New Structures for Writing on the Web


Great writing manages to hit a note that resounds not only in the moment, but for later readers. Writing for the web, it’s difficult not to fall into a linear paradigm of production. Last In, First Out: the most recent piece is the one with the most prominence. The focus is always on the newest thing to appear, sometimes at the expense of the better thing.

This site is no different: the post which you see on the main page is the most recent one. I’d like to think that’s always the best one — most writers tend to improve with practice. But honestly, the odds are stacked against you seeing my best work on the homepage. This is why you see “best of” and “featured” and “start here” on so many sites.

Proponents of social networking are fond of imagining the internet as a sort of digital stream into which we dip our faces to drink. That’s a fine way to look at it — in fact, keeping your sanity generally requires you to accept that dipping in and out rather than trying to consume everything is the best way to interact with your streams. It’s probably healthier to think of Twitter in this way, rather than as an inbox that we need to clear.

So how, in this landscape, are we supposed to find (or display) work with permanence?

The Digital Notebook

I love the idea of a kind of open notebook like the ones Sean Korzdorfer or Nick Wynja keep. I’ve started building mine out. It seems to be a more sensible place to keep things like hacks or gear reviews, which don’t really thrive when they’re tied down to a date, or slotted into a linear arrangement. This kind of page is like a toolbox: you look in and can grab whatever you need without having to sift through half of the other tools to get to it.

The Living Post

Patrick Rhone started a post the other day called Some Thoughts About Writing. It’s interesting in its own right, but the different thing about this post is that he’s writing it live, and intends to turn it into an eBook. So whilst the date on the post is the 5th of February, he’s actually been adding to it over a period of days.

Envoi

The above are examples where work is polished publicly and changes internally rather than being supplanted by new material. They seem — to me, at least — an incomplete realization of the ideal. The Notebook is really restricted to technical things: how-to guides and so on. Whilst these might be well-written, they’re not the great writing I mentioned at the start of the post.

Patrick’s living post is also hamstrung. Not only will it be nudged out by any new material, it’s going to end its life as a book, rather than continuing to grow in its current form.

Maybe books (and other similarly discrete chunks of content) are the only place that truly permanent writing can live. Or is there a way to accomplish this on the web, without marring its ready availability and fluid nature?