Books Reviewed in This Issue
Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney. 2009. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. [ISBN 978-1-55860-710-1. 199 pages, including index. US$49.95 (softcover).]
As the authors of Forms That Work point out, < form > has been around since the advent of HTML. Whether it is a “shopping cart” at the point of sale or a survey for gathering marketing information, the Web form is an organization’s effort to conduct business. Yet many forms are still not well designed. To address this persistent issue, usability experts Jarrett and Gaffney take a basic, user-centered design approach, and they manage to do so with passion and enjoyment.
The authors divide the process of creating forms into three parts: relationship, conversation, and appearance. They first address the important stage of establishing a relationship with the form user. This includes branding, rewarding the user (according to social exchange theory), and knowing what questions to ask and when to ask them. They write, “We sometimes see people work their way quite happily through most of a form, only to become annoyed or frustrated by one poorly placed or ill-considered question” (p. 17).
The authors then explore how a form ought to carry a conversation with the user. Much of the book’s guidance is to limit the reasons why users might quit a form. According to Jarrett and Gaffney, the essence of form design is to make it natural for users to understand the question, to find their answer, to judge the correctness of their answer, and to enter their answer into the form. This includes the best uses of the hallmarks of Web forms: type-in boxes, radio buttons, checkboxes, and drop-down lists. These form controls should empower their users so that they can answer accurately, revealing only what they want to disclose.
The authors delve into details of appearance, describing how a Web form should look easy to complete. For example, with the backing of eye-tracking research, they advise where to put labels and how to align them. According to their experience, neither using title case nor using colons in labeling has any effect on form usability. Taking two pages to discuss them signals that many designers clash over such minutiae.
Jarrett and Gaffney do have limits to their Web form discussions. The book does not address paper forms or digital forms such as fillable PDF files. although much of the advice in the book would apply to these media as well. Also, the book discusses only design. A chapter on technology would have been suitable, since the book touches upon everything else. And the last chapter, a short introduction to usability testing, describes only the essentials of testing. For conducting tests, the authors point to other comprehensive works on the topic in the book’s 10-page annotated bibliography––also interesting reading.
A book about forms could be dry or inscrutable, like many business forms. But Jarrett and Gaffney’s book is designed for easy reading. Each chapter is divided into many sections, with colorful examples, charts, screen shots, and bulleted lists. Forms That Work almost suffers from the visual overload the authors warn about. Web readers usually want to skim, but book readers often want just to read. Indeed, the book’s friendly tone, myriad graphics, and brief sections tend to hide its underlying usability research and user-centered design principles. But the visuals and research are positives that will empower designers to create user-centered forms.
Jarrett and Gaffney’s work is a kind of primer. They assume that their audience has no knowledge of user-centered design, form creation, writing directions, or designing documents. Perhaps they are targeting Web professionals who are skilled in technology but not in communication. Yet even the experienced communicator could benefit from learning user-centered Web form design. Since there are few articles and books on the topic, this fun book is worthy of consideration. Perhaps Forms That Work marks the beginning of better practices and deeper research into the usability of the genre of Web forms.
James Morgan has been in nonprofit communications for 14 years.
Marin S. Robinson, Fredricka L. Stoller, Molly S. Costanza-Robinson, and James K. Jones. 2008. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-530507-4. 698 pages, including index. US$49.95 (softcover).]
Write Like a Chemist analyzes texts the way a chemist analyzes compounds. Meant to be a textbook for upper-division and graduate chemistry courses and a resource for working chemists, it draws on computer-based analyses of the language of chemistry. It takes you step by step through the entire process of writing for publication in professional venues and directs your work on your own material, with the assumption that you have writing projects underway.
The book emphasizes four types of professional chemistry literature: journal articles, conference abstracts, scientific posters, and research proposals. Its chapters are grouped into four “modules” based on these types. Two appendixes contain language tips and move structures, a term the authors use to describe the common organizational frameworks used in each genre. It isn’t all about words, though. Write Like a Chemist also discusses how to handle graphics and shows both schematically and through reproductions how posters should be laid out. Rhetorical moves are shown as diagrams, as well as described in text, for more visually oriented readers. A companion Web site offers supplementary materials for teachers and students.
Robinson and colleagues take a “read-analyze-write” approach (p. vii), in which they provide real-life examples of each kind of writing and then coach you through an analysis of each piece to build an understanding of the conventions of professional writing in chemistry. The accompanying writing assignments use these examples as models for your own writing.
The authors follow established rhetorical theory in advising you to consider the audience and purpose for your writing. They present some useful rhetorical moves, such as scientific writers’ identification of “gaps” in a body of knowledge into which they can situate their work. They discuss the importance of the “gap statement” in a paper and give examples of gap statements from the literature. You’re then directed to search the literature for yourself to find other examples of such statements and consider their structure, placement, and function in the articles. This method of explanation, example, and follow-up assignments in which readers investigate the topic further is a sound method of instruction.
In another example of the authors’ taking real life into account, they don’t attack the parts of the module on journal articles in the order in which the sections appear in the finished article. Rather, they start with an overview of journal articles, then take you through writing your own methods section, results, discussion, introduction, abstract, and title. They tackle research proposals in much the same way, mimicking the way many people actually write, leaving the difficult parts like introductions for last. For posters, they start with an overview, then do the text, then finally the design.
The authors offer thorough coverage of chemistry writing topics, down to quite specific matters such as whether data should be treated as singular or plural (what’s acceptable may depend on the medium). They define key terms and concepts: “The principal investigator (PI) is the main author of a proposal. Additional authors are termed co-principal investigators (co-PIs)” (p. 360). They also provide explanations of scientific terms: “Irradiation (n.) is the act of applying radiation (n.)” (p. 456).
The authors’ own writing is accessible. True, the text is littered with terms such as internal standard, eluant, and asymmetric Strecker synthesis (p. 317), but the chemists and chemistry students who make up the book’s audience will have no trouble with these terms. Chapters open with pithy quotes or statements from the authors on the subjects covered, such as this one from Sharon R. Baker: “Like a picture, a well-crafted graphic is worth a thousand words. (Of course, authors must avoid the temptation to include both the graphic and the thousand words)” (p. 523).
Anyone teaching a college course in professional writing for chemistry students would do well to consider using this thorough, detailed, and systematic book as the textbook. It offers excellent support for students and a solid framework for teachers. Enterprising students who don’t have access to a course could profitably use this book on their own, too. Robinson and colleagues have succeeded in producing the “guide and resource” promised in their subtitle for chemists who write—a strong contender for the definitive book in the field.
Marilyn R. P. Morgan has an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee. After serving as a technical writer and editor in academic and government research organizations, she now works as a freelance writer and teaches English at the college level. She has been an STC member since 1993.
Richard L. Hamilton. 2009. Fort Collins, CO: XML Press. [ISBN 978-0-9822191-0. 266 pages, including glossary, bibliography, and index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
Richard Hamilton has written an excellent primer for documentation managers, regardless of their experience. Newly minted managers will find Managing Writers: A Real World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation to be useful because it provides an overall approach to working with people, along with both the processes and technologies for creating technical documentation deliverables. More experienced managers will find the book useful as a well-written refresher about the technical communication profession.
In the first section, “Getting Started,” Hamilton discusses the elements of technical writing and the roles of power and influence. The second section, “Managing People,” discusses working with human resources, hiring, motivating, managing change, and employee performance evaluation.
The third section, “Managing Projects,” goes into development methodologies, project planning, project tracking, measurement and metrics, localizing your documentation, and single sourcing. Finally, Hamilton looks at managing technology, living with technology, acquiring technology, building business cases, XML technology, using the Internet, managing content, and avoiding common pitfalls. He also includes a documentation plan template and glossary.
Hamilton makes clear that the book is intended for anyone (not only managers) involved with technical documentation. As I read it, I found myself nodding in agreement with his descriptions of organizing job interviews and working with project managers and engineers. For experienced writers who are not managers, Hamilton provides insight into the challenges a documentation manager faces.
Of particular interest to me, and I would imagine to many other STC members, is his chapter about building business cases. In today’s economy, it’s not enough simply to do good work—you must be able to show how your work makes or saves money for the organization. The business case chapter provides guidance on considering those questions.
The book is an excellent addition to your professional reading list. It is also an excellent addition for students wishing to learn the realities of the technical communication profession.
George Slaughter is a senior technical writer with The Integrity Group and a past STC Houston chapter president.
David Gibson. 2009. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press. [ISBN 978-1-56898-769-9. 152 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
With colorful, high-quality illustrations on virtually every page, this primer introduces the discipline of creating wayfinding systems, a discipline also known as signage, sign-system design, architectural graphics, and environmental graphic design. Drawing on his 30 years’ experience in this specialized design profession, author David Gibson explains in a concise, easily readable manner how good wayfinding design enables us to orient ourselves quickly and to feel at ease in unfamiliar surroundings.
