Normative And Narrative — Styles, Platforms, Usage

There are two fundamental styles of writing which comprise most of the writing around us. I call them normative and narrative, though it shouldn’t surprise me if this has been thought of communications theorists prior. Each style lends itself to a different type of publishing platform. I will explain here what the ramifications are for online publications.

There are normative documents which are fixed cannot have any ambiguity; these are constitutions, legal codes, contracts, engineering or architectural plans. These address concrete ideas, and are expected to be moderately complete. If any information needs to be updated, it will by amending or updating, thus asserting new version of the document. Normative documents tend to be written in durable platform. That way they are able to be more referenceable.

On the other side of the spectrum is the narrative style. These are not ever “documents” but articles, posts, columns, stories, etc. Narrative pieces are not expected to be completed; instead their information can be supplanted by pieces produced later, or by others. Also it is very rare to go back and change a published narrative. Thus the preferred platform is more disposable— radio and television and daily newspapers and daily newspapers are prime examples.

This is a wide spectrum of gradations between these two polar opposites. The articles in the Sunday newspaper tend to be normative than those over the course of the week since more people read them. A article on popular science will be more narrative than the research papers which serve as its sources. A documentary is more normative than a newscast.

In the electronic world, email and news postings were long seen as disposable; they might have an afterlife in archives somewhere. (The fact that many people never conceived of the archiving led to many embarassing revelations in court cases!) Without a sense of publication, the style of emails was overwhelmingly narrative. This changed with weblogging as authors could assert greater control over the content. The more durable platform, the more care people took in writing.

Still, durability versus disposability may be affected by point of view. Professional writers– who tend to write regularly durable platforms– see blogs as an oppurtunity to relax their writing in a more narrative style. By contrast, amateurs writers who have no platforms often choose blogs by default to try and write normative documents. There is great content in a number of weblogs– it would be better if their authors took a step back and considered making their work normative.

The trouble is that blogging technology still inherently encourages the narrative style. The last post pushes the rest down the page; there is no way to keep an important post at top. The format also tends to encourage a narrow — storytelling, short observations, blurbs which encapsulate a single link to another website. (I have previously described this as the unbearable lightness of blogging) Longer, essay-length articles are expected to be posted elsewhere. (see an explanation of the webzine format for details.) The common blurb-post, is often not even narrative, but just promotional.

One way that publishers have tried to address the imbalance is by adopting a wiki platform. Wiki is certainly a normative form: each page represents a concrete idea. Wiki documents are expected to be updated over time, and thus they converge towards a sense of completeness. Not all wikis facilitate the same type of normative documents. Wikipedia demonstrates a definitive style– the entries are largely definitions of people, places, things, historical events, ideas. By contrast, the MeatballWiki project, focusing on online communications, describes design patterns– some of which are complete sentences, like the directive UseRealNames. (This site has defined its own variety of styles, mostly normative, called here story types).

There’s still some nagging problems with the wiki approach. One assumption is that wikis are optimal when they are actively edited– from Ross Mayfield, the founder of SocialText, which packages wiki-type software for business use. Single authors should be able to compose and control normative documents. Overall, it can prove difficult to justify two separate publishing platforms which evolved to support fundamentally different writing styles. It doesn’t allow much room for gradations. Why not instead adopt a flexible platform which can serve for both durable and disposable content?

Narrative is important because it engages in a timely fashion; normatives makes the ideas and concepts timeless. Any person or organization wishing to assert an agenda needs to build up castles of information to be referenced subsequently. Each publisher may ultimately need to choose their own balance, but recognizing the distinctions is good start. Obviously this is easier on the web than in print publishing. And you can do it in a single platform. I call it the civ, built today on the Drupal platform. And over the next few months, I’ll be integrating it more into Drupal.