberg example--would likewise be    
highlighted, and a click on them would take you to those entries.     
Following this hypertext trail of knowledge can lead the curious      
reader from, say, Gutenberg to the beginnings of the Renaissance or   
even to a digital tour of Gutenberg's hometown of Strasbourg,         
Germany. It all depends on the reader's choices--and the writer's     
ability to predict those choices. Each entry may take no more than a  
screen or two, but the total amount read could reach many pages.      
Presented this way, the information becomes addictive rather than     
overwhelming; the reader gorges on hors d'oeuvres rather than on a    
single entree too big to swallow.                                     
                                                                      
Hypertext also forms the foundation for the Internet's revolutionary  
World Wide Web. Embedded within a page are links (words, subheads or  
even clickable pictures or maps) that take the reader in a flash to   
another place in the same document, to another document on the same   
computer system, or even to pages on different machines half a world  
away. A recent article in Hot-Wired, the online incarnation of Wired  
magazine, used this technique to explore the America's Cup races off  
San Diego's coast. While the straightforward text of the main article 
scrolled down your screen, highlighted words tempted you to detour to 
learn more about San Diego, yachting, the race course, even global    
positioning. Each leading sailing team had its own link, leading to   
other pages with more in-depth information. Other links took the      
curious to sailing pictures, maps, even mini movies.                  
                                                                      
Part of hypertext's appeal to readers--and its perceived threat to    
many writers--is the degree of control this approach hands over to    
the reader. Writers are used to having the ultimate say over the      
order in which their material is consumed. Hypertext, however, lets   
the reader skip around, even inviting detours from the main text from 
which some readers will never return.                                 
                                                                      
We're used to writing articles that are linear. You start here, you   
end up there. Hypertext is aggressively nonlinear: Where you end      
up--even where you start--is different for every reader. Instead of   
creating a single information experience, the hypertext writer weaves 
a web of possibilities--including some the writer may not even        
foresee.                                                              
                                                                      
Links for Liberation                                                  
                                                                      
While this switch can be disconcerting for writers, it can also be    
liberating. Consider the challenge of writing an article for a        
diverse audience: Some readers will have a basic understanding of     
your subject, while others need extensive explanation. In a           
nonhypertext article, you must opt for the broadest possible          
audience, even at the risk of boring those who are more in the know.  
Almost every general interest article contains a substantial section  
devoted to bringing readers up to speed.                              
In hypertext, however, all that background can be covered in          
separate, linked articles. Knowledgeable readers can cruise along on  
the main thrust of your story, never once muttering "Yeah, yeah, I    
know all that. Get to the point." Readers who need backgrounding,     
however, can easily jump to as much or as little as they desire.      
                                                                      
Using a term that may be unfamiliar to some of your audience? A       
hypertext link can point to a definition. Describing a situation that 
demands historical context? A history lesson can be just a click      
away.                                                                 
                                                                      
The reverse is also true. Hypertext lets you offer more text than     
will interest most readers, allowing you to satisfy the diehards      
without losing the browsers. Links don't have to lead to primers:     
They can also satisfy a thirst for in-depth information, for detail   
that would be mind-numbing in the body of an all-audiences article.   
But hypertext's flexibility and power won't lift the organizational   
burden off tomorrow's cyber-nonfiction writers--just the opposite.    
Writers must weave a web of information that serves the needs of      
multiple audiences, one that delivers not just one but several        
effective story lines and takes readers places without leaving them   
lost. This makes the organization and planning skills already         
essential to effective nonfiction writing even more valuable, Instead 
of mapping simple linear journey, the hypertext writer will create an 
interstate system. It's like the difference between composing a ditty 
for a solo whistler and orchestrating a symphony for a swarm of       
musicians--the demands will be greater, yes, but so will the          
potential creative rewards.                                           
                                                                      
You'll also find good news in his: You won't have to be a computer    
programmer to write this new form of nonfiction, any more than you    
now need to know FORTRAN to use a word processor. You will need       
"pattern ability," as Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes calls it,  
which enables successful nonfiction writers to take a seemingly       
scrambled collection of facts and shape them, into a coherent whole.  
                                                                      
You've probably never thought of writing an effective magazine        
article as prime preparation for the high-tech future, but I believe  
it is. In the unfolding information era, microchips will be a dime a  
dozen; writers who can make the most of their magic will be           
priceless.                                                            
                                                                      
That's why I think the good news from cyberspace far outweighs the    
bad for nonfiction writers. If tomorrow turns out anything like the   
hints we can see today, I can't wait for it to arrive.                
                                                                      
David A. Fryxell has covered computers and online information for     
publications ranging from LinkUp and Online Access to American Way    
and Friendly Exchange. He sold his first car to buy his first         
computer.                                                             
                                                                      
COPYRIGHT Writer's Digest 1995