The Wayfinding Handbook, written as a guide for students, teachers, professionals, and clients of the wayfinding process, is organized into four color-coded sections: “The Discipline,” “Planning Wayfinding Systems,” “Wayfinding Design,” and “Practical Considerations.” Likely to be of most interest to technical communicators are the second section, which explains the design process along with sign categories, content, and locations; and the third section, which explores branding, typography, color, maps, materials, and sustainability.
The section on planning wayfinding systems includes numerous diagrams, circulation maps, and photographs of city models as well as city sights to illustrate the main strategies for organizing wayfinding systems: districts, streets, connections, and landmarks. These strategies are modeled on urban planning but apply to a host of public places, such as transportation networks, museums, shopping malls, and academic campuses. A complex place is divided into zones or districts, which are marked with signs and connected by pathways, such as streets or corridors, that provide a network with landmarks that guide people to important nodes, such as train stations, elevators, stairways, and destination points.
The second section also distinguishes several categories of signs: identification, direction, orientation, and regulation. Gibson explains how each sign, regardless of category, is a “separate voice” serving a particular function and displaying a particular content.
Technical communicators already have a working knowledge of the typography basics and layout design that Gibson provides in the third section. As professional communicators, we also know how to use color as an organizing principle; thus, Gibson’s chapter on color may not be particularly enlightening. Even so, his discussion of how color can create a signature identity as well as help people connect emotionally with a setting is worth reading. More likely to be instructive to technical communicators is Gibson’s overview of how to create three-dimensional forms and to use materials (for example, metals, glass, and stone) and fabrication processes (for example, cutting, etching, and casting) in wayfinding design.
This book is enriched with several essays designated “Other Voices,” in which Gibson’s colleagues write on special topics ranging from designing new typefaces to map design. In addition to numerous examples of signs, Gibson includes useful reference tables. A lengthy list of sources, an index, and visually pleasing page layout add to the book’s usability.
The Wayfinding Handbook offers a most pleasant way to learn about a subspecialty of environmental graphic design.
Nancy MacKenzie teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in technical communication at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is a senior member of STC.
Hazel K. Bell. 2008. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press. [ISBN 978-1-58456-228-3. 333 pages, including index. US$95.00.]
From Flock Beds to Professionalism: A History of Index-Makers opens with an epigram: “At the laundress’s at the Hole in the Wall in Cursitor’s Alley up three pair of stairs, the author of my Church history, if his flux be over… you may also speak to the gentleman, who lies by him in the flock bed, my index maker. Alexander Pope, Account of… Mr Edmund Curll, Bookseller (1716).” It is a history of the profession of indexing and the author’s musings on how far the profession has come from the time when indexers literally “got in bed with” their clients. Moreover, the profession is the least part of the history. The book is, as the subtitle states, first and foremost a history of index makers. To that end, it concentrates on indexers themselves, both in general and as personified in 65 biographies of influential indexers who lived and practiced from 1428 to the present.
Hazel K. Bell has been a freelance indexer since 1964, compiled more than 700 indexes, won the Wheatley Medal and the Carey award for indexing, and authored two excellent books on indexing.
Part I of her new book (16 pages) covers the history of indexing, the evolution of methods of practice, training and remuneration, and indexers’ social and personal characteristics. Part II (214 pages) is devoted to individual biographies; and Part III (72 pages) chronicles the banding together of indexers into professional societies, most notably the Society of Indexers (http://www.indexers.org.uk/) in the United Kingdom and the American Society for Indexing (ASI, at http:/www.asindexing.org) in the United States.
The first ancestors of modern indexes date to the 13th century B.C., when Egyptian scribes used red ink to highlight important parts of their papyrus scrolls and Mesopotamians wrote brief descriptions on the containers of their cuneiform tablets.
By the 15th century A.D., the process looked more like what we today know as indexing but was very labor intensive. Indexes were written on slips of paper, which were then laid out and alphabetized on large flat surfaces. When arranged to the indexer’s satisfaction, the slips were placed in order in a storage box for delivery to the printer. A slight fumble resulting in the upending of the box would be a disaster. Indexers made their own indexing slips from scrap paper. They also made their own sorting boards and storage boxes.
By the 19th century standards and practices were developing and were codified in two books by H. P. Wheatley: What Is an Index. . ., and How to Make an Index. Unfortunately, the technology of creating indexes had not advanced much in 400 years. Indexers still worked on slips of paper, one entry per slip. The slips were laid out and sorted on tabletops and ultimately pasted onto a larger sheet, which in turn went to the printer. Wheatley cautioned his readers about addressing potential problems: protecting the layout of carefully arranged slips from errant breezes that could destroy days of intensive effort and using a good-quality paste when pasting up the finished product. “Lumps, when you are pasting, are irritating to the last degree” (p. 8).
In the 20th century, index cards finally made the scene, but the process remained much the same. Handwriting evolved into typing, and odd scraps of paper became uniform decks of cards, but there were no real productivity breakthroughs until the advent of computer-assisted indexing in the late part of the century. The years 1981 through 1995 saw the release of the three indexing programs most commonly used by professional indexers: MACREX, CINDEX, and Sky Index.
Though technology has improved over the centuries, it is not apparent that the lot of the indexer has kept pace. The preface describes aspects of an indexer’s world that have changed little:
Indexing is an anonymous profession. An index may be praised or blamed, but rarely is the indexer named, lauded, or shamed. There is no publishing tradition of [naming the indexer]…. “the names of indexers are rarely known. From the earliest times to the present day, indexers are little credited. (xiii)
Who, then, are these anonymous, self-effacing scribes who labor so for so little recognition?
Robert Collison in 1954 wrote, “Index-making is only interesting to those people who really like an orderly approach to life.” John Thornton listed in 1965 the “faculties of a born indexer… an orderly mind, infinite patience, and the ability to approach the book from the readers’ angle” (p. 15). G. Norman Knight added to that list: “common sense; also imagination, a general knowledge above the average, a good memory, and an insight into the meaning of the author” (p. 16).
There have been a few sociological studies of indexers in their natural habitat, but none on a large scale. Several surveys done since 1969 characterize indexers as born and not made, fond of detail, empathetic with people, generous of spirit, good communicators, lovers of language, nitpickers, and skillful readers and writers. In 1995, Andrea Frame reported the average age of indexers was 50, with a skew toward the high side. I dare say that the average is now higher, as is the skew.
With that general template in mind, consider the 65 biographies presented in Part II. How many, if any, of the names in Part II are familiar to you will depend, I suspect, on your involvement in indexing. I have been indexing since 1992 and am a past president of the American Society for Indexing, and upon a quick scan of the table of contents, I recognized only 10 of the 65 names as members of the indexing community. Another handful I recognized as historical figures but would not have connected with indexing. No matter. The book is designed such that you need not read it sequentially. Start from the table of contents or the index, or simply open it at random to find interesting bits of indexer lore.
Here’s a fast quiz:
Who is the first known indexer?
What is the world’s longest index?
What role did Samuel Pepys play in the history of indexing?
How did Lewis Carroll, best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, make the list?
And the list goes on. There are far more interesting insights into a niche profession and the people who made it a profession than one review can possibly cover. The book has content enough to satisfy both the indexing novice and the wizened pro and is well worth reading.
Dick Evans is owner of Infodex Indexing Services and a freelance indexer. He is a founding member of the American Society for Indexing Carolina chapter and has served as president at both the chapter and national levels.
Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications, and Technologies
Lori Lockyer, Sue Bennett, Shirley Agostinho, and Barry Harper, eds. 2009. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference. [ISBN 978-1-59904-861-1. 938 pages, including index. US$495.00.]
Designed for those involved with e-learning, this two-volume collection of essays examines the challenges and benefits related to the implementation of learning design and learning objects. The editors organize it into three sections: “Learning Design,” “Learning Objects,” and “Integration” and cap each chapter with a list of key terms. Those who are new to learning designs and learning objects will quickly see several authors highlight one of the chief benefits: reusability. Instead of creating a course or module from scratch, teachers and trainers can consult a wide repository of learning objects or designs. Among technical writers, an easy analogy to this would be single sourcing. Additionally, learning objects and designs represent instances of successful implementation and, therefore (theoretically anyway), instances of best practices.
At its core, this collection aims to understand a conundrum: given the tangible benefits to learning designs and objects, why hasn’t there been wider adoption? Why aren’t more teachers and trainers tapping the strengths of these preexisting models? Among the many studies presented in this lengthy collection, three dominant concerns emerge: instructional design is reduced to cut-and-paste; repositories don’t offer the most user-friendly options for storage or retrieval; and more attention needs to be paid to sustainability, particularly with regard to cost.
Addressing the cut-and-paste concern, several authors theorize that instructors’ reluctance to rely on learning repositories stems from the perception that they ignore the contextual diversities intrinsic to every learning environment. Falconer and Littlejohn, for example, outline a four-part framework (“process, granularity, community and characterisation”) that more explicitly and deliberately considers local learning dynamics. Similarly, Boyle describes a generative learning object model that presents greater flexibility and customization and, therefore, reusability. Regarding the usability constraints of repositories, Bennett and colleagues identify the paucity of research on how university faculty actually use them and draw from social exchange theory to propose six design guidelines, one of which addresses incentives for participation.
