In 1993, when author Stephen A. Berhnardt wrote this article, the World Wide Web was in its infancy and computer use was just starting to become common in the workplace. The author describes it as a “speculative piece” that tried to describe the transition from paper text to on-screen text.
Bernhardt considers what constitutes a well-formed text, how readers interact with text, and how text differs in print and on screen. He notes that paper documents have provided a starting point for both rhetoric and structure of on-screen text. In this paper, Bernhardt examines a number of features that are unique to electronic text.
Situationally Embedded Text
Books and other paper texts have different attributes than on-screen text. These documents are portable. Their use is typically independent of the reader’s physical environment; in fact, they allow the reader to escape by portraying a completely different situation.
Screen-based text, on the other hand, is integrated with other actions. It is typically task-based: readers use the text for researching, writing, editing, tracking information, sharing and collaboration. “
On-screen text allows readers to physically interact with the text, manipulating and transforming it through the use of a mouse, and controlling the outcomes. Research shows that this type of participatory learning leads to better retention of text material. Unlike writers of print materials, “writers of on-screen text can force interaction, making it necessary for the reader to do something in order to get to the next step.”
Functionally Mapped Text
Text of any kind functions to inform, direct, question or pose situations for readers. The rhetorical purpose is apparent through the use of signals such as visual cues (layout, typography) and syntactic cues (grammatical structure, certain phrases). In addition to these signals, electronic text can incorporate buttons, icons, hyperlinks and menus that provide specific functions. Writers of on-screen text, in addition to creating content, must map these cues to their actions.
Layout conventions help readers locate information. For example, the periphery of the screen contains the most action. Bernhardt says, “It is on the edge that we recognize where we are, what we can do, where we can go, or how we can get out.”
Texts are composed of other texts: books have chapters; magazines have articles, sidebars, and tables of contents; and encyclopedias have individual modules. Because of the limitations of computer screen dimensions, electronic text requires screen-sized chunks of highly localized text. There are problems with cohesion due to screen boundaries; “the break from one screen to next presents a larger gap than that from one page to the next.” If scrolling is required, readers may choose to skip text below the screen view. Long sections of text cause readers to lose their place or become disoriented.
Readers pay more attention to idea groupings, or modules (no bigger than a computer screen). Information modules provide an advantage to writers as well, making it easy to rearrange information for different purposes or audiences.
Hierarchically Embedded Text
In addition to encapsulating information in easy-to-read chunks, modularity helps readers identify importance of text. Semantic cues tell reader that information is mainline, peripheral, supportive, or explanatory. Supporting information is present but not necessarily visible unless the reader follows links or help topics to additional information.
This hierarchy allows users to choose what to read. Unlike books, which must be read in a linear fashion, on-screen text allows readers to jump back and forth between multiple open files. The use of a cascading design displays high-level information but allows access to more detail for each topic
All text must be navigated by readers. Paper text “signposts” include the table of contents, index, headings, headers, and page numbers. Features such as these give readers a sense of control. These navigation strategies do not work well for electronic text, however.
On-screen text does not allow readers to “size up” the whole document to assess how much information it contains, or how much they have already read. This is complicated by multiple layers of embedded text. Book-like options such as menus, indexes, pagination, and back/forward arrows can be combined with links, buttons, and icons, as well as graphical browsers with an explodable index. Electronic navigation cues and landmarks are becoming more standardized.
Print text is limited by physical factors such as space, size and weight of the document. Writers must conform to these limitations when composing text. On-screen text, on the other hand, allows unlimited information and unconstrained design, and writers gain freedom from “economic constraints of inscription.”
Graphically Rich Text
Many graphical features are common to print and on-screen text: white space, space breaks, margins; bulleted or numbered lists; fonts, headings, boldface, and italics. Electronic text has more graphic potential, such as zooming, animation, video, sound, and three-dimensional views; and text-graphic display and integration.
Customizable, Publishable Text
On-screen text is easy to create and produce. Software editing/collaboration programs offer in-text markup with accept/reject features, “sound bites” for verbal commentary, and user profiles for customizable displays. Traditional document production costs have shifted from paper, printing, and binding, to authoring software and specialized hardware. The “fluidity” of on-screen text makes multiple versions and updates easier than ever
On-screen text is real-time and interactive, a fluid, changeable medium that allows users to control the final product more easily than with print text. Readers are developing new strategies for reading and writing, and have increasing comfort with on-screen navigation. The computer has become the dominant medium for presenting and working with texts.