Books Reviewed in This Issue
Lyn Richards. 2010. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. [ISBN 978-1-84860-218-2. 216 pages, including index. US$48.95 (softcover).]
Handling Qualitative Data: A Practical Guide serves a vital function for people who do qualitative research. While many books are available about methods of conducting qualitative research, it can be hard to find instruction on effectively processing, coding, and understanding qualitative data. True to its subtitle, this book provides practical guidance on handling the data generated in a project.
Richards points out that even those who typically generate quantitative data in their research will sometimes find themselves facing a set of qualitative data—words—through an open-ended “comments” section at the end of a questionnaire, or perhaps a set of documents stored in an archive.
Richards knows qualitative methods well, having coauthored a textbook on them. Handling Qualitative Data is not a replacement for traditional research methods texts, but a complement to them. Richards also helped develop two well-known software applications for coding qualitative data, NUD*IST and NVivo. Throughout the book, she provides guidance on using software for qualitative data, but Richards does not promote a specific program. In fact, some example projects she shares were completed without data software.
Handling Qualitative Data has three parts. Part I describes setting up the research project. I like her advice on keeping a detailed “log trail” to retrace steps in the process, rather than simply an “audit trail” to guard against mistakes. Part II discusses working with the data. Richards cautions against coding data “ad nauseum”; coding should always serve a purpose. Part III is about making sense of your data. Richards advocates “telling” what you have learned as opposed to “writing it up”; careful and thoughtful handling of your data in earlier stages will help you do this.
Each chapter begins with a graphic showing how its concepts relate to each other, and how they relate to other concepts discussed in the book. Each chapter concludes with a helpful list of resources for further reading and a handful of exercises for applying key concepts. These features will benefit students and instructors alike.
The companion Website is one new feature for this second edition, which increases the book’s value. It provides summaries of 10 qualitative research projects. Some projects were completed by teams; others by individuals. Each summary describes the project set-up, data collection (such as ethnographic observations, interviews, radio/TV stories), data management, data analysis, and reporting of results. Each chapter refers readers to specific projects on the Website to give examples of concepts in use.
As Richards resides in Australia, some phrases used in the book and on the Website differ from their counterparts in American English—you’ll see “ethics committee” instead of “institutional review board” or “human subjects committee”, for example. Nevertheless, it is clear that researchers in any culture face similar challenges and opportunities when conducting qualitative research.
I recommend this book for students and professors working on qualitative research. I am pleased to have it on my own bookshelf.
Russell Willerton is a senior member of the STC and an associate professor at Boise State University.
I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted
Nick Bilton. 2010. New York, NY: Crown Business. [ISBN: 978-0-307-59111-1. 293 pages, including index. US$25.00.]
By using new technologies, media consumers are finding innovative ways of replacing traditional methods for getting their news and entertainment. In many instances, they belong to digital communities that take on the same kind of filtering role that newspapers, TV stations, movie theaters, record producers, and bookstores have played in the past. In writing I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted, Nick Bilton is trying to convince his audience for this book, the “CEO, publisher, producer, editor, author, journalist, advertising director, filmmaker” that “traditional consumers aren’t coming back” (p. 263). He believes they urgently need to revamp entire industries to advance with consumers. Bilton has written the book to offer a “new framework for looking at these difficult issues and making sense of the radical trends” (p. 15).
The author likes to tell stories and he’s good at it. He is a journalist and technology innovator himself who writes the “Bits Blog” for The New York Times. To get his point across, Bilton tells lots of stories: about the poor reception of new technology in the past and how smart people said it wouldn’t last; about the decline in the public’s trust of news media; and about the success of the porn industry in adapting technology for its entertainment business model. He believes in storytelling and that, no matter what the new format is, “good content will rise to the top” (p. 131). As a writer, I have to agree with Bilton, but, ironically, I found myself impatient with his style of storytelling, wanting to know where all his words were taking me and often skipping over them to find the point of the narrative.
Within Bilton’s stories, however, you will find interesting science related to brain studies on multitasking as well as a compelling analysis of the influence of online communities on community members, and descriptions of cyborgs who already live among us. The author produces evidence to support the “creative disruption” in the book’s title. For example, he quotes study results that show the added mental stimulation involved in web searching. Bilton also emphasizes the need to creatively fashion layers of interactive media for the new era of storytelling.
Even readers who are not CEOs of newspapers come into contact with many of the issues in I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works on a daily basis and will be interested in the information Bilton has to offer. The author has provided QR Codes for each chapter for additional material on each topic.