Martin and Eboueya call attention to current repositories’ lack of scalability and advocate more of a semantic network model (WebKB-2) that offers more precise search results. On the sustainability front, Bramble and Pachman examine the sticky challenges of securing adequate funding for maintaining the viability of repositories. They describe several funding models, such as a local-to-mixed funding (for example, Wisconsin-Online), national grant funding (for example, National Science Foundation grants to various American universities), and open-source funding (for example, Rice University’s Connections).
Overall, this two-volume collection is likely most helpful to those who already have some familiarity with the concerns surrounding learning designs and objects. Yet, given the relative youth of online learning, there is still much work to be done in terms of devising more cohesive, efficient systems for sharing best practices, and this collection represents a significant move forward in that direction.
Phil Tietjen teaches technical and professional writing at the University of New Mexico, where his primary research interests include instructional design, distance education, and virtual teams. He has taught online courses for more than seven years. He received an M.A. in English from New Mexico State University. He belongs to STC and ATTW.
Kitty Burns Florey. 2009. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing. [ISBN 978-1-933633-67-1. 190 pages. US$22.95.]
Kitty Burns Florey has penned (pun intended) a book that is part memoir, part history lesson, and utterly charming. Her accessible writing style makes the book’s 200 pages fly by. As you read, you’ll learn a lot about the history of penmanship and the tools of writing, and a more than a little bit about Florey and her family.
The book’s layout complements the subject matter beautifully. The photos and illustrations used throughout add personality and interest to the pages. One spread, for example, includes an elaborate logo from The Spenciarian Saga Workshop, the author’s version of her name in Spencerian script, an aside about the book The Secret of the Skill of Madarasz, and a photo of Florey’s college roommate with her portable typewriter, circa 1963. On other pages, the wide gutter showcases more family photos as well as photos of historic figures and script- or scribble-related images such as doodles retrieved from Florey’s wastebasket or a photo of a 1951 Olivetti “Scribe” typewriter. Brief comments, also on the gutter, embellish the text.
Script and Scribble takes you through the history of handwriting, the various schools of penmanship (think Spencerian and Palmer), graphology (which tells what your handwriting says about you), and handwriting today, when many of us use a keyboard far more than a pen. Florey ends with a discussion of whether handwriting is important. As you might guess, she concludes that it is and tells us why.
The book contains a bibliography as well as a list of relevant Web sites. The last page is for the acknowledgments. Florey’s comment on the side of this page reads: “The fact that these thank-yous were not written with a fountain pen on monogrammed paper and sent individually by mail does not make them any less heartfelt” (p. 190).
Florey’s book is heartfelt. It is a must for anyone who loves the written word, especially the handwritten word.
Ginny Hudak-David is the associate director in the Office for University Relations, the communications unit of the three-campus University of Illinois system.
Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents 2009: Who They Are! What They Want! How to Win Them Over!
Jeff Herman. 2009. 19th ed. Stockbridge, MA: Three Dog Press. [ISBN 978-0-9772682-4-5. 1,078 pages, including index. US$29.95 (softcover)].
If you have written the great American novel or a nonfiction book but have not yet shown it to the world, Jeff Herman’s Guide is for you. Having worked for several decades as a literary agent and author of advice for writers, Herman is well positioned to comment on a wide variety of topics crucial for those who seek publication.
For example, if your goal is to get your work into print with one of the widely known presses, you must understand the publishing conglomerates that own those presses. Herman explains the inner workings of these giants and lists their names, Web sites, mailing addresses, the editors who work there, the types of books they handle, and the successful authors they publish. Then he tells you the bad news: in many instances, only manuscripts submitted by agents are accepted for consideration.
Without an agent, you may turn to independent presses and university presses. There—as with some of the publishers in the conglomerate category—a query letter and self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) or sometimes an e-mail query is the way you introduce your book to an editor. Here again, Herman provides names, addresses, and the manuscript genres accepted.
The needs of Canadian authors are accommodated in a chapter that covers names, contact information, genres accepted, and the government underwriting of some Canadian presses.
For all the publishers he lists, Herman provides additional key information: the types of submissions that each accepts after responding affirmatively to an initial query. Commonly requested are early chapters or complete manuscripts for fiction and proposals consisting of synopses, sample chapters, and outlines for nonfiction.
While devoting half of his book to publishers, Herman also covers other important topics, including literary agents. He explains the preferred procedure for obtaining a literary agent: write a superior query letter and correspond with each agent exactly as the agent wishes. Details for approaching individual agents are spelled out in the Guide and on the agents’ Web sites, which Herman lists. Herman also offers tidbits that authors would have difficulty discovering on their own, for instance, which agents prefer e-mail queries, represent nonfiction only, expect movie or television potential, represent debut books, or have traditionally female first names but are actually men.
If you are unable to interest an agent or a publisher in your book, you may decide to self-publish and then distribute your work online via a firm such as Amazon. Herman discusses the merits and demerits of the self-publishing route to sales.
Among the common reasons for failure to obtain an agent or a publisher are weaknesses in fiction of plot and in nonfiction of approach, uniqueness, and market niche. If you believe in your work but it exhibits these or other flaws that make it unplaceable, you may want to hire a book editor/book doctor to upgrade your manuscript. These consultants can help make your manuscript “white-hot” (p. 925), a quality that Herman states is crucial to work submitted in a publishing world where neither literary agents nor publishers’ in-house editors have the time to polish manuscripts. He distinguishes legitimate from sham editors, describes the services offered by editors, and offers a list of recommended independent editors.
A smorgasbord of resources completes the Guide. For example, Herman provides a useful glossary of publishing terms and a list of Web sites and blogs focused on the industry; literary agents; publishers; and genres, including poetry, children’s books, horror, mystery, westerns, and screenwriting. Several brief chapters by Herman and guest authors offer advice on such topics as time management and dealing with rejection. A particularly impressive chapter that rewards close reading is “The Knockout Nonfiction Book Proposal,” which presents a successful, full-length proposal for a book on popular medicine that Herman agented.
The comprehensiveness and timeliness of the Guide make it required reading for ambitious, persistent authors. Buy a copy. Mark it up enthusiastically. Follow its advice rigorously. Celebrate your sold manuscript joyously.
Ann Jennings is an STC senior member, a professor of English, and coordinator of the Master of Science in Professional Writing and Technical Communication at the University of Houston-Downtown. Her novels and screenplays live in a cardboard box under her sofa. Even Herman’s excellent advice cannot rescue some writing.
Nathan Shedroff. 2009. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media. [ISBN 978-1-933820-00-2. 320 pages, including index. US$36.00 (softcover).]
We live in a world of serious social and environmental challenges, many of them exacerbated by mistakes made by a design culture that too often embraces meaningless and wasteful fads, ignores real costs, and abets such idiocies as “planned obsolescence.”
In Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable, Nathan Shedroff examines the tremendous impact—for better or worse—that product design can have on the world. While he enumerates the sins of poor design practice, his main interest is in showing how those who truly embrace sustainable design can not only give us a better world, but also secure a competitive edge and profitability for themselves while doing so.
Nathan Shedroff is chair of the MBA in Design Strategy program at the California College of Arts in San Francisco and editor of the Dictionary of Sustainable Management (http://www.sustainabilitydictionary.com/).
In this handsomely produced book, Shedroff delivers a tour of the broad field of sustainable design. Starting with a discussion of some basic definitions of sustainability and design—both of which are more problematic than you might imagine—he moves on to introduce the major approaches, understandings, and frameworks that make up the sustainability landscape. He discusses the advantages and limitations of Life Cycle Analysis, Biomimicry, Social Return on Investment, Cradle to Cradle, The Sustainability Helix, and other theoretical frameworks, as well as the ins and outs of various approaches to achieving, measuring, and promoting sustainability.
While the book is obviously aimed at designers, Shedroff avoids insider jargon and works to make the book accessible to the many nondesigners who still play roles in creating products, services, experiences, events, or environments and who could benefit from knowing more about the current discussion around sustainability.
The core of the book is organized around five major multi-chapter themes: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Restore, and Process. To take just one, “Reduce” discusses reducing the amount or kinds of materials or energy that products require to be manufactured, delivered, and used. Within this theme, individual chapters discuss designing for usability, designing to use less material, substituting better or less toxic materials, using local materials and manufacturing to reduce transportation, and so on. A similar approach is taken to flesh out each of the other themes.
Of particular interest are the many case studies and real-world examples of sustainability successes (and a few failures) that are presented in sidebar mini-articles throughout the book.
Shedroff never loses sight of the fact that achieving sustainability is a complex process and that perfect solutions are impossible. In fact, he shows that whether a particular solution is optimum, or even desirable, often depends on which metrics you choose. But he also shows that the more you become aware of entire systems, the more you are able to make informed sustainable design choices.
The book has a companion Web site and includes an extensive roundup of additional resources, including books, articles, online documents, Web sites, blogs, business resources, and educational programs.
Patrick Lufkin is an STC associate fellow and is currently chair of the Northern California STC Kenneth M. Gordon Memorial Scholarship and membership manager of the STC Management SIG.
