Books Reviewed in This Issue
Avon J. Murphy, Editor
American Psychological Association (APA). 2010. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. [ISBN 978-1-4338-0561-5. 272 pages, including index. US$28.95 (softcover).]
We consult a style guide for any of several reasons: requirement of work or school, need for an authoritative ruling concerning language mechanics or citation format, uncertainty about the conventions of our discipline. Since APA guidelines form the basis for house style at many workplaces, the APA Publication Manual has become an important reference work even for non-psychology audiences. Therefore, a new edition is a newsworthy event.
The APA has given us eight chapters: “Writing for the Behavioral and Social Sciences,” “Manuscript Structure and Content,” “Writing Clearly and Concisely,” “The Mechanics of Style,” “Displaying Results,” “Crediting Sources,” “Reference Examples,” and “The Publication Process.” The manual also includes one appendix: “Journal Article Reporting Standards (JARS), Meta-Analysis Reporting Standards (MARS), and Flow of Participants Through Each Stage of an Experiment or Quasi-Experiment.” A reference list gives sources for works mentioned in the manual, and a serviceable index aids navigation with both section designators and page numbers as locators. The inside front cover has an abbreviated table of contents, helpful if you want to use the side bleeds to find material located within a specific chapter, and the inside back cover has a handy guide to where specific citation models can be found.
If you have used the Publication Manual before, you will immediately notice a startling change: The guide has gone from 438 pages in the fifth edition to a svelte 272 pages in the sixth. This edition has been extensively rewritten and reorganized, with some material now residing online, making the online supplemental material a vital resource for users.
You should be aware of the contents of the online supplemental material if you want to use this guide to its fullest. In it you can find not only elaborations of some of the printed material and updates to some of the examples, but also material that has superseded the printed text. For example, in the printed manual Section 3.13 discusses how to reduce biased writing on the subject of sexual orientation. The printed version cites terms such as lesbians, gay men, bisexual men, and bisexual women as being preferred over homosexual. The supplemental material for this section (http://supp.apa.org/style/pubman-ch03.13.pdf) suggests queer (which was not mentioned in the printed version) as an acceptable umbrella term for these various designations and has come down against the term lesbians in favor of lesbian women. We may assume that for this topic and many others the possibilities and preferred usages will be changing with time, so consulting the online updates will be a necessity if you want to follow the most recent guidelines.
If you found yourself squinting at the print in the previous editions, you will be pleased that the headings, leading, and general legibility of text have been greatly improved. From a navigational perspective, the editors have made mostly good decisions, with the notable exception of the edge bleeds used to indicate chapter ranges. In previous editions, these bleeds were labeled (“Stats,” “Bias,” “Numbers,” “Tables,” “Figures,” and so on) so you could flip through and find material very easily without having to consult the table of contents. In the current version, the bleeds correspond exactly to the chapter divisions and are unlabelled. You must first identify which chapter is likely to contain the information you seek and then count down that number of edge bleeds or rely on page numbers, which at least have been made larger and easier to find. Running heads (absent in the previous edition) aid the navigation as well.
Many readers consult style manuals for guidance in citation formatting. As you might have expected, things have changed substantially since the 2001 fifth edition. Online availability of research materials has become quite common, and the guidelines for citing them have had to accommodate new media and new kinds of sources. One change you will notice is the dropping of the requirement to provide a date of access for online materials that are unlikely to change. Another is that URLs for online sources need not be cited for cases in which a Digital Object Identifier (DOI), used to uniquely identify and locate published items, is available.
So what else is new in the sixth edition? Coverage of ethics and intellectual property has been reworked, and the chapter on tables and figures is considerably enlarged. The discussion of statistical methods has also been expanded. And here’s a surprise: APA now recommends—but does not require—two spaces after end-of-sentence periods, a practice that had been largely abandoned with the demise of typewriters and monospaced fonts.
When the Publication Manual went to press, it contained many errors, some minor and some more substantial. The APA published an errata list online and offered to exchange first-print copies for corrected second-print ones. By now, most booksellers and the APA have stopped selling the first run, but if you buy from a reseller, be aware that there may still be copies for sale here and there. The copyright page will tell you which version you have.
Unlike other book-purchasing decisions you will make, the decision to acquire the latest style guide will probably depend not so much on whether you think you need to upgrade to the current version as on whether you use APA style at all. If you do, you will want to have this major revision on your shelf. As long as you can get the corrected second (or later) printing, it will be a worthwhile acquisition to your reference library.
How closely you follow a style guide’s precepts depends on your needs. Recognizing that the real world is not static, the editors provide this advice, quoted from the foreword to the fourth edition: “The Publication Manual presents explicit style requirements but acknowledges that alternatives are sometimes necessary; authors should balance the rules of the Publication Manual with good judgment” (p. 5). Good advice worth repeating.
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. Karen holds a master’s degree in technical communication and is an associate fellow of STC.
Ann Rockley, Steve Manning, and Charles Cooper. 2009. Schomberg, Canada: The Rockley Group. [ISBN 978-0-557-07291-0. 148 pages, including index. US$25.37 (softcover).]
Julio J. Vazquez. 2009. Durham, NC: Write Spirit. [ISBN 978-0-557-04584-6. 102 pages, including index. US$17.50 (softcover).]
Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA): Just what is it exactly? That’s a question many technical communicators are still asking. Two books published in the last year—DITA 101: Fundamentals of DITA for Authors and Managers and Practical DITA—are meant specifically for people with no prior knowledge of DITA.
Before I write anything else, a straightforward definition of DITA: “DITA is an open content standard that defines a common structure for content that promotes the consistent creation, sharing, and reuse of content” (DITA 101, p. 7).
DITA 101 is by Ann Rockley, Steven Manning, and Charles Cooper. All work for the Rockley Group, which specializes in developing effective reuse strategies and adopting content management solutions for their clients. Practical DITA is by Julio Vazquez, an information architect, DITA educator, and consultant for Systems Documentation Inc. (SDI). Prior to working for SDI, while at IBM, Vazquez was part of the technical committee that developed the initial DITA specification and language constructions.
Practical DITA is a non-programmer’s beginner book for readers who want an introduction to DITA and are not afraid to dive right into planning and writing. DITA 101 is everything you need to know about DITA from an author’s or manager’s viewpoint. It is also meant for the non-programmer; someone who wants to learn about DITA without having to look at the DITA specification.
Both books emphasize the importance of planning. The second chapter (“Planning the Writing Project”) of Practical DITA covers the basics of technical writing: identifying the audience, analyzing goals, and turning goals into tasks. Vazquez very clearly teaches you how to plan and prepare your document before doing any actual writing. DITA 101 takes a more big-picture approach in the “Planning for DITA” section, calling for the developing of a unified content strategy to define how your organization will work. The Rockley Group authors go on to discuss collaborative authoring being a requirement in a DITA-based unified content strategy, and the new and modified roles (content coordinator, information architect, and DITA technologist are all new roles) when working in DITA. The explanations are very complete, offering not just information about the basic job titles, but also the skills and knowledge required.
The two books predictably introduce DITA concepts for new users, such as topic types (task, concept, and reference—the basic building blocks of output), as well as DITA maps, the mechanism for putting the topics together. Where the books differ is their approach to presenting the material: DITA 101 uses easily understandable cooking recipes and includes figures, which are screenshots taken from FrameMaker. Practical DITA is very “hands on”: It is assumed that the DITA Open Toolkit (essentially a publishing tool) is already installed and you’re ready to begin walking through actual procedures. No sample project files are provided.
A notable difference between the two books is how they discuss tools. In the “DITA and Technology” section of DITA 101, the authors are up front in stating that they are going to provide only a “top-level understanding of the kind of functionality to look for” (p. 73). They do a thorough job of distinguishing between authoring tools (also called editors), component content management systems (also called content and translation management systems), and publishing tools (the publishing engines that fully support DITA). It is up to you to investigate the tools on your own. Practical DITA’s only mention of tools is in a “Useful Tools” section, but is limited to a short alphabetical listing of the editing tools available; there is no coverage of the other two main categories mentioned above.
