Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Shape of Text to Come: The Texture of Print on Screens

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. “Reading,” Bernhardt says, “is not the primary goal.”

Interactive Text

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.”

Modular Text

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

Navigable Text

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.

Spacious Text

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.


Mary said...

I agree with a lot of what this article says about print vs. online reading. I use a task-based approach to online materials. I do a lot of research online, but as soon as I know I will be reading something of significant length, I print it out. I much prefer to read and edit something in print than on the computer screen.

Jane said...

Given the date this article was written, I'm impressed with how much of the content still applies. Also, this tied well into the Barker reading this week, with a focus on task-orientation and on the layout differences between paper and online documents. I agree with Mary, online I mostly read to find bits of data or links and if I need to read a chunk of info, I'll print it out (no eventual paperless world for me).

Vanda Heuring said...

I liked this article, especially after working with Author-It. Despite all the user challenges I encountered with that platform, it is amazing how Author-It uses content only and can publish the output in so many different formats.
On the discussion paper VS paperless: I have to have printed copies of things I work on as I use a pencil to mark or comment the text and engage with it. The fancy Word features still don't replace the smell of paper and the feel of led going across a sheet of paper.

Robin said...

I agree with the author that online reading is interactive. Most of the time it gets to delve more deeply into a subject by hyperlinks. I can honestly say that it has been in the last 3 years that I have done all my reading online. Using the screen to read everything online was scary because I was afraid that I wouldn't find it again, but I got over it and do everything online now. Some of what the author gave about the "cons" of online work/reading also pertain to regular reading of a book or paper. Such as, skipping down because of long areas of reading, losing your place, these are
common with both medias.

Good review.

Lance said...

Very forward looking article. I was completely surprised that it predates the Web. So much of what he says refers to the way we use the Web - interactivity, reshaping, hierarchy. Yet, at the same time, we can see how far we've come since the publication was written.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lori Hood said...

Writing for online display certainly adds another layer for the technical communicator. Determining what information needs to "chunked" and actually writing at a level that can be understood by the reader is difficult, not to mention adding hyperlinks and/or glossary items.

I tried to think back to the date of this article and how I was implementing technology. I am pretty sure I was just converting from DOS to Windows. Now that I'm involved in writing content for online learning, I can see how relevant the author's information is.

Dianna said...

I enjoyed reading this article because of the comparison between how people read paper vs. electronic texts; a very interesting subject. I was intrigued by the idea that the periphery of the screen contains the most action. Without giving it much thought, I would have assumed all of the "action" was in the center of the screen, but it does make sense that there is a lot going on in the periphery (links and other navigational tolls).

David said...

Given that the article was written in the early 1990s, I was surprised to see that the author anticipated single sourcing when he wrote that "the same text base can serve multiple audiences and multiple purposes for reading. When texts are composed in screen-size chunks, the same modular text fragments can be used to build different documents or different paths through a document" (p. 417).

He hit the nail on the head with that one! I wonder how prevalent of an idea this was back when he wrote it. Did people see the benefits of single sourcing right away?

There's much in this article that is still relevant today (and probably will always be relevant).

J.J. Carlson said...

Like everyone else here, I was impressed by the relevance this article still holds. I know I've been criticized for citing sources from quite a few years back, but if the content stands, I don't see an issue with it.

I find that printed material works far better for me than on-screen content. The simple explanation is that it is less strain on the eyes over long periods of time. My laptop, however, does have a fantastic screen that is much easier on the eyes for extended periods of time, but that's another story!

I find single-sourcing for online users will continue to see huge growth in the years to come. We already see its uses in programming like PHP, where users input specific information, and the website they interact with retrieves the appropriate information.

One thing I've had issues with is the navigation of some of these sites that are supposed to be dedicated to help. Sometimes you need help finding the help! With my future being spent on web development, I hope that I will be able to avoid this pitfall of trying to help the users, but end up turning them away.

To make online reading interactive and useful, web developers need to analyze audiences first.

Vanda, you crack me up!

Anna said...

I agree that this essay was extremely insightful at the time it was published as well as now. The text is changing and the users are changing along with the text. Many of us are more comfortable and skillful to read texts on-line than several years before.

We are also learning to write text for the web that requires different skills than writing for a print medium. I am very interested in learning more to write for the web and this is one of the reasons I am in the program. This article adds to my knowledge base.

Thank you for the summary.

brunsj1 said...

Like many others have commented (and we have also discussed in class), I do probably use online reading for more task-based objectives. It is easier for me to read print text than online text when there is a lot of it (like the chapters in our textbooks). I also notice I am more apt to skimming text on the computer screen than skimming it on paper-I sometimes get caught up in the scrolling.

I do wonder if there are generational differences with print versus online though-such as, are younger generations more adapted to read chapters on the computer screen (just an example)? Like the notion (I believe Gary mentioned it in class) of a software program that reads books?

Gary T. said...

Interesting article, and quite insightful for something that predates the Web. Today, we have volumes of research that tell us which fonts are the best for readability on screen. According to the research, most people skim while reading online. Copy broken up into bite-sized chunks with clearly written headlines and subheads help tremendously with reading speed.