Jason R. Rich. 2009. [Newburgh, NY]: Entrepreneur Press. [ISBN 1-59918-342-0. 284 pages, including index. US$21.95 (softcover).]
Blogs are a popular, inexpensive form of entertainment. Blogging for Fame and Fortune addresses starting a blog with the intention of building a large audience, which can be a means to fame or fortune. For Jason Rich, “the term blog… includes traditional text-based blogs, photo blogs, audio podcasts, vlogs (video-based blogs), and webcasts” (p. 1). As a technical communicator, you probably know most of this information. But if you’re brand-new to blogs and are just looking for a starting point, this book could be your Blogging 101 textbook.
The information in the book divides into three major sections: starting a blog, achieving fame and fortune, and lessons learned. Each chapter contains an almost overwhelming amount of tips and warnings, some of which are useful. For example, the chapter about driving traffic to your blog includes how “to add functionality that allows your blog’s visitors to submit your blog entries to Digg” (p. 168). Digg is a Web site where users submit and vote on Web content.
Over half of the book is about starting a blog. You find a review of what you need before you start blogging: the format and the appearance. Rich explains the hardware, software, and blogging services needed to start your blog, as well as creating content, for example in vlogs.
Rich’s specific lessons on gaining fame and fortune really come down to marketing. His suggestions boil down to two actions: tell people about the blog, whether through e-mail or social networks or some other means; and use search engine optimization (SEO), including key words. To use SEO, Rich suggests using the online tutorials available through each search engine.
To show lessons learned, Rich first describes mistakes to avoid, such as “not taking into account how your blog will impact your personal and professional life outside of cyberspace” (p. 204). His final chapters offer interesting interviews with people in the blogging service industry and famous bloggers. The advice from famous bloggers is to work hard, be unique, and have good luck. Perez Hilton says he became famous partly because “I was one of the very first bloggers doing what I was doing” (p. 237).
The book is not perfect. I find the writing repetitive. For example, Chapter 7 includes “Nine Tips for Utilizing SEO to Generate Blog Traffic” (p. 121), and Rich covers SEO again in a later chapter. There are also a fair amount of typos. I recommend skipping directly to the information you want instead of reading the book cover to cover.
As a current blogger (http://www.the-jerks.com), I find most important such marketing ideas as make friends on social networks, update your status when you post, and use SEO.
Angela Boyle is a technical writer for Tyler Technologies, Inc, where she has worked for three years. She graduated from the University of Washington with a B.S. in technical communication.
Scott Norton. 2009. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [ISBN 978-0-226-59514-6. 238 pages, including index. US$35.00.]
Scott Norton’s contribution to the how-to genre wins my nomination for the most focused yet ambitious handbook of the year. This deceptively modest volume contains a treasure trove of knowledge for the reader motivated enough to stick with it. Unlike handbooks that teach process by means of cookbook-style instructions, Developmental Editing offers publishers, editors, and authors much more than a set of rules and exercises. It aims for—and achieves—a much higher goal: a beginner’s introduction that manages to cover not just basics and beginnings but also refinements and subtleties of the developmental editor’s art and craft.
If you are looking for a book that will teach you the field in a weekend, look elsewhere, but be forewarned that you will probably not find what you seek. When the subject is dense, a fair treatment will have to be appropriately rich and deep to do it justice, and commitment to the material needs to be proportional to its complexity.
Norton’s intended audience is freelancers who are already working as developmental editors and also project managers and copyeditors who are transitioning into developmental editing. In addition, he includes material that would be useful to authors who find themselves on the writing end of an author–editor relationship and need some insight into what to expect and how to work productively with the professional who is “mucking around” in their manuscript. A third audience, publishing professionals (production editors, for example), could also find helpful information here, but it is more likely that they will find much of this information either already familiar or too detailed for their purposes.
Developmental Editing is divided into 10 chapters, each covering a major aspect of the editing process:
- “Concept: Shaping the Proposal”
- “Content: Assessing Potential”
- “Thesis: Finding the Hook”
- “Narrative: Tailoring the Timeline”
- “Exposition: Deploying the Argument”
- “Plan: Drafting a Blueprint”
- “Rhythm: Setting the Pace”
- “Transitions: Filling in the Blanks”
- “Style: Training the Voice”
- “Display: Dressing Up the Text”
The back matter includes an afterword addressed to publishers and an excellent annotated list of works for further reading on the subjects of developmental editing, concept and content, narrative, exposition, style, display, and publishing. The volume ends with a well-written and elegant index.
Norton’s own hook into the material is the running story of two fictitious developmental editors, Bud Zallis and Hedda Miller, who trained under the same veteran developmental editor. Despite the similarity in training, Bud’s and Hedda’s approaches to their craft are very different: Bud is the more intuitive and Hedda the more logical, although their roles overlap at times, depending on the project. Each chapter of the book presents a case study of a work in progress. We look over the shoulder of whoever has been hired for the job and see examples of the iterative process that leads to a book’s final version. So in Chapter 1, for example, Bud is charged with turning an author’s book proposal into a salable project. He has to extract and refine the overabundance of concepts from the author’s table of contents into a coherent and logical whole, with the primary emphasis being the marketability of the finished work. Bud has to construct an audience profile and align the book emphasis so that the target audience will connect with the author’s thesis, once he is able to identify that thesis.
Hedda, the other developmental editor, faces similar challenges in her chapters as she grapples with manuscripts whose hidden qualities need mining and refining to turn them into marketable works.
Each chapter proceeds with a different project and attacks the building of the work from a different angle. Each case study not only offers a narrative to explain how Bud or Hedda handles the project but also shows before-and-after examples of the changes they make to the outlines, proposals, tables of contents, and so on. We watch as they analyze themes and story lines, organize threads of ideas and their relationships, draft chapter titles and book titles, analyze supporting arguments, and manage transitions. Throughout the chapters, annotated documents make clear by example how the working developmental editor goes about the process of refining a work in progress into a publishable entity.
In addition to the broad chapter topics, Norton also gives us detailed sidebars that explore related mini-topics such as point of view, how to become a developmental editor, the art of suspense, scene and plot summary, character and setting, and art research.
Although it should be impossible to single out one element from among so many, I have to admit that the chapter that resonates most with my own professional background is the one on style. This chapter includes two elements often seen in handbooks: a table with examples of tonal lapses and a table of rhetorical gestures. They are much more amusing than typical handbook tables, however. The tonal lapse table, divided into categories of “Toward Subject,” “Toward Audience,” and “Toward Self,” lists each type of lapse, provides a definition, and comes up with all its examples based solely on the word despair. And the rhetorical gesture table has within every example some use of the term writer’s block. I have to think that Norton had fun with these charts as he made up the examples. It certainly made for pleasant reading.
I said earlier that Developmental Editing is not light weekend reading and that it is not a typical handbook. To master its content, you will have to commit time and attention to following the process Norton sets forth. With the many before-and-after project examples, you may want to try your hand at working alongside Bud and Hedda as they grapple with the challenges presented by the authors and manuscripts they encounter. According to Norton, “Readers may skip the case studies and, inside of an hour, they’ll have the gist of the entire process” (p. 1). Yes, perhaps. But if you want to learn the richness of what Norton can teach you, read more deeply and devote more time. You will find the effort well rewarded.
Karen Lane is a freelance technical editor and indexer. She has coauthored a textbook, Technical Communication: Strategies for College and the Workplace, and has edited and indexed a wide variety of technical and academic materials. She holds a master’s degree in technical communication and is an associate fellow of STC.
Sharon J. Gerson and Steven M. Gerson. 2010. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Education, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-13-159969-7. 611 pages, including index. US$82.40 (softcover).]
In its primary function as a textbook, Workplace Writing performs brilliantly. Each chapter incorporates strong instructional strategies: examples, chapter highlights, case studies, individual and team projects, degree-specific assignments, problem-solving activities, Web workshops, and quiz questions. These strategies offer useful tools for the instructor and engaging educational experiences for the student.
As a resource for nonstudents, especially business writers with minimal experience, this book also performs well. New writers will find it more useful than those with experience, but it provides a good refresher in writing principles and would be a good reference book to have on hand in the office.
The premise behind the authors’ approach to teaching communication is P3. This approach consists of three stages—Planning, Packaging, and Perfecting communication. Workplace Writing lays out specific steps within each stage and demonstrates how to apply them to create a product that “communicates successfully with its intended audience” (p. xxi).
The process formalized by the authors takes customary (but often overlooked) phases of writing and applies them in a structured manner to workplace communication. These phases involve analyzing goals, audience, and communication channels (Planning); organizing a rough draft and formatting text (Packaging); and editing the product (Perfecting). These principles are used for composing written products and preparing for oral communication.
Examples throughout the book use real-life people in current situations and offer communication challenges to be solved. Readers have the opportunity to come up with their own solutions before going to the end of the chapter to see how each problem was ultimately resolved.
The authors don’t just talk about what to do; they show what to do. Graphics are liberally incorporated to demonstrate the intended product. Authentic writing samples illustrate the document design and formatting recommendations discussed in the chapters, including communication styles, page layout, text formatting, and use of visual aids. Before-and-after visuals demonstrate how communication documents can be improved.