If you read Practical DITA and do attempt to work through the procedures, a resource for first installing and working with the DITA Open Toolkit is going to be absolutely essential. I recommend Anna van Raaphorst and Richard H. (Dick) Johnson’s DITA Open Toolkit User Guide (VR Communications, 2006).
When it comes to making a decision about reading either of the books in this review, strongly consider your purpose for learning about DITA and how you work with new technologies. DITA 101 is definitely going to be useful to the author or manager completely new to DITA who is looking for a fairly short book to read without touching a computer. Practical DITA is for the person who likes to learn from doing and is not hesitant to start a sample project.
David Kowalsky is a technical writer for NEC Corporation of America. He received his MA 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.
Michael A. Banks. 2008. Berkeley, CA: Apress. [ISBN 978-1-4302-0869-3. 215 pages, including index. US$22.99.]
If you’re a history buff with a penchant for computing history, this is a book you’ll enjoy. Michael Banks weaves the stories of lesser-known events and companies with the inventions and ideas that led to the Web we know today.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have household recognition, but few people may know J. C. R. Licklider, a director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) who conceived the idea for a “Galactic Network,” or Bill Louden, founder of the GEnie online service.
While the personalities behind the businesses make for interesting reading, Banks focuses perhaps too much on Bill von Meister, a player “from a wealthy family tinged with royalty” (p. 25) who had great ideas but never followed through to any success yet still managed to get investors to hand him money. Other actors covered in the book include the CEOs and executives who ran the businesses (like Steve Case of AOL) and, infrequently, the developers and engineers. Nice surprises are references to users, subscribers, and others who pushed service providers to change menu structures or access to key content, showing that often the consumer was right.
In addition to people, Banks includes a general history of computing. Remember getting your first TRS-80 from Radio Shack? Or that Apple II? And if you were online back then using BIX, DELPHI, Prodigy, or The Source, you might feel some nostalgia at the screenshots of old login screens and menu systems. All of this is interesting to the history buff and those prone to reminiscence, but the book promises a “secret history,” a hook that may fall short for some because many of the tales are likely forgotten ones rather than secret ones. Still, they hold interest today: After Bill Louden gave $50,000 to an advertising company that failed to come up with a name for his new venture, his wife helped him choose GEnie by looking through the dictionary for words beginning with “GE.”
What might appear secret are foreign products that gave the public access to information as does today’s Internet. The French, for example, had a text-based system for shopping, news, and train schedules that started in the mid-1970s and expanded quickly because the French government gave terminals to its citizens. Meanwhile, American companies struggled to come up with any single service that consumers wanted. Banks discusses some of these struggles and how local systems gained popularity but were never expanded nationwide or failed because users couldn’t use e-mail to cross from Prodigy to CompuServe, for example. Another “secret” is that digital music downloads were explored as a business venture decades ago. Stories abound of cutting-edge technology that just didn’t make it the first time around. Along with a fairly linear narrative, the book offers an appendix with a simplified history of major events.
The book does have some flaws, most notably the need for a thorough proofreading. If you can overlook the occasional typo, this book gives you a narrative of the founding events in computing history up to the early 1990s.
Kelly A. Harrison works as a consultant, speaker, and writing instructor in San Jose, CA. For more than 15 years, she’s written technical materials and online content for various software companies. Currently, she teaches writing at San Jose State University and prefers short-term and part-time contracts.
Marjorie Crum and Marcia Layton Turner. 2008. New York, NY: Alpha Press. [ISBN 978-1-59257-806-1. 303 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
In their reader’s note on the inside front cover, Marjorie Crum and Marcia Layton Turner say that anyone who purchases The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Graphic Design is no idiot because if you know what you don’t know, you are smarter than many folks. If you know that you don’t know much about graphic design, this book would be a great choice for your library.
The authors have written a six-part book that covers graphic design basics—from type to color, pictures, and templates and grids—to a nicely presented “Putting It All Together” section that is 90 pages long. The text is easy to read and understandable, making the book a pleasure to read. The information is detailed enough to be helpful and, if you want to know more, you can check the six-page glossary before deciding if you need a heftier tome about graphic design. If you are pressed for time, start at the end of a chapter and read “The Least You Need to Know,” a nice summary of the key points on the preceding pages.
Chapter 7 is a mere eight pages long. But Crum and Turner give you here a brief explanation of what is meant by “visual hierarchy,” explain the rule of thirds and how to take advantage of the sweet spots this rule provides, and offer two examples (typography and images) of how to create visual hierarchy. Also shown in the eight pages are the rule-of-thirds grid, front covers from vintage dime novels that illustrate hierarchy in type, and examples of contrast and pull quotes that demonstrate emphasis.
The book has wonderful illustrations that drive home the information. The page layout is easy to read and flexible enough to allow for the illustrations, shadow-boxed definitions, reversed-out tips and captions, and very helpful color-tabbed page numbers that make it easy to determine your current section.
If you face handling a design project or want to better understand the wherefores and the whys of design, this volume is an excellent choice. You’ll find yourself reaching for it for a quick check of the basics. It’s an excellent value for the non-designers among us.
Ginny Hudak-David is the associate director in the Office for University Relations, the communications unit of the three-campus University of Illinois system.
Richard Holliman, Jeff Thomas, Sam Smidt, Eileen Scanlon, and Elizabeth Whitelegg, eds. 2009. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-955267-2. 264 pages, including index. US$ 40.00 (softcover).]
If you are involved in the practice or teaching of science communication or have a general interest in the topics of science communication and research, this book will be an interesting and valuable read for you. In particular, if you edit a scientific communication journal, teach in science communication or education, do science research, or are generally interested in related topics, you will find the book worthwhile.
In addition to the chapters, the book has valuable features that many readers will appreciate: a list of abbreviations, a thorough index, and thoughtful closing notes.
The sections of the book include “Communicating Post-academic Science,” “Developing Trends in Scientists’ Communicating,” “Accessing Contemporary Science,” “Consensus and Controversy,” “Popularizing Science,” and “Practicing Public Engagement.” These sections offer an interesting scope of topics and a lot to grasp.
Ethical codes, scientific norms, the role of communication in maintaining the social contract for science, patents, and the dissemination of scientific knowledge are discussed in the section on communicating post-academic science. One idea I find of particular note is that post-academic communication is becoming more and more important in part because of a cultural evolution by which “science nowadays is more influenced than hitherto by commercial, political and social forces” (p. xvi).
Two papers focus on communication issues in interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary scientific study, in contrast to communication in a more traditional way through scientific journals with a specific audience in a specific discipline. Blogs and wikis on such subject matter as nanotechnology are examples of new communication channels that encourage dialogue.
Peer review in science journals is a critically important topic in the field and society in general. Elizabeth Wager addresses the authentication of scientific findings in her discussion of past, present, and future techniques of peer review.
Jeff Thomas looks at the controversial issues of genetically modified (GM) food and cloning. Of special interest in his analysis of what happened in the U.K. debate about GM food. Arguments against GM food were “better articulated and received than counter arguments of the pro-GM scientists” (p. 135). You will probably ask just what the role of scientists should be in this discussion. I believe that an attempt to answer the question can raise even more questions.
Two chapters offer interesting perspectives on the popularization of science. Jon Turney wrestles with “the novel as an aid to exploring the meaning of science” (p. 175). Michael Redfern writes excitingly of audio offerings “that are both difficult and exciting to make and stimulating, informative and sometimes surprising to listen to” (p. 190). You might find this discussion especially enjoyable if you follow such radio shows as Science Friday, on National Public Radio in the United States.
The contributors are major leaders and thinkers in scientific communication. Richard Holliman, for example, is a senior lecturer in science communication at the Open University. Eileen Scanlon is a professor of educational technology at the Open University and author of books on communicating science and science learning. Elizabeth Wager, who was head of international medical publications for Glaxo-Wellcome, is a member of the editorial board of The Medscape Journal of Medicine.
They provide an often fascinating take on carefully chosen issues facing today’s science communication teachers, practitioners, and researchers. The eclectic mix of topics is diverse, ranging from science wikis and blogs to peer review, nanotechnology, nontraditional communication formats, audio, science information in fiction, and controversial topics such as cloning and GM food.
What is not to like in that list?
