Let the pundits rage: Learning not to lean on links can make you a better writer
Because I cover the antediluvian communication technology known as the book, I rarely get mixed up in the ongoing, pundit-driven conversation about the Nature of the Internet. Actually, “conversation” hardly seems the right word for what’s largely a symphony of prognostication, thumb-sucking, posturing and enough grandiose shade-throwing to make the drag-ball competitions of “Paris Is Burning” look as sedate as a council session of the EU.
However, inspired by Nicholas Carr’s new book, “The Shallows,” and the feedback of Salon readers, I’ve lately been experimenting with a departure from standard Web practice. I’m refraining from including hyperlinks to relevant sources in the text of my articles and instead collecting them in a paragraph at the end of each piece. Carr’s book refers to several studies indicating that people who read texts containing embedded hyperlinks comprehend and remember less of what they read than people reading plain text.
As a front-page story in the New York Times confirmed on Monday, many regular Internet users are complaining of a growing inability to concentrate, and they, too, blame the siren song of technological distraction. If putting links at the end of my articles instead of installing them in the text makes reading a little bit easier or more pleasant for my own readers (and the majority of them say it does), then it seems worth a shot.
As a result of this little experiment, my name has cropped up, tangentially, in a heated debate about the relative merits of in-text links vs. end links. It’s been fascinating to watch this dust-up unfolding for a variety of reasons. For one, while I don’t agree with everything Carr says in “The Shallows,” if his critics in this quarrel are indicative of the analytical skills fostered by heavy Internet usage, they may be the best support for his arguments yet.
The in-text vs. end links controversy has also prompted thoughtful discussion inside Salon about the nature of good writing. Sarah Hepola conveyed her reservations about jokey links that don’t really add anything to a story; they strike her as “lazy,” an inconvenience to readers who are prodded to check out how clever the writer is. King Kaufman pointed out that Readability — a browser plug-in that reformats text to make it easier on the eyes — just added an optional feature that strips out in-text hyperlinks and collects all the urls at the bottom.
I said I wasn’t sure that Readability, for all its good intentions, really does the trick; the switch from in-text links to end links doesn’t automate as well as you might think. A sentence that’s written to include hyperlinks won’t necessarily make as much sense without them. You write differently when you know you can’t dodge explaining yourself by fobbing the task off on someone more eloquent or better informed. You have to express what you want to say more completely, and you have to think harder about what information ought to be included and what’s merely peripheral. (Knowing what to leave out is as important to writing well as what you include.) Furthermore, I’ve found that if I want to make my paragraph of end links meaningful, I need to include some additional text to explain what the source pages are and why the reader might find them valuable.
All of this adds up to more work for the writer. However, I’d argue that this work is precisely what a nonfiction writer is supposed to do. Our job is to collect and assimilate information about a particular subject, come to some conclusions and put all of this into a coherent linear form so that it can be communicated to other people. That’s the service we provide. All of us may now swim in a vast ocean of interlocking data nuggets, but people can still only read one word at a time, and putting the best words (and the best ideas) in the best order remains the essence of the writer’s craft.
Of course links to source materials and to related and contradictory pieces by other writers are essential when writing for the Web; they help readers come to their own conclusions if they wish. Also, the Web writer can do what earlier writers couldn’t: provide a window into how she does her work. But that’s no substitute for actually doing the work, any more than dumping a bunch of raw ingredients on the table is a substitute for cooking someone a meal. Hyperlinks can become a crutch or a mask for someone who hasn’t really thought about what she wants to say. The Web writer certainly can’t pretend that her take is the definitive take, but it’s still a take, and it should be able to stand on its own when read by anyone who doesn’t want to wade through the original 40-page report or skim every blog posting and newspaper story on a subject.
Because — let’s face it — that’s the majority of readers; 99 percent of them are never going to click on the links no matter where they are on the page because they don’t have the time or the inclination. They’re thinking, “Tell me what you have to say for yourself before you send me chasing off after what somebody else has to say.” As important as it is for today’s writers to be able to back up their assertions and provide pointers for further reading, good writing needs to contain enough substance and sense on its own to justify a reader’s time and attention.
There are other reasons to include in-text links, reasons having more to do with search engines and Web etiquette than with improving the reading experience. My little experiment may not last. But I’d still recommend it as an exercise to any writer who’s become accustomed to the ease of studding his or her work with hyperlinks. Doing without them forces you to think harder about how important certain chunks of information are, whether that reference is as cool or funny as you think it is and just how much you’re contributing to the conversation.
Referenced in this article: Here is my original review of Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Here is a post from Carr’s own blog, Rough Type, in which he discusses “delinkification.” This article by Jason Fry on the Neiman Journalism Lab blog is an excellent overview of the controversy with many links to arguments on both sides. This is the long New York Times article from June 7, describing the toll of technological distractions on personal life as well as on cognitive functioning. Finally, if you’d like to investigate the Readability browser plug-in, you can find it here.
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