Most letter examples have sidebars that provide insights about tone, elements, and content applicable to that particular letter style. Memos, e-mails, and instant messaging are among the diverse styles represented in these examples. An entire chapter is devoted to visual aids, covering various chart types and discussing drawings and photographs.
The primary intent of the book is to teach how to effectively organize and develop business documents, but it covers grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and spelling in the appendix—complete with examples, of course.
The entire book is a compelling example of P3 because it clearly was carefully planned and executed. In addition, the design techniques and writing practices discussed in the book are applied to the text of the book.
This book would be ideal for business and technical writing educators and for anyone who wants to learn these writing techniques on their own.
Sherry Shadday works for Southwest Research Institute in Utah as a principal instructional specialist developing commercial and government print, stand-up, and Web-based training. An STC member, she retired from the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft electrical systems maintainer and has a technical communication master’s degree from Utah State University.
Scott DeLoach. 2008. Atlanta, GA: ClickStart, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-615-21213-5. 156 pages, including index. US$21.00 (softcover).]
CSS to the Point is a reference book for those looking to learn or enhance knowledge about Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). This includes brushing up on CSS skills and discovering new tips and tricks.
This book is organized into an introduction, 12 chapters, and an index. Each chapter includes several questions and answers with a brief description, visual illustration, and CSS code examples.
- Changing font, font size, text, and colors in headings and paragraphs
- Creating bulleted lists with adjusted spacing and formatting
- Updating color and format of hyperlinks and making a graphical link
- Positioning images and organizing text and images together
- Aligning tables, and specifying settings such as borders, background colors, and rounded corners
- Formatting form elements, including buttons, text areas, checkboxes, and radio buttons
- Using page layout techniques such as padding, floating, and column adjustments
Much of the advice is valuable. Some of the best tips come in the chapters “Print” and “Testing.” “Print” lists practical information for creating style sheets on the printed version of a Web page. Suggestions include how to create a separate style sheet for a printer-friendly page, set page margins, choose fonts, make page breaks, ensure link locations display in the printed page, and remove content on the printed page (such as drop-down menus or advertisements).
Learn the importance of checking Web pages in “Testing.” Advice includes how to view pages in multiple browsers and versions of browsers, what styles are supported in each browser, and how to validate style sheets and make modifications. Be sure to review the chapter “Resources,” which includes information on free online tools, Web sites, and recommended books.
This practical CSS how-to book is one that Web masters and technical writers who develop Web sites would find useful. You don’t necessarily need prior knowledge of CSS, but should be familiar with HTML and basic Web layout and design principles.
While this is a practical resource book, one enhancement would be to include a CD with CSS examples. This would enable readers to copy and paste the code examples from this book and avoid retyping information and possibly making mistakes. The CD could also include Web site links listed in this book.
Overall, this book is a good CSS resource that should inspire those familiar with HTML and CSS to take time to brush up on their current knowledge and learn some additional techniques. You can get more information about CSS from DeLoach, including an e-mail newsletter, at http://www.clickstart.net.
Angel Belford is a technical editor/writer with several years of experience. She has published several products, including print and electronic user manuals, Web pages, and quick reference cards. She is a senior member of STC.
100 Habits of Successful Publication Designers: Insider Secrets for Working Smart and Staying Creative
Laurel Saville. 2008. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers. [ISBN 978-1-59253-444-9. 192 pages, including index and resources. US$40.00.]
100 Habits of Successful Publication Designers presents a collection of essays offering critical insights on the design and redesign of magazines, newspapers, literary journals, books, and book covers. The voices of 37 leading designers, art directors, illustrators, design critics, and writers for publications as varied as The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Adbusters and an array of specialty magazines, journals, and coffee table books provide firsthand knowledge and understanding of the complex art that is publication design.
The contributors, all with extensive experience, explain their creative thinking and design processes and offer advice on reaching creative and strategic goals in designing publications. Students and professional designers have, of course, long had many well-illustrated collections of current and historical designs available as reference tools. The particular strength of this book is that it addresses the question of why the designers produced the designs as they did, and what esthetic, editorial, and economic factors were considered in developing them.
In five chapters, the book offers recommendations for planning new magazine designs; redesigning established publications; designing editorial spreads with typography and illustration; working with writers, editors, and illustrators; and designing illustrated books and book covers. Each chapter features a subsection focused on one aspect of the larger issues represented. The last chapter, on the future of print publishing in a digital age, is not as strong as those preceding it. It stresses the influence of the Web, the differences and synergies between the two media, and the incursion of the Internet into the future of print. While there is news here for beginners, a professional audience will find little new on this topic.
The writers—a range of luminaries and newcomers—include Arem Duplessis, art director of The New York Times Magazine; Laurence Ng, founder and designer of IdN; Kalle Lasn, founder and designer of AdBusters; author and designer Steven Heller; book and book cover designers Carin Goldberg and Vince Frost; and illustrators Anita Kunz and Edel Rodriguez. Indexes of “The Experts” (the essay writers—one occasion where such a term deserves usage) and of the magazines and books illustrated support the logical flow of the book.
The 100 essays, well illustrated by the contributors’ work, are short and to the point, covering a wide range of ideas, basic to advanced, on making well-designed and successful publications that add value for students and professionals alike. The essays offer first-person insights, tips, and tricks on meeting the challenges of cover design, developing concepts and designing publications, working with publishing clients, communicating an author’s intent through design and illustration, understanding the effects of market competition on design, and more.
Essays often offer multiple perspectives in addressing an issue, adding additional depth and some humor to the dialogue. For example, an essay on page design stresses the essential contributions of structure in grids, recurring columns and sections, and the use of style sheets to signal “a cycle that is repetitive and dependable” for mainstream magazines (p. 59). The next essay exclaims “Forget the structure” as a key to developing audiences in niche, literary and youth markets “that expect and embrace change” (p. 61).
This is a book worth consulting for the wealth of inspiration it provides for developing aesthetically and professionally successful publication designs.
Stephen Goldstein is a graphic designer in professional practice for more than 20 years as principal of his own design agency. He is an assistant professor of communication media at Fitchburg State College, Fitchburg, MA, and is a contributing writer to Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (Wiley, 2005).
Meenakshi Raman and Sangeeta Sharma. 2008. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-569574-8. 552 pages, including appendixes and index. US$19.95 (softcover).]
Targeted at the first-year engineering or technical writing student, this comprehensive textbook takes a user-friendly approach organized around typical workplace situations and their impact on communication. The book’s thorough treatment of these topics is complemented by extensive questions and exercises in each chapter for reinforcing the concepts and skills introduced. As such, the book is compendium of resources usable in different ways for different students and classes. Though tailored to the Indian school system, with a few changes in idiom the book can be usefully adopted in other English-speaking countries.
The text employs boxed chapter summaries, informative section headings, illustrations, sidebar quotes, comparative tables, and humorous but relevant cartoons to organize the copious material in an efficient way. The content not only addresses expected topics—the role of the audience in technical communication, the characteristics of communication in organizations, and the challenges of collaborating and communicating in groups—it also includes a number of helpful insights and techniques, such as how to generate ideas with the “lotus blossom” clustering method; how Claude Shannon’s information theory relates to verbal messaging (how noise—grammatical and other errors—interrupts the coherence or flow of writing); how kinetics (posture, movement) and proxemics (spatial relationships) affect oral presentation; why shorter, crisper sentences are preferred; and why e-mail messages must always be presented professionally.
The resume and interview section outlines and provides examples of the major types of resume and application letters, and offers extensive and practical guidance for handling an interview in person or on the phone. The advice on presentation strategies is also practical and useful, but the section on creating the slides themselves is limited to three pages. The authors could expand this section to include guidance on the importance of the visual aspects of presentation, such as balancing text and graphics to achieve optimum visual coherence and unity; ensuring a consistent look and feel among slides; and capturing the cause and effect of the underlying argument in the visual design itself.
The book is occasionally marred by mistakes in hyphenation, missing words, and duplicate sentences; a proverb identified as Chinese on one page is re-identified as Japanese on another. The text could use a list of figures, section headings could be numbered for easier access, and the three-page index is useless for a book this comprehensive. These problems may stem from a rushed production schedule, but they deserve the publisher’s attention—any technical communication textbook should model in its own presentation the zero-defect standard of correctness and usability expected in a professional setting.
Overall, this is a very thorough introduction to technical writing that would fit flexibly into a first-year engineering or technical writing curriculum. The exercises, worksheets, and writing prompts are varied and complete enough to allow the instructor to customize assignments for a particular class or student. As an introductory textbook, therefore, it provides plenty of material for the instructor to work with, and is certainly worthy of serious consideration for course adoption.
Donald R. Riccomini is a member of STC and a lecturer in English at Santa Clara University, where he specializes in teaching engineering and technical communications. He previously spent 23 years in high technology as a technical writer, engineer, and manager in semiconductors, instrumentation, and server development.