Jeanette P. Evans holds an MS in technical communication management from Mercer University. She has more than 20 years in the field and has published in Intercom. She has also presented at several STC conferences. An STC associate fellow, Jeanette is active in the Northeast Ohio chapter.
Deyan Sudjic. 2009. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. [ISBN 978-0-393-07081-1. 208 pages, including index. US$24.95.]
Design is, among other things, a story, a solution, a code, and a window: a story told by the designer, a solution to a functional problem, a code to be deciphered, and a window through which to see and understand the modern world. These metaphors serve as the justification for Deyan Sudjic’s historical survey and close analysis of design in The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects.
Firmly convinced that examination of design will reveal the emotional values of a culture, the author explains how design is sometimes constructed to seduce us. Objects are designed to make us feel better about ourselves simply by acquiring them. “Never have more of us had more possessions than we do now, even as we make less and less use of them,” states Sudjic.
With at least one quotable statement on virtually every page, The Language of Things is an immensely readable, fun, and fascinating exploration of the role of design by a gifted storyteller and acerbic critic with impressive credentials. Deyan Sudjic is director of the Design Museum, London, as well as an art professor and former editor of the international design magazine Domas.
Of interest to technical communication professionals in particular is the first chapter, on language, which discusses the power wielded by typeface. Sudjic explains how the use of U.S. interstate signage typeface in a dramatically different context, such as newspaper headlines, seems to shout.
The chapter on archetypes explores how the visual language of design communicates the function of an object and tells the reader how to make it work. An object successfully designed will not need an extensive instruction manual. Furthermore, asserts Sudjic, any object that requires a lengthy instruction manual will never become an archetype.
The suggestive language of color is evident in the Tizio lamp, where black coloring from top to bottom denotes seriousness, with just two spots of red, on the switch and the swivel, to evoke the color combination of the Walther PPK automatic pistol, claims the author.
Sudjic analyzes another archetype, the banknote, in terms of its font and image. For example, the U.S. dollar achieves credibility, he says, because it looks like it was difficult and complicated to produce, with painstakingly engraved images.
In other chapters Sudjic examines the role of design in making objects sufficiently extraordinary to qualify as luxury, argues that fashion’s strong contemporary influence derives from its grasp of popular culture, and notes the interdependence of art and design, even though art is valued above design. Ultimately, good design must be useful, whereas art is appreciated for its lack of utility, he explains.
Like art, this book lacks practical utility. There are no bullet lists of directions, guidelines, or warnings. Nonetheless, the book achieves value and credibility. Beautifully designed using heavy satin-finish paper and offering fine photographs on 58 of its pages, The Language of Things offers witty social criticism along with insightful exploration of the origins, inspiration, and impact of design.
Nancy MacKenzie is a professor in the Technical Communication Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is a senior member of STC.
Karen Bromley, ed. 2009. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc. [ISBN 978-1-60752-103-7. 245 pages, including index and author bios. US$39.99 (softcover).]
Experienced professionals can and should share their expertise by writing about it.
That’s the central theme of these collected essays, edited by professor and writing researcher Karen Bromley. While the book’s 21 contributors have targeted teachers, principals, doctoral students, and educational administrators “who want to write more clearly and have their work published” (p. ix), the essays can be very useful to technical communicators as well. Whether you’re thinking about publishing for the first time or would like simply to improve your writing practices, you’re likely to find worthwhile advice in this collection.
Bromley has grouped the book’s chapters into sections that reflect the chronology of a successful writing project. Publication begins with figuring out what you want to say and finding the motivation to get started. If you’re required to write articles or books as part of your job, then your motivation is a given.
But if writing is optional for you—a professional activity you’ve considered but haven’t yet started—then the opening essays may inspire you to begin. Here, contributor Chris Pescatore recommends journaling as a source of ideas, insight, and growth. Maureen Boyd suggests that you’ll be more productive when you take time to reflect and clarify ideas for yourself before beginning a project. The most important message from this section: Others can learn from you. Your experience is worth sharing.
Next are the challenges of getting ideas down on paper (or screen), shaping the piece, and maintaining a consistent writing schedule. For me, the essays in the second section are especially helpful because they address problems of fitting writing into days filled with other responsibilities.
From Marilyn Tallerico’s chapter, for example, I’ve learned some solid strategies for time management I haven’t read elsewhere. I also appreciate Beverly Rainforth’s discussion of ways to develop a personal corpus or connected body of work, an approach particularly relevant in academic writing. Several essays in this section offer advice on learning about audiences, such as the suggestion from contributor Joan Koster to read all issues of a target publication for the past three or four years to get a strong sense of its style and scope.
Although the review process that begins once you’ve submitted a manuscript for publication can be stressful, it can also be a valuable learning experience. A manuscript may receive one of four responses from an editor: accept, reject, accept with minor revisions, or revise and resubmit. In the book’s third section, Jenny Gordon explains how to interpret reviewers’ comments at each level, while Mitchell Rosenwald offers specific tips for revising. Heather Sheridan-Thomas emphasizes the importance of finding the right venue, since a topic or methodology inappropriate for one publication may be very acceptable for another.
While acknowledging that criticism stings, the essays in this section can help you maintain perspective on writing as a means of personal and professional growth.
Finally, if you have the opportunity at work or in community organizations to write grants or do other types of administrative writing, the closing essays in Writing for Educators provide sound strategies for identifying funding sources, collaborating with colleagues, and writing strong applications.
Writing for Educators is easy to navigate. As a writer who looks for forecasts and advance organizers, I like the collection’s section openings, each of which includes a one-sentence statement of that section’s purpose, a short summary of the essays in the section, and each author’s name, title, and institutional affiliation. Appendixes contain supplemental information especially for beginning writers, such as quotations and writing prompts, rubrics and templates for reviewers’ comments, and selected bibliographies on writing.
The collection is also readable, accessible, and jargon free. Most of the contributors write in the first person and address the reader directly. The essays are generally no more than ten pages long, but they incorporate many real-world writing experiences. If I could change one thing about the book, I would revise the title, which suggests to me a too-narrow focus on audiences of teachers and school administrators. Although all the contributors are university or high school faculty or other education professionals, writers in many fields can learn from their comments.
In my favorite image from Writing for Educators, Holly Hansen-Thomas compares a lengthy writing project to the task of eating a dinosaur. The secret, she says, is to approach it one bite at a time! These interesting, practical essays provide good reasons to take a seat at the table.
Lyn Gattis is assistant professor of professional writing at Missouri State University (MSU). She teaches beginning and advanced undergraduate courses in technical writing and graduate-level document design. Her research interests include document design, content management, project management, and history of technology. She is a member of the MSU chapter of STC.
Catherine F. Smith. 2010. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-537982-2. 198 pages, including index. US$24.95 (softcover).]
Catherine Smith’s Writing Public Policy is a practical manual that describes the communication process in policy making and advises you on how to participate in public discourse to initiate social change. Smith, a professor of professional communication and a government communications consultant, uses a pragmatic approach that makes Writing Public Policy suitable for a wide audience ranging from students in professional communication and public policy to entry-level professionals working on public policy issues and even citizen activists. Strengths of the book include a slight overhaul of the first version, resulting in updated cases and scenarios, a clearer layout, and appendixes on policy writing for the Web and on clear writing in general.
The book consists of nine chapters, seven of which are dedicated to particular genres in public policy writing, including policy problem definitions, legislative histories, position papers, petitions and proposals, briefing memos, testimonies, and written public comments. Each of these chapters contains an overview of a specific genre central to policy writing, a case sample, author commentary on the case, and a useful checklist for revising written documents to work more effectively within the related genre.
In comparison with the first edition, the second updates the overall look of the text, making it a much easier read. The book resembles a training manual designed to provide guidelines on how to convey information effectively in various policy-writing genres. The first edition of this physically compact book used a gray background to differentiate the case scenarios from the rest of the text, causing some confusion. The second edition uses a different approach by indenting the case scenarios, creating an easier-to-read style that increases comprehension. Smith takes great caution, however, to warn that although the book is written in a linear fashion, actual policy processes “are not linear” and “they do not always occur in order, or in a single pass, or in a simple way” (p. xii).
The integration of technological themes is evident in the companion instructor Web site and increased discussion of the Internet throughout the book. The Web site provides sample lesson plans, syllabi, and lectures for use in the classroom. Smith also more frequently references the effect that the Web has on public policy.
