When we consider the design of hypertext tools, or the process of hypertext writing, we usually assume that the finished hypertext is the ultimate goal. Often, however, hypertext tools can be remarkably useful for creating conventional work on paper.
Because hypertext writers need to work with complex structures, hypertext tools are often quite good at displaying and manipulating these structures. These same techniques that keep nodes and links from degenerating into a tangle can be invaluable for keeping track of disparate ideas, for pulling seemingly-unrelated facts together into a coherent whole. A few weeks ago, for example, HypertextNOW touched on Maris Gillette's intriguing work use of Storyspace to discover unexpected connections in sociological field studies.
Hypertext tools can also play an important role in challenging writing projects. Prof. M. A. Syverson, now at the University of Texas at Austin, faced just such a challenge when finishing her dissertation (which received the 1995 Hugh Burns Dissertation Award at the Computers and Writing Conference). She wrote that:
Storyspace was central to the process by which the dissertation was constructed. Although the dissertation took a conventional linear final form, I used Storyspace to scaffold the concepts and represent relationships among them. I had a box for each chapter, one for the abstract, one for "notes on the fly" and one called "concept map."
Typically I had two windows open. . .the overall map described above, and the . . . concept map window blown up. Inside this box was the set of boxes which represented concepts . . . and the links between them. Each concept box contained text boxes in which I put notes from sources on that concept . . . and my own notes. Links were established among these elements which helped me get a sense of how diverse materials . . . were connected to each other.
Storyspace was absolutely essential to the cognitive effort of keeping a large quantity of concepts, quoted material, notes, reflections, and relationships and also making some sense out of them. Because of Storyspace I did not panic about keeping so much diverse material in my head at once. As needed I simply added another text box and dropped material into it. I could move it around or link it to other boxes later as the connections became clear to me.
I put into Storyspace ideas that occurred to me, but that were not relevant to the particular part of the draft I was working on. I put notes from sources as I was working directly into EndNote and Storyspace at the same time: in EndNote so that I would have them as permanent entries in my library of sources, and in Storyspace so that I could recover them by concept. . . . Storyspace was ideal for organizing materials by concept, yet still linking them to the author and to other related concepts. As I've said before and continue to say, it's a dynamite program for lots and lots of reasons. I could wish for more control over the visual interface . . . [but] it is a great cognitive processing environment.
A number of hypertext tools, including Storyspace and the Eastgate Web Squirrel, help people build complex structures through direct manipulation: instead of describing the structure, users "pick up" objects on the screen, drag them into other objects, or draw connections between the objects. These abstract writing spaces seem real -- when you drop an item in Web Squirrel, you here a quiet "thunk" as it falls into place. People who teach developmental writing often report that this concrete, almost physical embodiment of abstract writing spaces resonates particularly well with some people who find writing a difficult challenge. "For years they've know that writing has weight", one instructor explained at a conference on Computers and Writing, "because people have been using their inability to write better to belabor them about the head. They grasp at once how these boxes are solid, yet also ethereal -- ideas, thoughts, or even places where their thoughts will later grow."