Andrew Lih. 2009. New York, NY: Hyperion. [ISBN 978-1-4013-0371-6. 272 pages, including index. US$24.99.]
It is hard to use the Internet today without stumbling across Wikipedia’s content. The freely licensed online encyclopedia, first launched in 2001, now includes more than 2.5 million articles in English. Perhaps even more impressive, Wikipedia now encompasses more than 10 million articles across some 200 languages. For anyone wishing to read the only nonfiction account of the history of the constantly evolving online community, there is now Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia.
Lih, a Beijing-based new media researcher and consultant, spent two years researching and writing the book. A Wikipedian himself, Lih hosts the Wikipedia Weekly roundtable podcast, has been an administrator of the English edition since 2004, and has served on the programs committee and as a proceedings editor for the annual Wikimania conferences.
The Wikipedia Revolution is a straightforward, nontechnical narrative. The book traces what enabled the creation of Wikipedia, carefully explaining that while Wikipedia appears to be a radically new phenomenon less than a decade old, it was actually built on a long tradition of a hacker ethos well before the Internet became the commercial success as we know it today.
The book chronicles the history of Netnews, one of the earliest community message systems that ran on a system called Usenet starting in 1979. Lih concludes that the story of Usenet and Netnews is important because “so many things pioneered by Usenet have become foundations for the Wikipedia community and its resulting success” (p. 87). The book also covers DMOZ (short for the site’s name on the Internet: directory.mozilla.org), started in 1998 with the idea to create a directory of Internet sites maintained by volunteers. Lih declares, “It was the project that would give the inspiration for Wikipedia” (p. 23).
One of the things that make The Wikipedia Revolution such an engaging read is Lih’s exhaustive coverage of three men: Ward Cunnigham, Jimmy Wales, and Larry Singer. Cunnigham developed the first wiki (a Web site that uses wiki software, allowing the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked Web pages). From 2000 to 2003 Wales and Singer worked on Nupedia, a for-profit, peer-reviewed encyclopedia, and then launched its successor, Wikipedia. Wales became Wikipedia’s promoter and spokesman.
Lih ends the book in an original way by setting up a wiki specifically to allow for a compendium of voices to collaboratively write a prognosis for Wikipedia’s future. This is the afterword of the book, and, in the spirit of Wikipedia itself, is published under a Creative Commons license, which allows anyone to freely copy and distribute it. The conclusion? “Wikipedia faces two possibilities: It can remain complacent with what it has achieved, or it can attempt to find innovative ways to remain on the cutting edge of collaborative Internet projects” (pp. 228-229).
Technical communicators who read The Wikipedia Revolution may be inspired to create a wiki to use with work colleagues. A one-stop guide on this topic is Daniel J. Barrett’s MediaWiki (O’Reilly Media, 2009).
David Kowalsky is a technical writer for NEC Corporation of America. He received a M.A. in East Asian studies from Washington University (St. Louis) and a certificate of technical writing and editing from the University of Washington. He is a senior member of STC’s Puget Sound chapter.
Steven Heller, ed. 2008. New York, NY: Allworth Press. [ISBN 978-1-58115-652-2]. 215 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
Steven Heller has compiled a book that has as its chief theme the role failure plays in creative design. Tapping 20 talented and successful graphic artists, this compendium has captured in print decades of design wisdom in book that’s easy to pick up and read. To provoke perfectionists to read this book on failure, Heller chose a unique typography for chapter headings and cover title. The words, set in an oversize yet perfectly readable font, randomly slip and slide across and off the edges of the page.
Readers who have a religious background will understand when I say this book seems like an up-to-date version of the ancient wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Fathers and mothers of graphic design have been willing to document their own failures for the benefit of those sons and daughters following in their footsteps.
For example, Richard Wurman (whose graphic design credits take up one page in the bibliography at the end of the book) states that successful people “understood, tolerated, and even courted failure” (p. 58). While our culture “sustains only the manifestation of success,” in order to get to the bottom of what makes success, “you really do have to fail” (p. 63). The other noteworthy graphic designers in the book also agree that the role of failure is underappreciated. Their common advice is that one should use failure as an insight to what is possible.
Each article also provides glimpses into that contributor’s unique personal experience. We learn what provoked the “aha” moments in their career. . .the good, the bad, and the ugly success/failure stories.
Having failed in five business ventures myself, I can verify the truth of their words. With each failure I have learned more than I ever knew before. My life motto has become “Care not for it? Use it rather.”
Will this thought-provoking book, full of brief words of encouragement, be of interest to STC’s community? I’ll let Warren Lehrer’s words answer that. Once told by his painting professor not to add words to images, he took this as his mission and has been successfully combining them ever since. So do we technical communicators.
Donna Ford is current president of the Connecticut STC chapter. She has been a technical writer since 1987 in the hardware, software, and government health care industries.
Jennifer MacLennan. 2009. 2nd ed. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-542547-5. 412 pages, including index. US$75.00 (softcover).]
Effective Communications for the Technical Professions, by Jennifer MacLennan, is a 10-chapter, four-appendix comprehensive guide to communication success in the workplace. It starts with a broad overview of effective communication and then gradually moves into the specifics of both written and oral communication. The last two chapters focus solely on communication in the job application and interview process. The appendixes each detail information about a specific topic in communication: case studies, critical reading skills, grammar, and punctuation.
MacLennan outlines the Nine Axioms of Communication early in her book and then weaves these nine axioms through the following chapters. MacLennan states, “all of your communication—not just the communication you do on the job—could be improved by understanding the Nine Axioms of Communication and applying them through the concrete strategies you will learn” (p. 17). These axioms basically state that all communication establishes relationship, precedence, influence, and future expectations for any situation.
Within these overarching principles, MacLennan introduces the seven Cs of professional writing. The seven Cs include completeness, conciseness, clarity, coherence, correctness, courtesy, and credibility. In providing an explanation of the importance for each of the seven Cs, MacLennan provides a reference that she can apply to specific situations and documents later in the book. These editorial concepts are mentioned throughout the chapters that follow.
Organizationally, each chapter is laid out in a similar format. Learning objectives are bulleted on the first page in bold text. Then the main ideas are fleshed out within the body text, and key ideas are pulled out into text boxes. At the end of each chapter is a section that cites a “critical reading” piece for analysis on the topic of the chapter. For example, in the chapter about ethics, the critical reading piece is Tania Smith’s “Three Aims and Evaluation Criteria for Persuasion” and takes up a couple of pages of the total chapter space. For each of these excerpts, the background and credentials of the author are carefully described before the written piece. Each piece contributes a new perspective on the topic of the chapter that supports the previously introduced main ideas. Finally, each chapter ends in a typical textbook format of discussion questions and exercises for student completion.
Overall, the text provides a comprehensive overview of communication for the technical professions, although it seems to be focused mostly on written communication. One chapter is focused on oral reports and presentations and one chapter on the job interview; otherwise, most chapters are concerned with style, mechanics, layout, and appropriateness of a written professional message. For the examples of professional correspondence, formal and informal written reports, and job applications, MacLennan uses the nine axioms of communication and the seven Cs of professional writing, along with outside input of other experts, to illustrate the most effective way to communicate. Overall, this text is a helpful addition to the bookshelf of any professional in the technical world.
Julie Kinyoun is a freelance writer who also works as an editorial assistant for Arbor Scientia, a division of The Neurosciences Education Institute in Carlsbad, CA.
Jost Hochuli. 2008. Trans. Charles Whitehouse. London, UK: Hyphen Press. [ISBN 978-0-907259-34-3. 61 pages. US$25 (softcover).]
Jost Hochuli, a Swiss book designer, teacher, and author, produced this helpful guidebook for writers and editors who need to understand the important differences between two categories under typography: macrotypography and microtypography, with the focus dominantly on the latter.
Specifically, microtypography refers to the important details in set composition (gray matter) on a page. Macrotypography concerns the page layout: type fonts, illustrations, headings, subheadings, images, and borders.
According to Hochuli, the details of gray matter emerged as important to help readers meet legibility needs after French ophthalmologist Émile Javal discovered that when ascenders and upper letters or words in the x-height are exposed and the bottom half covered, the eye recognizes almost every letter or word. This optical discovery, among others, made way for new design processes in typographic presentation, especially the use of fonts and spacing to make print media legible.
Before and after World War I, macrotypography overflowed with many type fonts available to produce a dazzling page layout. Today, novice graphic designers try for fancy aesthetics, yet they have to realize runaway creativity serves little purpose because it defeats the intent of legibility. For an example, this author refers to vivid color management on Web sites with the background being dark purple and the text set in lavender. These two color choices, while personal to the designer, throw away the intent of legibility, the same reason some type fonts developed earlier are forgotten today.
Before considering a design, Hochuli believes graphic designers should ask themselves, “What is this publication supposed to do for the reader?” When they know, they can produce the product with the right concepts and spend more time dressing the columns of gray matter along with the proper spacing for each component. Ignoring these simple requirements does not bring about legibility, and the reader remembers little of the content. This is caused by saccades (the eyes’ falling back to decipher meaning) or by the lurching in a line that hinders forward progression or interferes with readability. When microtypographic components are in order, the mind is at ease in reading; this is the key benefit of paying attention to the details of gray matter.