The focus on the Internet leads to one of the major strengths of the second edition—the appendixes on public policy writing for the Web and writing clearly. As Smith notes, “communicators must now choose how to use the Internet for their purposes” (p. 170). The appendix on policy writing on the Web, for example, explains that policy-related communication should be appropriately tailored to a specific audience in order to communicate a precise purpose, and such writing should be useful and allow the audience to make a decision based on the information provided. An important factor Smith addresses is that “the Internet may hold the most potential for active citizens” (p. 171).
Citizens’ increasing use of the Internet for digital activism makes Smith’s appendix on clear writing for the Web useful as well. Public policy is often full of jargon and technical language that prohibits people from understanding and acting on a particular policy. For this reason, Smith stresses that you use concise writing to achieve clarity so that “readers easily understand the writer’s intended meaning” (p. 183).
Overall, this book is an effective text for students, practitioners, and citizen activists, and the focus on the Web makes it current and applicable in today’s public discourse environment.
Joseph A. Dawson is a PhD student in technical and professional discourse at East Carolina University and a student member of STC. Professionally, he works as an economic developer and legislative liaison for Pitt County, NC.
Andy Lester. 2009. Raleigh, NC, and Dallas, TX: The Pragmatic Bookshelf. [ISBN 978-1-93435-626-5. 280 pages, including index. US$23.95 (softcover).]
In a down economy, it is even more important for technology workers to take charge of their careers, so the publication of Andy Lester’s Land the Tech Job You Love is especially timely. This book is a useful guide for people who are looking for a technology job and for people who are currently employed, but in a dissatisfying job.
Land the Tech Job You Love came about because Lester and fellow techie Bill Odom saw that many people were unhappy with their jobs. They also observed highly qualified candidates screwing up their chances for finding a job because of poor decisions in their job searches. Lester contends that everyone should do work that they love, and he provides guidance on how to find and get that job.
Lester divides the book into two main sections: “The job search” and “The interview and beyond.” He states that before you can effectively begin your job search, you should evaluate your wants in a job and understand what you are seeking. He steps you through the process of creating a resume that highlights your best assets and recommends tailoring it for each job to which you are applying. The information is basic enough that it would provide value either to people looking for their first tech job or to experienced workers. Lester provides tips on how to make your resume stand out against others, suggesting that you always provide a cover letter even if it is not a requirement and always prepare a portfolio of past work to bring to interviews. This tends to not be common practice among programmers, but samples of past work demonstrate the skills that you are touting in your resume and can help you to stand out against someone else who is similarly qualified but not as well prepared.
The interview sections are informative to both people interviewing for a job and people interviewing job candidates. Lester advises job seekers to anticipate the kinds of questions an interviewer could ask and contemplate what information the interviewer is looking for in a response. He provides numerous examples of possible interview questions and examples of good answers and bad ones. He stresses that the goal of the interview is to get a job offer, and the best way to accomplish this is to sell yourself and be prepared. Lester also provides tips on what to do when you receive an offer, how to accept or decline it, and how to leave your current job gracefully.
Because the technology field can be a volatile one, it is important that you stay hirable when you have a job. Lester suggests that you constantly work to improve yourself, your network, and your brand. You should be cognizant of your next best opportunity, because you never know when you will need it.
Mary C. Corder is a senior technical writer with F5 Networks, where she writes hardware and command line interface documentation. She edits the Puget Sound STC chapter’s newsletter and belongs to Sigma Tau Chi. She received an MA in professional and technical writing from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Ellen Lupton, ed. 2008. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press. [ISBN 978-1-56898-760-6. 176 pages, including index. US$21.95 (softcover).]
I’ve made three books in my lifetime: one a collection of my grandmother’s poetry, another for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and a third for my mother’s 80th birthday. And I wish I’d had Ellen Lupton’s book before I made them.
Indie Publishing is probably too catchy a title for what this really is. For while it does show a lot of art school and cutting-edge design, it does come at the topic from a very classical grounding in the book arts tradition. As the introduction says, “Our book offers general information about design and production that is relevant to any publishing project as well as case studies of particular types of books that you might want to make and share, from a collection of poems to a children’s book or exhibition catalog” (p. 9).
Indie publishing has come into its own because of two factors: (1) the growth of niche publishing, where fewer copies are sold, but to a larger and larger share of the market; and (2) the development of better tools, such as InDesign (and not Microsoft Word, which the book dismisses as a word-processing program that will frustrate you, take a lot of time, and give you poor results).
This book is a visual delight with stunning graphics, especially in its illustrative diagrams. It has particularly good “anatomies,” which repay study, including those of the barcode, copyright, bookstore, and book.
The book covers the high end of book publishing, but glories in the low end, and shows everything you ever wanted to know if you want to make your own book. And the idea behind all of it is that you publish a book “because you care about what you have to say, because you have people you want to say it to, and because you take pleasure in making things happen” (p. 13).
If I were to criticize anything about this volume, it would be that the section on typography—a mere six pages—is much too weak. It seems like typography is by far the most important design part of a book and merits more attention than Lupton gives it. But she does include many good typographical references in the bibliography.
If you love books and have ever thought about making one, Indie Publishing will give you both the knowledge and the encouragement to do it.
Charles R. Crawley is a lead technical writer at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, IA. He also teaches as an adjunct at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids.
Robert L. Heath and H. Dan O’Hair, eds. 2009. New York, NY: Routledge. [ISBN 978-0-8058-5777-1. 683 pages, including index. US$225.00.]
Risk is a fact of life and, if we’re unfortunate, becomes manifest as crisis. For those who must communicate risk to avert crises, or communicate solutions when risk becomes crisis, the Handbook “explores the scope and purpose of risk, and its counterpart, crisis, to facilitate the understanding of these issues from conceptual and strategic perspectives” (p. i). It accomplishes this through 33 diverse, often fascinating chapters.
Risk is a subtle concept, poorly understood even by experts, and ranges from the trivial (which product to purchase) to the intensely personal (relationships) and thence to the inconceivably large (global warming). Indeed, averting, mitigating, and recovering from crisis may be one reason human society evolved. Risk perception is an intensely human thing, therefore subjective and socially constructed, and this creates significant communication challenges.
Ortwin Renn concisely captures the book’s message: “The ultimate goal of risk communication is to assist stakeholders and the public at large in understanding the rationale of a risk-based decision, and to arrive at a balanced judgment that reflects the factual evidence about the matter at hand in relation to the interests and values of those making this judgment” (p. 80). This exemplifies a sea change in communication theory, from an antiquated approach in which communication flows in only one direction (from expert to audience) to a nuanced modern approach based on dialogue and negotiated consensus. The devil’s in the details, and the book explores those details deeply, rigorously, and insightfully.
Chapters range from straightforward, easily understood advice to rigorously reasoned but often nearly impenetrable theoretical jargon. For practitioners, Vincent Covello’s chapter is a gem that extensively, clearly, and pragmatically describes modern risk communication best practices. At the other extreme, Kevin Ayotte, Daniel Rex Bernard, and H. Dan O’Hair provide a turgid and forbidding description of the epistemology and rhetoric of risk that practitioners will be tempted to skip, thereby missing one of the book’s hidden gems. It’s not easy reading, but it repays close reading.
Though expansive in scope, the book has a significant omission: how an organization’s internal politics, hierarchy, and communication structures affect both perceptions of risk within the organization and its efforts to prevent, respond to, or recover from risks. Despite introductions to the main sections, there’s also no attempt to present a final summary or synthesis. This is disappointing, but not a severe flaw in a book designed to comprehensively survey the state of the art in risk communication research. This omission detracts from the book’s value, since readers will have to work harder to create their own synthesis than were the book designed to lead them, step by step, to a holistic understanding of solutions to the challenges of risk communication.
