Write Web to String

Weekly I/O#81


Writing is the process of encoding a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases.

Book: The Sense of Style

In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker states, "The writer's goal is to encode a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases." In other words, writing is the practice of rearranging a non-linear network of thoughts into a linear sequence of sentences.

The phrase reminds me of Ted Nelson's critique that this non-linear to linear transformation is inefficient. He argues that writing forces us to arrange ideas, which naturally have their own spatial structure, into a linear form. Readers must then decode this linear structure to reconstruct the original web of ideas. There are additional steps of deconstructing nonsequential thoughts into a sequence and then reconstructing them back as nonsequential.

Nelson's solution is the concept of hypertext, nonsequential writing that allows readers to navigate through text non-linearly, offering different pathways through interconnected chunks of text. As suggested in Literary Machines, hypertext should save both the writer's time and the reader's time and effort in putting together and understanding what is being presented.

While Ted Nelson's ideas make a lot of sense, I think the struggle to encode and decode linear text is actually what makes writing and reading rewarding. It has to be inefficient, so we must engage with the content more.


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