Linda M. Davis is an independent communications practitioner in the Los Angeles area. She holds an MS in Communication Management and has specialized in strategic communication planning, publication management, writing, and editing for more than 20 years. Linda is active in the STC Los Angeles chapter.
Jonathan Rasmusson. 2011. Raleigh, NC: The Pragmatic Bookshelf. [ISBN 978-1-934356-58-6. 264 pages, including index. US$34.95(softcover).]
The Agile Samurai: How Agile Masters Deliver Great Software is an excellent book about agile software development that is filled with valuable knowledge. Anyone new to agile or who wants to improve their practice of agile, will learn much from this book. Rasmusson has many years of real-world agile experience, which he reflects in his book.
Rasmusson starts The Agile Samurai by introducing agile in a nutshell and then the characteristics of a typical agile team. He describes concepts of agile project inception, agile project planning, and agile project execution. Rasmusson provides the necessary insight under the agile inception topic that depicts how to see the big picture and make it real. With the agile planning process, he provides in-depth knowledge about gathering user stories and estimating those as point-based systems, a fine art of guessing.
The pictures, graphs, and illustrations presented in this book make the agile concepts very clear and unambiguous. Later Rasmusson provides immense details about creating agile software based on strong practices such as unit testing, refactoring, test-driven development, and continuous integration.
Each chapter ends with a dialog between Master Sensei and an aspiring warrior. This is amusing because it brings topical highlights, and clearly defines each chapter’s essence that a reader should grasp.
Rasmusson didn’t cover other project management topics such as procurement, vendor, risk, cost, and schedule, and does not describe project monitoring, control, and closure. These missing topics do not detract from the book’s concept since Rasmusson’s audience is agile software developers and he tells how agile masters deliver great software. The Agile Samurai is exactly the book you and your agile team need to understand to deliver great software using agile methods.
This book is relevant to the technical communicators, especially to advanced IT technical communicators involved in adapting the agile manifesto and agile principles in their agile software development practices. Technical communicators will benefit by understanding the new agile way of delivering great software, since agile practices are generating more interest and also gaining popularity as one of the best methodologies in IT industry. The Agile Samurai helps technical communicators communicate more effectively with agile project managers, scrum masters, product owners, and the agile team members themselves.
I strongly recommend The Agile Samurai to all development teams practicing agile methods. I used this book to prepare for my Project Management Institute Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI ACP) certification examination. I won’t hesitate to proudly say that the book covers many important agile concepts and is an excellent reference book for all those taking the PMI ACP certification. It helped me to understand and obtain clarification on agile concepts mainly in areas of actual software development using agile methods.
Vivek Vaishampayan is an experienced project manager with more than 20 years in the information technology industry. He has been involved in all phases of software development life cycles in traditional waterfall, iterative unified and recently with agile methodologies along with process improvement practices.
Alan J. Porter. 2010. Fort Collins, CO: XML Press. [ISBN 978-0-9822191-2-6. 158 pages, including index. US$29.99 (softcover).]
When you think about wikis, chances are you think about Wikipedia. However, companies are learning to develop their own wikisfor managing product knowledge and better serving both their clients and the public. Alan J. Porter has written a useful, worthwhile book about developing wikis.
Porter defines a wiki as a “website that anyone can edit directly in a web browser without any special editing tools or applications” (p. 2). WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit demystifies certain myths surrounding wikis, such as the accuracy of their content. A popular misperception is that because everyone can edit the content on a wiki, inaccuracies can easily be missed and appear. However, according to Porter, wikis, because they are attended to by so many people, tend to have more accurate content because more people are involved in creating and editing that content.
Porter provides an easy, ten-point checklist of things to consider when planning a wiki. Creating a wiki is similar to creating a technical document. You must visualize who would use it, what content must be included in it, how the content must be organized, and so forth. The beauty of a wiki is not only how many people are helping to create it, but “who” is involved in creating it. Among the case studies Porter includes is a situation where a company’s clients can offer their feedback on documentation.
One intriguing case study described how Porter and his publishers at XML Press created a wiki in which Porter, his editors, and the graphic artist could all contribute and therefore strengthen the final product. As an author of a forthcoming history book, I wonder how things might have been easier had I done something similar for my book.
The one shortcoming, if you can call it that, is in the title. When I saw the words “for profit,” I was hoping that Porter would include case studies where return on investment (ROI) was actually measured and we could see in financial terms how a wiki could help build profit or at least minimize loss. Such case studies aren’t in the book, and it’s up to us, as we consider our own situations, to determine how we can measure the financial value a wiki brings.