The book is pricey (US$225), but not because of attention to detail. The type is uncomfortably small for my aging eyes, and the copyediting and proofreading are frequently shoddy, with missing punctuation, copy/paste errors, phrases that take two or more reads to comprehend (“is largely irrelevant the explanation of it apparent dangerousness” [p. 64]), and occasional gross infelicities (misattributing Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech to As You Like It). These occur on nearly every page of many chapters, though most chapters were tolerably well proofread. Combine this with overly academic prose, and many chapters are unnecessarily difficult to read and comprehend. The editors’ content selection is much stronger, with a high quality of thought expressed in almost all chapters, though stronger developmental editing would have improved the quality by reducing the length; as a crude estimate, the book could have been shortened by 20% simply by eliminating redundancies and tightening verbose prose. The book would also have been more effective if the chapters had been developed as parts of an integrated whole rather than as separate contributions on a range of topics, but perhaps that’s an unfair criticism for a book that wasn’t designed as a self-contained monograph.
These caveats notwithstanding, the book is a strong and important contribution to the field of risk communication and contains copious literature citations for those who want to read further.
Geoff Hart is an STC fellow and editor who is pleased to spend more of his time counseling his clients on how to reduce risk and avoid crises than on dealing with the consequences.
Web Copy That Sells: The Revolutionary Formula for Creating Killer Copy That Grabs Their Attention and Compels Them to Buy
Maria Veloso. 2009. 2nd ed. New York, NY: AMACOM. [ISBN 978-0-8144-1304-3. 314 pages, including index. US$21.95 (softcover).]
At first glance, you might think that Maria Veloso’s Web Copy That Sells doesn’t make the list of books that should be reviewed in Technical Communication. Technical communicators, you might argue, write to inform, not to sell or persuade.
When you read the book, however, you’ll see that it is helpful and constructive, even if you don’t write to sell products or services.
Writing to sell, like technical writing, is a skill that can be learned. Both genres have their respective conventions, and when you learn those conventions and implement them into your writing, the quality of what you’re writing improves. Writing to sell on the Web, Veloso writes, comprises these guidelines:
- Don’t make your Web site look like an ad.
- Stop readers dead in their tracks.
- Capture e-mail addresses.
Effective copywriting for the Web is one thing, but how does one measure the sales effectiveness of a Web site? Veloso provides a mathematical formula by which you can evaluate your site and grade it, with a possible score of 100. If you’re designing a Web site (perhaps a “Renew your STC membership” page), the criteria provide useful guidance for writing the copy. She reproduces the formula on her Web site at http://www.webcopywritinguniversity.com/formula.htm.
Writing copy to sell a product or service—or persuade someone to take a particular action—isn’t limited to Web sites. Veloso writes that e-mail is, in some respects, an even more important tool, in part because it provides greater visibility for Internet marketers, and it is a better tool for gathering and distributing information.
To paraphrase a cliché, the beauty of most genres of writing is in the eyes of the reader. By contrast, when one writes to sell, one can objectively measure the effectiveness of the writing by the response to the offer. Veloso, director of Web Copywriting University, has written a book that helps you develop the ability to write to sell. If you’re interested in learning this skill, you’ll want to refer to this book repeatedly.
George Slaughter is a senior technical writer with The Integrity Group. He is a senior member of STC and a past Houston chapter president.
Brian Dougherty, with Celery Design Collaborative. 2008. New York, NY: Allworth Press. [ISBN 978-1-58115-511-2. 203 pages, including appendix. US$24.95 (softcover).]
Green Graphic Design promotes the idea that green approaches to graphic design are more than simply trendy—green graphic design can model and inspire practices that respect and preserve Earth’s finite resources.
STC members may remember the award-winning article on environmentally responsible printing by Roger Munger (my colleague at Boise State University) in Technical Communication 55.1 (February 2008). Munger describes the environmental impacts associated with numerous types of papers and inks, provides information about the staggering amount of paper used in typical office settings, and recommends practices that technical communicators can adopt on the job.
While Dougherty’s book also provides paper and ink recommendations, it provides a broad range of examples of green design: from perforated letterhead that folds into a self-mailer, to containers both composed of recycled materials and designed to eliminate wasted space. The book itself embodies green design—printed with vegetable inks on recycled paper that was made at a plant powered by renewable energy. Dougherty founded Celery Design Collaborative in the late 1990s to specialize in green design. The book reflects the firm’s collective experience and wisdom.
The text is written in an accessible, conversational style. Chapter 2, “Design is an Avocado,” explains Dougherty’s three-part, outward-to-inward view of a designer’s role: “designer as manipulator of stuff; designer as message maker; and designer as agent of change” (p. 8). While the first two parts are second nature to many of us, the third part transforms the designer’s typical role. Dougherty’s passion for this change infuses the book.
Dougherty believes that sustainability is the concept that will define our era, and he argues that the value of a design project should not be measured solely in its financial cost. He encourages designers to work both “upstream” (with business strategy and marketing) and “downstream” (with materials, manufacturing, and distribution) to find innovative green design solutions.
Chapter 7, the longest, promotes the concept of “designing backwards”—starting at a piece’s ultimate destination and working backward to the design studio. Designers can take steps along each part of the journey to add value, encourage efficiency, and choose materials with the least environmental impact.
Dougherty discusses where printed consumer materials end up, how objects elicit responses from readers or users, how packaging can be designed efficiently, and how choices in the printing process can have environmental benefits. A set of recommendations for small, medium, and large print runs is helpful, and a case history detailing changes in the design, printing, and distribution of a particular report for Hewlett-Packard over several years shows green design put into practice.
The final chapters again advocate that designers should embody and effect change through their work. The appendix provides a glossary and a “sustainability scorecard” for printing materials, lists vendors for recycled papers, and identifies inks containing potentially hazardous metals.
Dougherty’s book is part sourcebook of ideas, part handbook for reference, and part essays on design. With numerous examples and many guidelines, Green Graphic Design will help graphic designers make choices that reflect principles of environmental sustainability.
Russell Willerton is a senior member of the Snake River chapter and teaches at Boise State University.
Alan Evans and Diane Coyle. 2010. Boston, MA: Prentice Hall. [ISBN 978-0-13-507403-9. 289 pages, including index. US$66.67.]
As soon as I saw Introduction to Web 2.0, I wanted to use it to teach a class—but first I needed to actually work through some of the exercises to learn the material itself. The text is engaging, with headings like “What Exactly Was Web 1.0 (and How Did I Miss It)?” (p. 2). Its visual walkthrough approach describes the concepts and also deals with those annoying gaps so common in writing about new media, things that many authors skip over as being common knowledge, but that anyone just starting out really needs to know.
Introduction to Web 2.0 is a teaching and learning tool that is designed for use in a classroom setting, but individual learners can certainly benefit. The chapters are “Introduction to Blogging,” “Podcasting,” “Enhancing Blogs,” “Wikis,” and “Social Networking.” Each chapter includes a set of several objectives for the learner, a summary, key terms, exercises, and assessments. The hands-on exercises, neatly summarized in a table at the start of each chapter, guide you through practicing the skills covered in the objectives.
In addition to the printed textbook, an Instructor Resource CD, available to teachers adopting the book, offers PowerPoint presentations, tests, an instructor’s manual, and solution files for the exercises. Students have access to a companion Web site with student data files, objectives, a glossary, a summary of each chapter, and an online study guide.
Each chapter quickly engages you in hands-on exercises that give a sense of involvement and accomplishment. The text is friendly, but not chatty. The authors get right to the point and maintain the focus.
Copious illustrations, screen captures, annotations, and formatting provide visual aids. Exercises are printed on a green background so you can easily find and differentiate them from the body text. The visuals are well annotated, and the procedures are clear and show results of each step. The exercises are quite structured: If you follow the procedures, you’ll succeed. The text encourages you to experiment after you have accomplished the basic skill and also provides instructions about correcting mistakes.
After the chapter summary, each chapter includes assessment exercises, additional practice exercises, discussion questions, and suggestions for team projects that explore aspects of the tools and techniques covered in that chapter. The solutions to the exercises, however, are only on the CD, not in the book. The extensive index makes it easy to find information throughout the book. My one complaint focuses on the durability of the lie-flat spiral binding and card-stock cover. Given that this is a tutorial—not a reference book—that might not be an issue.
This textbook is suitable for anyone who wants to learn how to participate in the wonderful world of Web 2.0 but who has no idea where to begin. All learners can use this text to plunge right into Web 2.0, from the blogosphere through social networking—and have a lot of fun in the process.