Some tips from the book follow:
- Letters—Consistent serif fonts in the body text of books help connect the eyes to text without stress.
- Letterspacing—Kerning can render the correct adjustment for wide or tight spacing between letters.
- Words—It is important to choose a typeface that does not overwhelm the line measure in use.
- Wordspacing—If a ragged right margin is used, words will flow with equal spacing between them. With justified text, holes or vertical rivers result from too much spacing.
- Lines—If you use 11-point type and 13- or 14-point leading in a column, the eyes move from one line to another easily.
- Linespacing—Short or long lines put a strain on readers, so set about 60 to 70 letters per line.
Detail in Typography is an enlightening discussion of how to increase the legibility of your texts. Given today’s heavy reading demands, the ability to quickly absorb and interpret chunks of printed words is of utmost benefit to all readers.
William L. Kidd is a retired federal employee, having worked last with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. As a senior writer-editor, he developed publications that educated beneficiaries about health care benefits and related health issues. His past experience includes managing several newsletters, writing and editing technical documentation, and developing other informational materials.
Dave Evans. 2008. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing. [ISBN 978-0-470-34402-6. 409 pages, including index. US$29.99 (softcover).]
The Internet has changed how business is conducted, and social media have changed how marketing is conducted online. Businesses wanting to take advantage of the benefits of social media marketing have to take on a whole new mindset that involves building an online social reputation rather than simply aiming ads at consumers. Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day provides a structured approach to making that mental shift.
Dave Evans has written this book for “marketers wanting to combine social media skills and expertise with their existing, established capabilities” (p. xix). He has honed his own skills as a consultant to organizations such as Microsoft and Southwest Airlines, and his company, Digital Voodoo. Evans’s definition of social media (also known as the social Web or Web 2.0) includes social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn), photo and video sharing (Flickr, YouTube), blogs (Lifehacker), conversational communities (Twitter), and wikis (Wikipedia). He provides exercises to complete each day during a three-month period. The goal is to build a social media marketing plan, piece by piece. You do not need experience with social media, or even with marketing, to complete a plan. The early chapters introduce exercises for exploring these media and provide basic marketing guidance. More advanced readers can skip over the basics and still benefit from the daily exercises. Each chapter ends with a summary of points that helps you decide where to jump in.
American consumers are accustomed to being interrupted by advertising. A 30-minute TV show may include 10 to 15 minutes of ads, and these interruptions continue to encroach on Web sites and e-mail inboxes. Social Media Marketing focuses on advertising, but not on the kind marketers have practiced. “The emerging role of the individual as a source of content used to inform a purchase decision is increasing as the role of the marketer and traditional media… diminishes” (p. 14). The book guides readers to the points where, through product reviews, online conversations, and other social interactions, the online customer now learns about a product, and how a business can gain “influence by becoming a respected member in the communities” where these conversations take place (p. xx).
This book is a useful guide to systematically exploring the potential of social media marketing, whether you want to create a marketing plan or merely acquaint yourself with the media. It provides step-by-step instructions, examples of businesses already reaching their customers through this kind of marketing, and plenty of online resources, including a companion Web site at www.socialmediahouraday.com.
Whatever approach you take to the exercises in Social Media Marketing, the process can be time consuming. A business would have to decide what resources to devote to it. Evans includes methods for calculating return on investment for social media marketing, but does not offer methods for determining how many customers actually use these new media, which in turn helps determine the portion of a total marketing budget to dedicate to them. This would have been useful information for any business wanting to develop a plan based on this book.
Linda M. Davis is an independent communications practitioner in the Los Angeles area. She holds a master’s degree in communication management and has specialized in strategic communication planning, publication management, writing, and editing for more than 20 years. She is also a member of IABC.
Uwe Flick. 2007. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [ISBN 978-0-7619-4982-4. 156 pages, including index and glossary. US$29.95 (softcover).]
Technical communicators are frequently hard pressed to provide objective statistical data in support of arguments such as those they make relative to the user interface. In dealing with emotional and opinion responses that are difficult to quantify, the argument must rest on qualitative rather than quantitative research methodology.
The difficulty with qualitative research is that it does not lend itself easily to statistical manipulation and extension to a larger group. Frequently, the number of persons involved is considerably fewer than the number involved in empirical research. The case for the validity of the results of qualitative research rests on the ability of the researcher to demonstrate the quality of those results. That is why Flick’s book is important.
This book, part of a series of books called The SAGE Qualitative Research Kit, examines the issue of determining the quality of qualitative research results. In 10 chapters, Flick covers a number of strategies the researcher can use when evaluating the quality of the results. Each chapter begins with a table of contents for the chapter, chapter objectives, and the discussion of the chapter topic, and ends with key points and for further reading.
When researchers invoke ethnographic and other qualitative research methods from social science research, they face the problem of extending the results from the test group to a much larger population. So the central issue becomes one of value: how valuable are the results of qualitative research? Flick’s book can prove quite useful to researchers because of his addressing the central issue of ensuring quality in the research results.
Quality, Flick tells us, comes through careful management of diversity in the research process. This diversity includes such things as including and selecting material during sampling, explaining negative cases, and checking with participants and peers about data analysis. Also, managing diversity extends to preconceived notions the researcher may have.
Using established criteria or even checklists sometimes enhances the quality of the results when used to manage and promote quality rather than to judge it. Further, researchers can use a process called triangulation to validate the results of their process. Triangulation extends the researcher’s activities by, for example, using more than one approach to collecting data. Examples include qualitative and quantitative methods, interviews, and observations.
Flick discusses triangulation methods and how researchers can use them to enhance the quality of their processes. He also discusses the ethical implications of qualitative research and provides guidance on keeping the quality issues focused on the process and keeping it transparent.
For those using qualitative research processes to accumulate data in support of assertions, this book offers an overview of how quality can be infused into the process, thereby enhancing the value of the results. Both professional technical communicators and academics will benefit from this book.
Tom Warren is an STC Fellow, a winner of the Jay R. Gould Award for teaching excellence, and professor emeritus of English (technical writing) at Oklahoma State University, where he established the B.A., M.A., and PhD technical writing programs. Past president of INTECOM, he serves as guest professor at the University of Paderborn, Germany.
Graham Pullin. 2009. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [ISBN 978-0-262-16255-5. 342 pages, including index. US$29.95.]
Design Meets Disability is the type of book that one might find in an art and architecture course, or on a coffee table. It is a fascinating—and important—amalgam of scholarly inquiry, history of design, and, by way of its rich illustrations and photographs, beauty. In the book, Pullin explores the history of designs that modify space, work, daily activities, personal environment, and even body image itself for the disabled population. But the thesis of his work is much more and leads to an exploration of where such design could take all of us.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his section on one of the two most visible disabled persons in the world today—athlete and model Aimee Mullins (the other being Stephen Hawking, who is also considered). Mullins is a double-leg amputee who pioneered the use of carbon fiber (cheetah) legs in track events, as well as posing for various fashion shoots and starring in movies—replete with prostheses varying from elaborately carved wood to futuristic Plexiglas. She confronts all of us with our preconceptions about athleticism and beauty by observing in her interview with Pullin that “the best thing she can do for people with disabilities is not to be thought of as a person with a disability” (p. 29).
In many ways, therefore, Design Meets Disability is an appropriate partner to Ray Kurzweil’s work, particularly The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press, 1992) and the Age of Spiritual Machines (Penguin, 2000)—both of which explore the merging of human and machine intelligences, for this is an important aspect of Pullin’s work—how the augmentation of one’s person by technology can not only improve the lives of the disabled but also integrate into the nondisabled population, as in the case of eyewear fashion. Consequently, he examines other technologies (hearing, touch, and so on) that might eventually produce fashion artifacts for all, disabled or not.
The book, then, is divided into two related and almost equal components. The first examines the history of design for the disabled from mere functionality to aesthetics. After that, Pullin considers how various well-known designers might approach a variety of functional design problems and incorporate a strong sense of aesthetic while doing so. Some of the results are whimsical, some beautiful, but all thought provoking.
As a result, this is an important book. It certainly is one that human factors engineers should read, but it would be equally at home in academic settings ranging from communication studies to disability studies. It is accessible, as well, and would be easily adapted to both undergraduate and graduate environments. Kurzweil’s premise with regard to disability is that before science learns how to “cure” it, engineers will render it irrelevant. Design Meets Disability explores ways that such a future might be realized where form no longer follows function, but is an equal partner to it.
Charles H. Sides directs the internship program for the Department of Communications Media at Fitchburg State College. He has published seven books and more than two dozen articles on technical and professional communication. Executive editor of the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, he also edits Baywood’s technical writing book series. He consults actively.
Kim Goodwin. 2009. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-470-22910-1. 739 pages, including index. US$69.99 (softcover).]
The problem with modern consumer and office products is that most are still designed based primarily on marketing or engineering considerations, and only secondarily, if at all, on human needs. This leads to products that are at best uncomfortable and, at worst, actively user hostile.