George Slaughter is a senior technical writer with The Integrity Group and a past Houston STC chapter president.
Peter Copeland. 2012. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. [ISBN: 978-0-321-68967-2. 150 pages. US$37.33 (softcover).]
Communicating Rocks: Writing, Speaking, and Thinking about Geology is a concise handbook and style guide tailored to meet the geologist’s specialized communication needs. It should prove valuable both to students and young scientists launching their careers and to seasoned professionals who want to become even more effective by honing their written and oral presentation skills.
Peter Copeland is a fellow of the Geological Society of America (GSA), and has been a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Houston since 1990. During 2000–2004 he was editor of the GSA bulletin. Drawing on his experience working, teaching, and editing, Copeland argues that good scientific work requires not just asking questions and gathering data, but effectively communicating data and conclusions to others. Unfortunately, he says, “too many people who love rocks don’t love writing about them or never learned the best way to do so” (p. 1).
Useful both as a handbook and as a reference, Communicating Rocks lays out what one needs to know, and makes the case for why it is important. In brief, Copeland argues, “communication equals thinking” (p. 1). If poorly done, you may not only hurt your reputation for knowing what you are talking about, but may even become less able to think clearly about your subject.
Copeland opens with practical advice for handling the main types of communication geologists must master for professional success. He covers writing abstracts, research proposals, and research results reports. Under proposal writing, he discusses the major proposal types—investigation (something needs a closer look), tool and technique development and testing, and hypothesis testing. For each writing task, he discusses pitfalls to avoid and how to improve your chances of success.
As a style guide, Communicating Rocks includes a comprehensive alphabetized collection of short articles. While many of the usual English language usage issues are included, the coverage is heavily weighted toward topics and terms important to earth science writing. One finds entries explaining terms and abbreviations, clarifying confusable terms (“crevice” vs. “crevasse,” “terrane” vs. “terrain”), discussing commonly misused technical language, and explicating special interest topics such as the systems used to denote geologic time.
Copeland covers manuscript preparation issues and the etiquette of acknowledging professional affiliations and sources.
Moving beyond the “dos and don’ts” (p. 96), Copeland critiques an extensive set of examples of prose taken from the geological literature, showing how they could be improved.
Because geological communication often takes the form of oral presentations—either PowerPoint talks or poster presentations—Copeland gives practical advice on organizing talks and speaking in public. He also gives nuts-and-bolts advice on such things as handling slides, picking fonts, and deciding when to distribute handouts.
An interesting, eclectic reference section points the reader to geology papers, useful articles and books, and to a number of excellent guides to grammar, usage, and style.
Patrick Lufkin is an STC Associate Fellow with experience in computer documentation, magazine and newsletter production, and public relations. He reads widely in science, history, current affairs, and on writing and editing. He chairs the Gordon Scholarship in Technical Communication, and cochairs the Northern California technical communication competition.
Fang Chen and Kristiina Jokinen, Eds. 2010. New York, NY: Springer. [ISBN 978-0-387-73818-5. 331 pages, including index. US$109.00.]
This new collection of essays on the technology and design of voice interaction systems makes an important addition to company and individual libraries for those with significant voice interaction interests.
There are three sets of articles—on History, on Theory and Design, and on Speech Applications—with one final chapter touching on all three of these categories, which is something of an outlier.
Four history articles chart the inceptions and growth of the critical technologies: speech recognition, speech synthesis, and dialogue management. Recognition and synthesis get one article each while dialogue systems get two chapters, a clear signal of how crucial artificial intelligence has become for voice interaction. Recognition and synthesis have made their strides almost exclusively in “physical” engineering, replicating human perception and production almost exclusively through massively increasing processor speed and storage capacity. As indispensable as brute recognition is, as comforting as natural synthesis is, they remain only the input/output of speech systems. Aside from very limited applications, speech systems need to be interactive, and in speech “interactivity” means “dialogue.” In short, the future of speech systems relies on “cognitive” engineering, replicating not perception and production but thought processes and social routines.
Jokinen’s chapter may be the most interesting. It explicates the defining role that research into conversation and pragmatics has played in developing dialogue systems, and the challenges of making such research computationally tractable. Peraccini’s article rounds out the history chapters, focusing on the most recent industrial developments and the projected emergence of “third generation” systems, characterized by sophisticated “problem-solving procedures often requiring much sustained user interaction” (p. 74).