Marguerite Krupp is an STC fellow, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, and a technical writer with more than four decades of experience in the computer industry. She is a frequent presenter at conferences, an accomplished photographer and playwright, and the author of several general-interest freelance pieces.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter. 2009. New York, NY: Editorial Freelancers Association. [ISBN 978-1-880407-29-5. 44 pages. US$8.75 (softcover)].
If you have ever thought of striking out on your own as a freelancer, Freelancing 101 is an easy and quick read, but it is also a book that you will return to and pore over its details time and again. The combination of Thaler-Carter’s honesty and her obvious veteran and expert status as a freelancer makes this booklet a motivating and valuable reference.
From the start, Thaler-Carter is up front about the advantages of freelancing, which make your heart beat fast and your mind race with the possibilities of a freelance life, but she is also quite candid about the pitfalls that you may find yourself in if you do not think through the prospect of working for yourself carefully. She goes even further in the chapter “Danger Zones” to bring to light issues of utmost concern, such as having to pay for your own insurance, how taxes affect the freelancer, and time management—an issue that many think they have a handle on but find out quickly that they do not.
Important and beneficial information you will find in Freelancing 101 includes URLs for professional and freelance organizations that provide rate information, seminars, and job postings. There is even a template for announcing your new business to local newspapers and other publications. In “Finding Assignments,” you are reminded how easy it is to “become so immersed in a current job or project that you forget to line up a new one for the when the current one ends” (p. 24). To keep a steady stream of jobs coming in, Thaler-Carter suggests spending one day a week marketing yourself, and she provides strategies for how to spend that day. Even more helpful is the advice about what constitutes a reasonable request by prospective clients to test your skills and abilities.
With an author so obviously experienced and successful in this area, it is difficult to disagree with much of what she has to say, but there are two points that strike me as odd. One is her suggestion to make “friends with an attorney so you have someone to consult over any possible issues” (p. 14). This statement is understandable but comes across probably in a way she didn’t intend, where one would make friends with another professional simply for what they can provide later on. The other point is that there is an inconsistent message about whether or not a freelancer needs a Web site. In the early part of the book, it is suggested that a Web site may be needed, but that it can wait; however, later in the book, a Web site is listed as one of four essentials for promoting yourself.
Aside from those two minor disagreements, I find Freelancing 101 an inspiring, motivating, and practical resource that anyone with freelancing aspirations most definitely should read.
Diane Martinez is a writing specialist for Kaplan University’s online Writing Center and a PhD student at Utah State University. Her technical writing experience has been mostly in higher education, engineering, and government contracting. She has been with Kaplan since 2004 and a member of STC since 2005.
Regina E. Lundgren and Andrea H. McMakin. 2009. 4th ed. Hoboken, NJ: IEEE Press/John Wiley & Sons. [ISBN 978-0-470-41689-1. 361 pages, including index. US$79.95 (softcover).]
The fourth edition of Risk Communication is an excellent introduction to risk communication for practitioners and students alike. The book’s five sections lead you through the process of understanding, planning, implementing, and evaluating risk communication, as well as highlighting special risk communication situations.
Risk Communication’s main strengths continue to be its inclusion of varied communication strategies that work in different risk situations as well as theoretical and practical information in each chapter. The book also discusses the ways in which risk communication practitioners can work with different audiences, including stakeholders and the media. For example, strategies that meet the needs of these very different audiences can be developed using a helpful chart in the chapter “Analyze Your Audience” that outlines audience characteristics and concerns. This edition adds to the strengths of earlier editions by focusing on new developments in risk communication research and practice, such as social media and international risk communication.
Lundgren and McMakin also address a key weakness from the third edition of the handbook. In that edition, resource lists at the end of each chapter included citations from the early 1980s and 1990s. In the fourth edition, resource lists reflect more recent research, although earlier foundational texts that provide overviews of risk communication are still included.
One of the major updates for this edition is the authors’ treatment of social media. They caution that you will need to invest significant time and resources to maintain a significant social media presence and that you may lose a measure of control over the risk communication message. This advice is particularly helpful if you are an experienced risk communicator who is considering making the leap from traditional media into blogging or a social network site like Facebook. The authors also provide several successful examples of risk communicators’ using social media, supplementing these examples with additional ideas for implementing these technologies in different situations. You can easily see how these examples could be adapted for your own organization’s needs.
Another new section focuses on international risk communication. Reminding readers that risks may start in one location and quickly spread to others, the authors emphasize how important knowledge of cultural differences can be when communicating about risks. They also acknowledge that learning from similar risk situations in other countries can benefit risk communicators. Despite the importance of this topic, the authors devote only a few short pages to it. This chapter, unlike the majority of the book, features little practical information for practitioners. For a better and more hands-on understanding of international or intercultural communication, you will have to explore other resources. Although this particular section has limitations, its very inclusion shows that members of the risk communication field are learning from colleagues dealing with similar issues.
Risk Communication remains one of the best resources for risk communicators and students who need a desktop reference or introductory text on the subject.
Ashley Patriarca is a doctoral candidate in rhetoric and writing at Virginia Tech. She earned her master’s in English (technical and professional writing) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she also worked in the Department of Enrollment Management as a technical writer.
Matt Woolman. 2009. Richmond, UK: Angela Patchell Books Ltd. [ISBN 978-1-906245-05-4. 159 pages, including index and glossary. US$34.95 (softcover).]
“Color pervades all forms of visual communication” (p. 7).
If you’ve ever looked at a printed piece or a Web page and thought that the colors were a terrific combination or, conversely, wondered what possessed the designer to pair those particular shades, you’ll love 100s Visual Ideas: Color Combinations. This book—written by Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member Matt Woolman, printed in China, and published in the U.K.—is a feast for the eyes, a solid reference, and a wonderful showcase for creative and colorful design from around the globe.
Woolman divides the book into two parts: informational reference and visual reference. The former takes up approximately 40 pages and offers essential definitions and explanations of color theory, including subtractive and additive color, the color wheel, the mechanics of specifying color (for example, RGB or CMYK), and relationships.
Each page is a visual delight. For example, in the color palette section, Woolman presents the color wheel untraditionally: rather than the usual pie chart, his wheel, shown on the verso, contains spokes that have maple leaves midway and at the end of each spoke and one leaf at the center. On facing pages are six rows, one each for analogous, neutral, complementary, split-complementary, triad, and double-complementary color. The rows list CMYK and RGB values and have four small blocks with the colors illustrating the concept.
The second part of the book is a showcase for examples of beautiful design classified into natural, cultural, and emotional categories. Woolman includes advertisements for a variety of products, including beer, honey, flour, pizza, and toilet paper. Airlines, a boarding school, and a mobile communications company are among the services that are highlighted with arresting and colorful ads. The book demonstrates that certain color combinations evoke a particular type of response. And a thoughtful design team will capitalize on the reactions.
It’s impossible to do justice to the colorful pages. Clean, bright-white stock is a successful platform for the hundreds of colors on display throughout the book. The layout is open with plenty of white space. The type size is fairly small, which is a bit challenging for older eyes. The resources section is an excellent compilation that lists design-focused business organizations, publications including magazines, blogs, and books, an index of the designers whose work is included in the book, and a glossary. A CD with the color palettes shown in the book is included as well.
100s Visual Ideas: Color Combinations is an excellent and informative book and an inspiring resource for design teams.
John Freeman. 2009. New York, NY: Scribner. [ISBN 978-1-4165-7673-0. 244 pages, including index. US$25.00.]
“Of course e-mail is good for many things; that has never been in dispute. But we need to learn to use it far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives” (p. 192). So writes John Freeman—writer, book critic, and editor of Granta magazine—in his critique of e-mail. And really, this book is not just a critique of e-mail, but also of the computer, technology, and, to a lesser extent, capitalism.
Basically, says Freeman, the time we spend on the computer with e-mail is eating away at the time we should be spending with our families and friends or out in common activities such as charitable, civic, or professional groups (read STC). That amounts to about two hours a day, by his estimates. It’s not natural and can never replace face-to-face interaction for the quality of communication. And it has bad consequences: It leads to disinhibition, which means doing stuff online you’d never do in person, and in turns creates a “life without empathy” (p. 156).
