Sunday, December 6, 2009


There is an interesting reference to a paper about what appears to be a defunct application for writing in the Outliner Forum.[1] The application was called SuperText. It was designed for students or beginners in writing, but the ideas put forward in this paper seem relevant for writing at any level of competence.

The author of the paper who also created the application, seems to think that there are three "steps" or "stages" of writing, namely
  1. note-taking, which represents "a completely unorganised set of ideas" and notes
  2. Connecting and Hierarchical Ordering, or
    1. networking, and
    2. outlining
  3. the final, linearised, paper-based document.[2]
It is important to understand that he does not think that these "steps" or "stages" occur necessarily in strict or dstinct temporal sequence. Writers may "cycle" through several iterations of these processes at different times.

It's interesting that SuperText was based on what the author calls the "Behavioural model," which is characterized by its emphasis on a preliminary non-linear document organisation or the network stage (2.1)

The author claims that a
network is useful for capturing associations between ideas ... is not a structure that is easily captured in conventional linear text. Linearising a network is typically complex, and, on balance, networks were seen as counter-productive in this context of guiding unsupervised and inexperienced writers to concentrate on the structure of their writing.[3] Consequently, SuperText does not provide a non-linear representation. To compensate for this in some measure, it presents linearised hierarchies with different degrees of formality. Besides the more formal ‘Tree’ and ‘Numbered’ Presentations shown above, the display of the hierarchy can be suppressed completely, or shown by bullets, to provide less formal Presentations suited to the earlier stages of document creation."
So, while the preliminary network stage seems central in his view of the writing process, it could not be properly represented in the program.

Whatever may have been the limitations of representations in 1997, they no longer need to constrain us. A personal wiki, like ConnectedText, is very adept at expressing or capturing associations between ideas in a network.[4] The resulting network does notneed to be linearized, but it can be in a special topic or, preferably, in the outliner (with now also includes hoisting).

After the notes have processed in the outliner, they can be dragged into a topic, where the outline headings become "headers," the last step towards a linearised text can also be largely accomplished in this program.

It therefore appears to me that ConnectedText accomplishes better today what SuperText was intended to accomplish in 1997.[5]

1. J. Barrow, “A Writing Support Tool with Multiple Views,” Computers and the Humanities 31 (1997), pp. 13-30.

2. "During the early stages of writing, writers may capture their thinking in an unorganised set of ideas. As they consolidate these ideas, writers use more constrained representations, progressively moving through networks or hierarchies to the final linear form. Thus, the first dimension of this behavioural model consists of three degrees of organisation for the emerging document."

3. I would argue that this is a mistake. Even beginning writers benefit from reflecting on the network of ideas that may guide them in structuring their topic.

4. They can even be graphically expressed in a graph.

5. I should perhaps also point out that the thread in which the reference to the paper is found concerns ThinkSheet, which is an interesting application in its own right.

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