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Writing hypertext copy

There are only two problems with writing hypertext copy: links and emotions.

Links and anchors are a new stylistic element that writers must learn to handle. They change the feeling of the text they're part of; they introduce new interpretations and pathways through the text.

The emotional problem is harder: we must snap out of the "host" or "provider" role, must get away from the excitement of guiding another person through the text, and get back to - just writing. The act of following a link must become like turning a page, a side effect of reading that we can trust to happen; not something that authors fight for with "click here" and "go there".

Keep to the subject level.

When writing copy, write about your subject; even if the text contains links.
Elf Sternberg is known as the author of the Journal Entries, an epical work of serialized erotic fiction.
Do not write about the reader's movements, neither in terms of changing servers or visiting resources:
Go to the home page of Elf Sternberg.
nor in terms of interactions with their user interface:
Click here to visit Elf Sternberg's home page.
The only one place that should mention "clicking" anywhere is an introductory help-page for first-time users of Mosaic or another bit-mapped front end. It isn't appropriate for pages catering to a general audience - many of your readers will not use a mouse - and it distracts from what your readers are trying to do.

(The non-WIMP - Windows-Icon-Menu-Pointer - phrase for "click here" is "select this link," but it's still bogus - if you owned a shop, you'd write "Welcome" on the door, not "Open this door to enter the shop.")

Do not write about your writing, either:

Here is a list of things that I am interested in.
The readers can see for themselves that there is a list. Use
I am interested in ...
or even better, simply write down the list. (If you weren't interested in it, chances are you wouldn't be talking about it.)

But then again, perhaps you shouldn't.

Some of the style guides listed in the reference section demand a document organization that strictly separates traversal and contents. In particular, the document proper should not contain links to other sites or documents; they are to remain separate in their own reference section.

Although documents that follow it are pleasant to read, I loathe this kind of style advice: I don't think what it talks about is hypertext. Such documents are nothing but "quick paper;" perhaps more convenient, more accessible than their printed counterparts, but not really a different medium.

However, sometimes "quick paper" is just what you want; in particular when you're just converting an already-written linear text into HTML. Although the temptation is big, don't turn text into hypertext at all costs.

Be personal.

Too many writers on the Web assume the pose of a "service provider." You are more than a collection of addresses, images, and links to other people's projects. Something about you is unique. Try to express that in writing; give your readers a chance to get a feeling for who you are.

Be specific in your anchor texts.

Some automatic conversion tools create "Previous," "Next," and "Up" buttons or pieces of text that interconnect successive parts of a linear text.
Go to the previous, next item.

These generic navigational hints are appropriate for systems that are

But to most users of the world-wide web, the information structure is slow, inconsistent, and unfamiliar. It takes them half a minute to down-load a page, not half a second; the system they just came in from used different icons and a different overall structure from yours; and they won't stay in your subtree long enough to really get to know it.

For all of these reasons, "Prev" and "Next" alone just don't cut it; give the users some information about what the next section is about, and where they'll go when they go "Up."

Use absolute directions.

The temptation to write that a link from a leaf of your subtree leads "back" is high. Don't fall for it. "Back" is where your visitor comes from; don't assume that just because your index is the only one you know, it's the only one that links to your page.

If your readers want to go back, they will use the builtin "back" button or -command on their client programs, which will be a lot faster than downloading the same page again from a possibly remote server.

(The same considerations apply to links that claim to lead "home"; one person's home may be another one's adventure.)

Listen to your links.

Links change the "sound" of their document. They stress their anchor text (because it is underlined, colored, or inverted), and they force readers to think about the anchor text and decide whether to follow the link or not.

Turning a word into an anchor is a rhetorical effect that can be overused. If you want to anchor to a frequent word or phrase, do not stress every occurrence - just those that introduce the subject into a block of text.

Listen to your document.

The interaction between text and links is no one-way street: the surrounding text influences what users expect to see when they follow a link. Word your anchor texts such that the link targets match the readers' expectations within the context.

If you write about the appearance of something, linking to a photograph is fine - even when one would otherwise expect a text about the subject. If you invite your readers to contact someone, linking to a "mailto" URL (that invokes some kind of email-sending program) is fine, even when one would otherwise expect a home page or archive.

Weigh your links against each other.

Your links give your readers an idea of what the document is about, even before they have started to read. If you add one link, think about what other links you could use to balance or complete the impression of the first.

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