His reflections on reading are pertinent for us as writers. In the twenty-first century, writing and “publishing” have become easier than ever, while reading has become harder than ever. After centuries of reading by reflected light, we now read by backlit light, where light is shot directly into the eyes. While Freeman doesn’t explain why this is a bad thing, he thinks it is. But our reading is constantly being interrupted. And screen-based reading is changing how people read: “people increasingly tend to leapfrog over long blocks of text. We need bullet points, bold text, short sentences, explanatory subheads, and speedy text. People skim and scan rather than rummage down into the belly of the beast” (p. 177). If you are familiar with the work of Jakob Nielsen, this is nothing new.
The last chapter consists of ten things we can do to fight the tyranny of e-mail. It has many good suggestions, including reading the entirety of an e-mail before responding. Out of the ten, there was only one that gave me pause: Check your e-mail twice a day, but no more. I don’t know about your environment, but I’m constantly getting e-mails throughout the day that change my priorities, so I can’t afford not to keep it open.
Freeman, unfortunately, cites countless statistics without giving their source and fails to include authors mentioned in text in his selected bibliography. Also, he certainly should include Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s fine book of a few years ago, You Send Me (Harcourt, 2002; reviewed in the May 2003 issue of Technical Communication), as well as the more recent Send, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Knopf, 2007; reviewed in the May 2008 issue of Technical Communication). While they focus more on the content of our e-mails, they do so in a civilized manner that would help cut down the “viral” nature of e-mail that Freeman so abhors.
Hartmut Obendorf. 2009. London, UK: Springer. [ISBN 978-1-84882-370-9. 340 pages, including index. US$129.00.]
If you are a designer, an engineer, a student, a researcher, or a teacher who helps prepare those who will work with human-computer interaction (HCI), Hartmut Obendorf’s Minimalism: Designing Simplicity may be of interest.
Obendorf attempts to clarify understandings and identify tools that support simplicity in design, especially in HCI design. He devotes one section to address each of the following topics:
- What is minimalism?
- What are the characteristics of minimalistic works in different disciplines?
- How do Obendorf’s concepts of minimalism relate to contemporary thinking about HCI?
- How does the minimalist perspective inform the reduction in design, and what tools are available for different forms of reduction?
- What are the potential, possible issues, and limitations of minimalism to contribute to aesthetics and design?
Minimalism is introduced in the context of today’s increasingly complex society. Obendorf asserts that the proliferation of digital technology that was intended to speed and simplify work has complicated our lives so much that the focus of the design of digital products has shifted from reducing complexity for designers to reducing complexity for users. He claims that these two concerns about simplifying the design and the use of digital products are inextricably linked and must be considered together. Obendorf’s work is an effort to discover/develop a system to simplify the design of these products.
He has difficulty precisely and concisely defining minimalism. He acknowledges this difficulty and has searched the visual, musical, and literary arts, architecture, and typography for a universal definition and for minimalistic perspectives that can be used to guide and evaluate decisions about the design of digital products. Rather than discovering a universal definition, Obendorf found the use of the term was inconsistent within and across disciplines. However, through his research, he developed a framework of minimalistic perspectives that are central to his design analysis. The framework consists of what Obendorf calls notions of minimalism: functional, structural, compositional, and architectural minimalism. He describes these notions, the relationships between them, and their utility.
He examines rules of HCI design and the applicability of each of the four notions of minimalism that constitute his framework for understanding design rules and evaluating designs. The discussion of functional minimalism starts with a comparison of a multipurpose tool (the Swiss army knife) to a set of single-purpose tools (sushi knives) to make the point that functional minimalism means a reduction of functionality, which results in a tool that fulfills its function better than a multipurpose tool and thereby gives the user more satisfaction. Obendorf extends his analysis to the digital world, detailing how in its GarageBand software Apple reduced functionality to meet users’ needs and demands. He offers two sobering observations about achieving and sustaining minimal functionality and an accompanying competitive advantage: “the minimal set of functionality not only is difficult to determine and cannot simply be found by reduction alone, but is also subject to changing demands and requirements of the users” (p. 131). The discussion of structural minimalism includes analyses of remote controls, the Palm Pilot and other devices, and the design implications.
The author argues “for systematically adapting or changing the development process to incorporate reduction” (p. 239) and provides strategies including reductions to the design process and the use of personas, scenario techniques, agile methods, and values-based development. For example, he offers the Minimal Design Game, which he describes as “a deliberate counter-design to typical design games trying to call out creativity or lateral thinking in the player…. Playing the game should invite the designers to take a step back…resulting in a design that… follows a consistent vision” (p. 244).
For anyone concerned with the design of digital products, this book can be a valuable training tool and reference.
Wayne L. Schmadeka is an STC senior member and serves on the faculty in the Professional Writing Program, University of Houston-Downtown. He founded and ran an educational software engineering firm for 12 years, has extensive experience developing varied documentation, and consults with engineering firms to increase the effectiveness and reduce the cost of their documentation.
Ad Lagendijk. 2008. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press. [ISBN 978-90-5356-512-4. 260 pages, including index. US$19.95 (softcover).]
Ad Lagendijk, distinguished university professor at the University of Amsterdam and professor of physics at the University of Twente, addresses communication problems in three areas for students at all levels in the hard sciences as well as junior and senior scientists. He finds problems in their writing, presentations, and e-mails. Because his audience is so broad, he provides broad answers and considers the problems as fundamental regardless of context.
No one would doubt that there are communication problems in every discipline. These communication problems vary from a failure to consider the user to a lack of organization, coherence, and cohesion. The author has had enough of poor communication and presents his personal views as to not only these problems, but also their solutions. He calls his material a tutorial and supports this approach by primarily using second person in all three sections of the book.
This approach could be one of the book’s strengths. Unfortunately, it turns into one of the book’s major weaknesses. The tone of the book is highly informal, full of colloquialisms and slang. This approach eases the schoolmaster hints that Lagendijk provides; but, it is his attitude that can grate on the reader because he positions himself as knowing what constitutes effective communication in the natural sciences. For example, “Utilizing italic fonts for different purposes, like indicating a brand name, is allowed” (p. 73). By whom? Then there are “Do not be stupid: preparation could not have consisted of a mere editing of your slides of one of your recent seminars”; “If your world is still full of angstroms and inches you probably work in a retirement home”; and “If you behave like an arrogant bastard, you will have a hard time getting the audience on your side” (p. 130).
He stylistically places himself above the reader, providing information to lesser beings in need of his help. And, rather amazingly for a well-published scientist, he names neither sources nor authorities for his hints.
Academics who read this book will find themselves marginalized by his insistence that courses in scientific communication offered by the universities are useless: “In university environments courses are frequently…not given by active, professional researchers…. The opinion of humanists, university lecturers and professors in language are absolutely irrelevant, and invariably an obstacle” (p. 38).
I find this attitude rather odd because the University of Twente has one of the strongest technical communication degree programs in Europe. And that leads to another curious point about this book.
No one seems to have copyedited or even proofread the book before publication. There are literally hundreds of problems in style, grammar, and usage, and especially proofreading. In other circumstances, I would question whether the publisher had used a copyeditor and proofreader. But given the author’s attitude, I can imagine that he refused all such help.
Given these problems, then, of what value is the book, and should technical communicators buy it? To begin with, out of hundreds of books that address writing problems in the sciences generally and in specific disciplines, this is the only one that attempts to offer advice in the areas of writing, presentations, and e-mail in one place. A second strength is that the author does have a lot of experience in publishing and presenting at conferences.
Finally, Lagendijk has considerable technical knowledge on how to set up and use computers for not only preparing and editing manuscripts using TeX, but also preparing and delivering conference presentations, responding to referees, and controlling e-mail.
Other strengths include useful advice about working with a group of authors, especially as a senior or lead author, and how to respond to referee reports.
Therefore, if you can work through the multiple problems of copyediting and proofreading as well as the attitude of the author, you can find information to help you when you are working with scientists as they prepare their papers and presentations. In that case, I would suggest buying a copy. If the obstacles are too great, a copy for the company library might be the best solution. Note: For additional views of this book, see Lagendijk’s blog: http://sciencesurvivalblog.com.