The solution? Human-centered design. In Designing for the Digital Age, Kim Goodwin guides us from initial preparation and developing an understanding of the design context, through research, user modeling, defining product requirements, and developing design frameworks, to finalizing the design details while constantly testing to be sure we got it right. The goal of research is to identify what problems we must solve, greatly reducing the risk of surprises towards the end of the design process, and Goodwin provides a superb overview of the research process—and, for the first time, offers a detailed description of how to create and use personas that integrates details that were scattered through her previous writings and those of her colleagues.
She begins with a telling definition: “Design is the craft of visualizing concrete solutions that serve human needs and goals within certain constraints” (p. 3). The spirit of this quote is honored throughout the book, with an emphasis on ongoing formal and informal communication to ensure that both stakeholder needs and user needs continuously inform the design, yet without ignoring the real-world constraints we all face. Equally refreshing is her repeated reminder that business goals cannot be neglected in any design process. Goodwin emphasizes ongoing collaboration, revealing a clear role for technical communicators; her ideal designer serves as the translator, arbitrator, and negotiator of consensus among the many stakeholders in any design, which is something we do well.
Goodwin’s approach is based on more than a decade of practical experience, and is packed with real-world examples and tips. But theoretical aspects aren’t forgotten, and she cites several key books and research papers. The full design process may be prohibitively detailed and time consuming (potentially many months) for organizations in which design isn’t a recognized priority and when the ship date can’t be delayed just so we can do the job right—a familiar situation for many technical communicators—but she provides shortcuts that let us achieve acceptable results when the full approach isn’t possible. Goodwin concludes with chapters on how to build our own design expertise and gradually create a design-focused corporate culture that will provide more scope for doing the job right.
Her approach emphasizes structured methods that support creativity and ensure we won’t miss anything crucial, and that are never rote methods or straightjackets. She devotes more than half the book to ensuring that we understand what we’re trying to accomplish and who we’re trying to accomplish it for (the carpenter’s “measure twice, cut once”). Though she provides many examples of successful designs and design principles, her goal is to teach us to discover the best approach for any situation, not to recommend prescriptive and inflexible rules. Frequent exercises encourage us to think through and apply what we’ve learned, but sadly, no sample solutions demonstrate whether we’re on the right path. Copious and detailed examples mostly compensate for that lack.
If you have room for only one more design book, make it this one. The scope and depth of detail are stunning, and the advice is both profound and profoundly practical, showing a subtle and nuanced understanding both of humans and of the corporate environment. (The book itself was designed based on the Goodwin approach, elegantly proving that technical communicators can also use this approach.) Despite occasional lapses into jargon, the book is clearly and elegantly written, and an outstanding contribution to the field.
Geoff Hart is an STC fellow and author of the Information Design column in Intercom. He has spent many years evangelizing personas and other design best practices.
Juliet M. Kontaxis. 2008. Hackensack, NJ: Benchmark Technologies International Inc. [ISBN 978-0-578-00524-9. 205 pages, including index. US$30.00 (softcover).]
Rapid Documentation of Policies and Procedures is a welcome addition to the policies and procedures (P&P) bookshelf in that it provides an easy-to-read book with an introductory-level method for developing P&P content rapidly.
Juliet Kontaxis writes in a conversational style suited for novice through mid-level P&P content developers. The book has five chapters and several appendixes that function as a style guide for how Kontaxis presents content for her clients. The book contains a useful index but no bibliographic references to authoritative sources related to its content.
Kontaxis became involved with P&P in 1997 upon accepting a client’s request to develop standardized P&P. She developed her method and book from experiences with P&P projects for her clients, not from the communication profession’s research and principles. Hence, her method is experience-based rather than research-based, and her book is a practical rather than an authoritative resource.
Kontaxis indicates two challenges her consulting practice faces: time pressures to finish manuals and limited knowledge of the subject matter for the manuals. She then provides her four golden rules for rapid development of manuals. These rules do not address what many communication professionals would expect and consider as the first commandment (rule) of communication: Know thy audience—who are the users and what must the P&P content enable them to perform?
The author’s method for developing and presenting P&P content typifies how many consultants and professionals approach a P&P content development project: primarily focusing on subject matter (not performance needs) and applying formats and styles (not procedure presentation techniques).
The author’s method includes a typical process to P&P content development that she describes in three stages: design, development, and release. Throughout her process she offers excellent advice, steps, guidelines, examples, and rationales that novices are likely to value.
The author’s presentation of P&P content is rooted in the mid-20th century. It uses generic subtitles (“Purpose,” “Responsibility,” “Procedures,” “Requirements”), topic-subtopic numbering (1.0, 1.1, 1.2), single-column page layout, and sections for exhibits and appendixes in a manual. She astutely recommends using process overviews to organize and introduce procedures. In procedural steps, she mixes imperative and indicative moods—a style serious P&P specialists would debate.
The book is weak in clearly defining process, procedure, and policy. It does not address their variations (guidelines, rules, and requirements) or the need for their supporting information. It does not offer procedure-writing techniques beyond the linear procedure (such as for decision procedures); nor does it advise how to write complex steps effectively. While readers won’t be harmed by this method (or the book), they might be left in the dark about additional possibilities for effective and efficient P&P documentation, regardless of how rapidly it’s developed.
The unique value proposition of the method and book may succeed in developing P&P documentation rapidly—a noble goal indeed. However, they may be too limited in not offering a more comprehensive set of P&P presentation techniques that are leading edge, research-based, and more performance oriented for today’s overwhelmed and demanding P&P information users.
Raymond E. Urgo is an internationally recognized expert, educator, author, and leader in policies and procedures communication. His firm, Urgo & Associates (www.urgoconsulting.com), provides consulting services on the development and management of policies and procedures systems and information in organizations, and it publishes the award-winning e-newsletter The Policies & Procedures Authority.
Christina Wodtke and Austin Govella. 2009. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders. [ISBN: 978-0-321-60080-6. 290 pages, including index. US$45.00 (softcover).]
Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web provides an excellent introduction to structuring Web sites—navigation, search, site maps, metadata, facets, tagging, and more.
If you have the 2002 first edition (reviewed in the November 2003 issue of Technical Communication), you may still want this new one. Much here is identical to the first edition; but, as Wodtke says, back in 2002 “search wasn’t much help when you were looking for things, and social networks didn’t exist” (p. xvi). Both of these are major topics in the second edition.
This is one of few books where the second edition is shorter than the first. The authors have deleted some of the basic information on usability and user-centered design. They’ve added a chapter on architecting social spaces and changed most of the examples, including the final “put it all together” case study.
Like most New Riders books today, Information Architecture has an open, easy-to-read page layout and many full-color illustrations. The full color is a change from the first edition and contributes substantially to the sense that the book is easier to use and more up to date.
The writing style in this book, as in Wodtke’s first edition, is direct, conversational, and clear. For example, Chapter 3 (old Chapter 5), “Sock Drawers and CD Racks—Everything Must Be Organized,” discusses the four questions that your visitors ask themselves when they visit a Web page: Am I in the right place? Do they have what I’m looking for? Do they have anything better? What do I do now? For the second of these questions, a key element is to have obvious labels. Wodtke and Govella start off that section by addressing us this way: “Repeat after me, ‘A label is not a place to promote your brand. It’s a signpost to help people find stuff’” (p. 44).
A book has an architecture just as Web sites do, and making that architecture obvious with foreshadowing lists, clear headings, and good layout is just as important as making a Web site’s architecture obvious. Wodtke and Govella do an excellent job with the book’s architecture; it’s very well-structured and easy to follow.
Some of what they cover is not unique to this book or to information architecture—for example, personas, scenarios, task analysis, and interaction design. Some topics, however, are covered in particularly interesting and useful ways. For example: a table of business models for Web sites, a very easy “just try it” method for card sorting, and their technique of sitepath diagramming.
I found myself disagreeing with them in only one place: in the opening chapter, “First Principles” (Chapter 2 in the first edition), they give eight principles, many of which will sound very familiar to anyone who knows Jakob Nielsen’s heuristics.
The last of the eight principles is “Provide contextual help and documentation.” The text here is almost identical to that of the first edition. Their advice is good as far as it goes: “What you can do as a designer is offer the right help at the right moment in the most unobtrusive way possible. Place information in clearly labeled locations, rather than grouping it all under the generic and menacing Help” (p. 18). But why, almost a decade after writing that in the first edition, do they still not suggest that this is a task not for a designer or an information architect but for a team member whose specialty is writing? I wish there were more in the book on interdisciplinary teams and sharing skills.
If you are new to information architecture, you’ll do very well to start with Wodtke and Govella’s Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. From there, you may well want to go on to the longer, more detailed, and more formal book by Morville and Rosenfeld (Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2007; reviewed in the February 2008 issue of Technical Communication).
Janice (Ginny) Redish is president of Redish & Associates in Bethesda, MD. She is an STC Fellow and former member of STC’s Board of Directors. Her latest book, Letting Go of the Words—Writing Web Content That Works (Morgan Kaufmann / Elsevier, 2007), is still receiving rave reviews.