Back to index
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
COPYRIGHT Writer's Digest 1995