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 BA, MA, and PhD technical writing programs. Past president of INTECOM, he serves as guest professor at the University of Paderborn, Germany.
Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin. 2008. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Sybex. [ISBN 978-0-470-22664-3. 359 pages, including index. US$29.99 (softcover).]
You may want to venture into search engine optimization but find yourself giving excuses like
- I don’t have time!
- I’m overwhelmed with the possibilities!
- I don’t know where to begin!
If you have uttered these words, Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin’s Search Engine Optimization: An Hour a Day is a great book for you. They promise to “walk you through the steps to achieve a targeted, compelling presence on the major search engines” (p. xvii). And that they do.
Grappone and Couzin have broken the large topic of search engine optimization (SEO) into a sensible approach. They ask you to lay the foundation to your SEO plan, create a strategy, and then actually follow it over a three-month period by devoting an hour a day to your Web site’s SEO. While you won’t find any smoke and mirrors, tricks, or other such tomfoolery that is oftentimes associated with SEO, you will find what you need to build a case to members of your organization as well as an orientation to the basics that help you understand what SEO is and how it benefits you.
The days of “build a Web site and they will come” are long over, and these authors help reiterate how good site construction and content are important to your site’s success. They explain how the search engines work (their Web site at www.yourseoplan.com offers updated information), define the basic truths of SEO, and provide worksheets to help you clarify your goals, determine your audience, and create a custom approach to your SEO activities.
Basics are basics; however, the basics of SEO have expanded since the first edition of this book. In this second edition, you’ll find more detailed information and real-life examples about using the Social Web, analytic tools, and specialty searches to your benefit.
With almost half its pages devoted to defining SEO, defining your audience and goals, and establishing buy-in from your team, the book is particularly appealing to novices. The second half breaks the approach into steps that can be performed an hour at a time over a three-month period, making it accessible to businesses of all sorts.
These discrete tasks are just a starting point and can easily encompass more than an hour. The authors acknowledge this and encourage you to progress at your own pace. To counterbalance cumbersome tasks, they provide “Pearls of wisdom” that increase efficiency. For example, “If you’re a small organization, stop using the free stats package that comes with your hosting solutions and start using Google Analytics” (p. 149).
Grappone and Couzin effectively provide detailed information about the major search engines in existence at the time of the book’s publication. As you would with any book that covers such a dynamic topic, you may find instances where you need to discern how changes in technology apply to your particular endeavor. They provide enough information for you to be able to orient yourself to any search engine offerings easily.
If you employ the tactics provided in this book, not only will you see results, you will equip yourself with the basics of effective search engine optimization.
Louellen S. Coker has more than 15 years of experience in public relations, instructional design, Web design, technical writing, and editing. With a technical communication MA, she is president of Content Solutions, an STC senior member, and a past Lone Star Community president. She has taught technical communication and presented workshops.
Andrew B. King. 2008. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly. [ISBN 978-0-596-51508-9. 367 pages, including index. US$39.99 (softcover).]
When many people hear the term Website optimization, they think of getting their sites to show up in Google’s top ten search results, but that’s only a small part of the subject. Website Optimization is about moving up the list at Google, and more. Andrew B. King wants to help Web marketers, Web developers, and businesspeople get the most out of the time and money they invest in their organizations’ online presences. He calls Web site optimization “a discipline of efficiency” (p. xvi), in which success involves a synergy between search engine marketing optimization and Web performance optimization.
King intends his book for both tech-savvy Web developers and marketing people. It is not for complete beginners, however. Readers should have some basic understanding of the relevant issues in their fields, such as HTML and CSS rule syntax for Web developers and search engine management and basic Internet terminology for managers. King defines some terms, such as deck, but not others, such as URI or strange attractors. He introduces the term nofollow attribute but doesn’t define it until later. Although King doesn’t see his audience as including absolutely everybody, the book could be made more usable by a larger audience if there were a glossary to support less knowledgeable readers.
The book’s ten chapters are divided into two parts: “Search Engine Marketing Optimization,” which covers search engine optimization, pay-per-click advertising, and conversion rate optimization; and “Web Performance Optimization,” which covers Web page optimization, CSS optimization, Ajax optimization, advanced Web performance optimization, and Web site optimization metrics. King recommends not reading the book straight through, but rather skimming through it and flagging parts that are of particular interest. Indeed, people working in all but the smallest organizations will likely find that they will be more interested in one half of the book or the other, depending on their job titles.
Website Optimization draws on both research and field practice. It is footnoted throughout with references to industry and professional literature. King gives this practitioner-based tip in the chapter on natural search engine optimization: “Many companies put their company name at the beginning of every page title. A more search-friendly approach is to put your primary keyphrase up front and place your company name at the end of the title” (p. 21). He follows it with an exception from the research literature that applies when “the link appears as a hit on SERPs that are full of junk links, and when your company name is well known and respected” (pp. 21–22). King’s experience running a Web performance and search engine marketing firm gives him the perspective to avoid being swept away by every new technological development. Although he includes a chapter on Ajax, he cautions, “As with many web technologies, there is an initial hype phase followed by a pragmatic phrase. Presently, Ajax is still in the tail end of the hype phase,” and “over-Ajaxifying something” is possible (p. 218).
King includes lists of best practices and steps readers can follow. There are other lists, as well: the “six persuaders” that get people to say yes, the top ten factors to maximize conversion rates, five ways to deal with multimedia effectively, and nine Web site success metrics, for example. King shows the optimization techniques applied in case studies and quantifies the results.
The book is formatted for ease of use, with frequent headings and bulleted lists. The text is full of graphics: charts, graphs, and screen captures. Icons show tips and cautions, and every chapter ends with a summary. There are passages of computer coding that serve as examples, and that readers are invited to use on their own Web sites.
Those who have no expertise in either marketing or the nuts and bolts of running a Web site will probably find this book too advanced for them. Those who have the necessary background, however, should find Website Optimization a good source of practical information for building their online businesses.
Marilyn R. P. Morgan has an MA 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.
The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Build Better Products, Reach New Audiences, and Sell More Stuff
Clara Shih. 2009. Boston, MA: Prentice Hall. [ISBN 978-0-13-715222-3. 236 pages, including index. US$24.99 (softcover).]
Facebook and other social networking platforms, such as LinkedIn and MySpace, foster an immediacy, openness, and opportunity for interactivity in online personal relationships that are unlike the characteristics of connections made through e-mail or other electronic media. New, informal, lower-commitment relationships with casual acquaintances and friends of friends also emerge. The Facebook Era is a guide to taking advantage of these varying degrees of connectedness to forge closer relationships with customers and within companies.
Author Clara Shih focuses on how to establish and manage customer relationships by leveraging the social capital, the “collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other” (p. 43), that accumulates from the expanded, interrelated systems of contacts. From searching for keywords in online profiles of prospective clients to transforming “fringe” relationships into interactive partnerships between customer and vendor, businesses have many new possibilities for expanding their customer base through social networking. Companies can target ads based on specifics in the personal profiles of potential customers and capitalize on brand recommendations among friends. Shih explains these processes as well as discussing the benefits of using online networks to recruit new hires and build a more productive workforce through employees’ social relationships.
Readers who have not used Facebook will be at a disadvantage when reading The Facebook Era. Anyone planning to use Facebook for business should be grounded in the dynamics of social networking, and Shih helps newbies by providing step-by-step instructions for setting up a personal Facebook account. She also goes into the specifics of managing Facebook business pages. The Facebook Era ends with a discussion of integrating social networking into an overall corporate strategy. This is the first step a business should take when considering investing its resources in social networking as a business tool. Placing this discussion at the beginning of the book instead of tacking it on at the end would have more effectively emphasized the importance of this concept.
Shih has a vested interest in the expanded use of people-centric platforms such as Facebook. She developed Faceconnector, a utility for connecting Facebook friend information with sales contact information. This book is not a sales pitch for her product, although she refers to the application to illustrate current and future social networking possibilities. The Facebook Era is actually a good reference for anyone interested in business applications of Facebook. Even more than that, it is an overview of the “general social networking phenomenon emerging across the Web” (p. 3). Whether or not readers intend to use social networking as a business tool, this book will help them understand what this phenomenon is all about.
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. Linda is also a member of IABC.