May 2, 2006

Composing for Print and Hypertext

by Nick Montfort · , 11:47 am

Describe in single words, only the good things that come in to your mind about: hypertext.

Okay, that’s not exactly the way that Melanie Hundley’s series of questions begins. But Hundley did contact me with a survey she is doing for her dissertation in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia. It’s about how authors who have written both for print and hypertext compose their work.

I offered to post the questions and my replies here on Grand Text Auto, so that she could simply continue with her the survey in comments following this post. Others who want to answer some or all of the questions themselves, or to discuss them or my responses, are of course welcome to do so in comments, too. On to the questions and answers…

  1. Q. Tell me about your experiences writing print texts. How did you first get involved in writing in this medium?
  2. Q. Describe your writing process for a print piece.
  3. Q. Describe any limitations that you see in this format.
  4. Q. Tell me what you think the future of print is-both in general, and for you, specifically.
  5. Q. I know that you have written articles, a book (Twisty Little Passages), and edited a book (New Media Reader with NWF) but I am not sure what fiction or poetry writing experience for print that you have. The participants that I have so far have varying levels of experience with print writing (from scholars to novelists) so describe the print experiences you have had.
  6. Q. Tell me about your experiences writing hypertexts. How did you first get involved in writing in this medium?
  7. Q. Describe your process for writing a hypertext piece.
  8. Q. Describe the changes composing for the screen rather than the page made in your process.
  9. Q. Describe any limitations that you see in the hypertext format.
  10. Q. Tell me what you think the future of hypertext is-both in general, and for you, specifically. How do you see yourself using this medium in the future?
  1. (Nick). I suppose it started with that poem in an elementary school chapbook. I wrote for the student newspaper in college; since the newsroom was right by the press I definitely think of a print experience. Among my first “real” print publications of any sort – pieces that did not appear in student periodicals – were the articles I wrote for Wired Magazine, which were published on the Web and in print simultaneously.
  2. (Nick). I’m not sure how many of the creative works I’ve done are essentially “print pieces.” A recent conceptual writing project is in this category, but even that has a digital edition. Another case would be 2002: A Palindrome Story, a collaboration with William Gillespie which was my first published book. We first sent out the New Year’s edition, a chapbook that I designed and printed. The official Spineless Books edition was published later: a small book with a spine, designed by Ingrid Ankerson and illustrated by Shelley Jackson. But 2002 was also published online on a Web page (also designed by the book designer) and in a Java applet, Reifier, which I wrote and which allows the reader to easily see how one selection of text reverses on the other side of the palindrome. I read from 2002 at a literary reading at the ACM Hypertext conference, which I suppose could be construed as an argument that it’s a hypertext. At the same time, I think it would be difficult to argue that the Spineless Books edition, a codex with an ISBN, is not print. At any rate, the major distinguishing features of 2002, which really influenced the writing process, are that it is formally a palindrome and that it was written collaboratively.
  3. (Nick). Some useless things to say would be that it is difficult to reproduce motion pictures in their entirety in books, and books cannot run computer programs. Just as I don’t worry about how difficult it is to cook food in my bathroom or bathe in my closet, I seldom concern myself with limitations like these. These sorts of limitations don’t affect my writing process in any interesting way. I am more interested in what print uniquely affords, which is due to not only format but also the institutions surrounding and supporting print publication.
  4. (Nick). Print has a good future. I plan to continue publishing poems and other creative writing in print.
  5. (Nick). I co-wrote 2002 and have had poems published in print journals. I’ve also worked for two literary magazines. I edited and designed the book Drawn Inward and Other Poems by Mike Maguire. And I have other print writing background that is critical, editorial, and so forth, and not directly a part of my creative practice.
  6. (Nick). Can you tell me your definition of “hypertext”? It’s not obvious to me what the term means and which of my creative works are hypertexts. See, for example, the different ideas about the term described in Noah’s post here, “What Hypertext Is.”
  7. (Nick). Could you ask this about a specific piece? Otherwise, I might select a piece of new media writing that you don’t consider a hypertext. Many of my most important literary pieces for the computer are interactive fiction works; I agree with the “Golden Age” electronic literature authors that these aren’t hypertexts. I also think that what’s often been called “hypertext” is just one of many forms and genres of electronic literature.
  8. (Nick). Again, I’ll need to know the meaning of “hypertext” that you intend. In general, though, my new media writing is not composed “for the screen.” My interactive fiction pieces can be encountered via text-to-speech software (and some visually impaired players do encounter them this way) and there’s no reason you couldn’t interact with such work on a print terminal, a typical way to encounter interactive fiction decades ago. There’s more on this online in the text of my talk “Continuous Paper.” I understand that for some, page and screen might be important considerations. To me, the essential difference in composition between, say, a poem on the one hand and interactive fiction on the other is not a distinction between page and screen, but that I’m composing a sequence of words in the former case and I’m writing an interactive computer program in the latter.
  9. (Nick). Again, I’ll need to know the meaning of “hypertext” that you intend.
  10. (Nick). Again, I’ll need to know the meaning of “hypertext” that you intend.