The shift from printed page to mobile screen presents fascinating challenges for writers and designers. A printed page is fixed, and can be designed with some confidence that the reader will experience the text in order, from top to bottom. In a mobile reading experience like the Gadget Software vPub™, readers have control. Readers can choose a nearly infinite variety of pathways through the material. How do you write and design content when you do not control the order in which a reader chooses to engage with it?
I have been wrestling with this question as an author in the process of developing a new textbook composed and designed specifically for the vPub™ platform. One of the side effects of this experience has been a change in the way I think about and write paragraphs.
Writing for the medium of print, an author has a degree of control over the reader’s experience, and can write paragraphs knowing that a reader will come upon them in a linear fashion. For many years, writers have been trained to organize paragraphs in a sequence, one after another, to develop an idea or build an argument. We have been taught to write transitions to link paragraphs one to another, in a kind of chain. Transitional phrases like “on the other hand” or “in contrast” are designed to be used as links in the chain, clarifying for readers how one paragraph is connected to the previous paragraph.
Mobile readers can choose their own pathways through the paragraphs—they, not the author, have control of the organization of the text. In the visual representation here, the conventional model of organizing paragraphs in print is on the left, and on the right is an image of one of many possible paths a reader might take to read through a sequence of paragraphs in a vPub™.
The Gadget Software Atomic Reading Structure (ARS) model combines linear and non-linear reading strategies. Authors can organize content in a variety of ways, defining a sequence or learning path that we imagine readers will follow. My project, for example, is organized around three main units, arranged in a roughly chronological order. Within each unit, short scenes are presented in a sequence I designed to develop ideas and guide readers through the material. Readers certainly may choose to follow along with the path I have designed for them. At the same time, the vPub™ experience offers them other ways to move through the content. They can choose a particular medium, for example, focusing on videos, or on audio podcasts, skipping past the text-based sections. Readers can also navigate content by focusing on historical figures, or on key technologies. We have defined several categories of content, and readers can choose to focus on any one of those, rather than following the main chronological path.
The physical form factor of the mobile devices readers use to interact with a vPub™ also shapes the way authors define and create content. A typical mobile screen displays between 150 and 250 words at a time. Thus, a paragraph composed on a desktop monitor may not look that long, but once I have a chance to view it in the live preview, I recognize that I need to shorten it, or divide it into two or three smaller units. Being able to see my work in the live application has been an immense help in guiding me to define and shape smaller, more modular units of content.
As an author, once I began to see how my paragraphs looked in the vPub™, I became aware of the number of explicit links I had built into them; I quickly realized I could no longer begin a paragraph with “on the other hand,” because I had no way of knowing what a reader would have just read. So I began thinking about writing paragraphs that could stand completely on their own, and that would make sense in any order. As you can imagine, this presents a challenge as well as an opportunity to reimagine the kind of work a paragraph might do.
The basic concept of a paragraph as a unit of thought does not change. In the vPub™, the paragraph becomes the primary unit of text. Each paragraph (or “scene”) is designed as a mini-essay in itself. What does change is the way I think about each paragraph. Instead of thinking in terms of links on a chain, I imagine each paragraph as an episode or story in itself—self-contained, independent of what may come before or after. In practical terms, this means that I have to work to edit out any linking transitions at the beginning or end of each paragraph. It also means that I aim to compose each paragraph so that it has a kind of narrative arc, twist, or surprise. In short, each paragraph has to do more work to inform and engage a reader, because it cannot depend on its neighboring paragraphs for support.
Here is an example of one of these “new paragraphs” written for The Technology of the Book:
Few technologies have flourished for as long as the book. Even if we limit ourselves to printed (as opposed to handwritten) books, we are left with a historical span of nearly 600 years. How many other fifteenth-century technologies remain in daily use today? If you were to pick up an antique book, a copy of the First Folio, for example—the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1623—you would immediately recognize its form, and you would be able to use it, read it, and enjoy it, just as you would any modern book. You might want to wear gloves to protect the priceless old pages, but you would have no difficulty knowing how to open the book, navigate its contents, and read the text. You would not need a tutorial or user’s guide, because the technology and form factor of the First Folio is, for all practical purposes, identical to any book you might find on a shelf today. Scanning the long history of the printed book, it is the resilience and longevity of the book as a technology that is perhaps the most remarkable theme in the story.
In this example, the paragraph builds toward the final reveal—that the story of the book is about persistence, as opposed to change. If the paragraph works, it does so by creating a bit of tension or drama by quietly upending some of a reader’s expectations.
In addition to changing the way I think about and compose paragraphs, the ARS model also provides other ways to develop and organize content. Most notably, the platform makes available a wide range of reinforcing media. Authors can add images, video, and audio to help extend and clarify ideas presented in written text. In the case of audio, I record my own audio narration, offering readers the option of reading, listening, or both. Further, being able to add images and videos provides a way to anchor paragraphs in visual examples. A map of medieval Mainz, Germany, for example, can be presented as part of a discussion about Gutenberg and his use of metalsmithing skills to develop the first successful movable type. Each paragraph of text is usually accompanied by at least one image, one audio file, and one video. These new paragraphs thus evolve into fully developed learning modules in their own right.
Does writing paragraphs this way mean that the content is being fragmented or watered down? Not necessarily. It does mean that, as an author, I have to be willing to give the reader more control. A reader may design a way to connect and build ideas, paragraph to paragraph, that I might not have imagined. That may be the hidden power of the new paragraph.
In my case, I will give readers even more control: students using my Technology of the Book vPub™ will be invited to become contributors and authors in their own right. Students will research and compose case studies, focusing on important historical figures, technologies, or events that are significant in the history of books and communication. Once edited and revised, these case studies will be uploaded into the authoring console where they can be read by other students and readers around the world. Inviting students to become content co-creators is an exciting idea for me as a teacher. In a course on the evolution of printing and publishing technology, students will be able to experience the process of creation and authoring for themselves, gaining firsthand experience with writing and designing content for readers using one of the most innovative new technologies available. Their hands-on exploration of a new approach to writing will go far beyond anything they might experience by reading a traditional textbook chapter.