This focus on cognitive engineering continues unabated in the (unmarked) theory and design section with Moore’s chapter. Without adopting Peraccini’s third-generation terminology, Moore lays out the necessary contributions of psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and artificial intelligence for achieving the complex interaction systems Peraccini foresees. Other gems include Herschberg’s fascinating chapter on deceptive speech (and its possible automated detection) as well as André and Pelachaud’s treatment of embodied conversational agents. Embodiment and affect are dominant themes here.
The third sequence of chapters discusses specific application domains, often concentrating on particular systems within those domains: translation, automobiles, space travel, military, and assistive communication. The final paper in the book, Moller’s “Assessment and Evaluation,” is the outlier. It is historical, in its survey of evaluation strategies; theoretical and design oriented, in its modular approach to the assessment of individual components, and in its advocacy of new principles; and applied, in the range of domains and specific systems it considers.
Speech Technology is a valuable book: comprehensive enough to serve as a reference manual, fluid, and enough to serve as a high-level introduction. Chen and Jokinen’s book provides a historical framework for speech technology, plots the crucial research and design themes, especially the defining roles of cognitive engineering and knowledge representation, and illustrates the place of speech technologies in a wide spectrum of domains and specific applications.
Randy Harris is professor of Rhetoric and Communication Design at the University of Waterloo, with interests in linguistics, usability, argumentation theory, and interaction design. His publications include Voice interaction design (Morgan Kaufmann, 2005), Rhetoric and incommensurability (Parlour, 2005), and Linguistic wars (Oxford, 1993; 2e, 2012).
Dan M. Brown. 2011. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders. [ISBN 978-0-321-71246-2. 300 pages, including index. US$44.99 (softcover).]
At my job, most of my microsites and new pages are proscribed in design and layout. So when I first received Communicating Design, I did not think I would personally find it very useful.
I need not have worried. Dan Brown’s 300-page book covers territory that, it turns out, I find useful. If you design Web sites, this book will give you tremendous insights into tools and processes you can use to document your development process. If you participate on a development team, Communicating Design will give you knowledge that will make working with your designer smoother and more efficient. Says Brown in the Preface: “This book is written for people who make deliverables, use deliverables, and approve deliverables as part of the web design process” (p. vii).
Communicating Design has 12 chapters including a terrific introduction to “the whole story” of designing a Web site that explains that documents are not objectives in and of themselves, but are artifacts of the development process. Part 1 has chapters devoted to the five basic design diagrams that Web site designers use: personas, concept models, site maps, flowcharts, and wireframes. If you are a Web designer, you will likely use several of these diagrams during development. If you are a team member, these chapters are a terrific summary of why a type of diagram is used and the value it serves.
Part 2 has chapters that discuss design deliverables: design briefs, competitive reviews, usability plans, and usability reports. For each chapter, Brown offers the hallmarks of a good deliverable, an “anatomy” lesson, and some words to the wise about when and how to use each.
Brown writes with the confidence of a designer who has been down the collaborative road with many a company, acknowledging the challenges a Web site designer faces when working with others who do not work in his world fulltime. He also has a pleasant light touch to his writing, calling, for example, wireflows “the terrifyingly beautiful love-child of flowcharts and wireframes” (p. 136). The landscape layout of the book allows for examples on virtually every spread, increasing its utility. A bonus: Topical experts offer their insights throughout.
Even if you do not work on Web sites (ever), you might still find the information in Communicating Design useful. When this book arrived, I was working on a process flowchart and found Brown’s insights quite helpful in clarifying my thoughts and streamlining my chart.
Ginny Hudak-David is the senior associate director in the Office for University Relations at the University of Illinois, the largest public university in Illinois with campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield. She works on a variety of communications projects.
Matthew A. Russell. 2011. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly. [ISBN 978-1-449-38834-8. 334 pages, including index. US$39.99 (softcover).]
Writing a book review about Mining the Social Web feels ironic. The best way to give you a review is to analyze my data from the social Web to explain how this book gives you applicable tools.
Unfortunately, the book is too technical for me. I am a technical writer who likes learning new software; however, I am not a software developer. If you are familiar with Python, the code examples in this book are something you can easily apply. Russell states in the Preface that the text and examples give you “. . . a little more breadth than depth . . .” (p. xiii). While the depth might be lacking, the information is technical—and if you lack the technical skills with Python—this book is probably not for you.
Of the ten chapters in the book, three chapters relate to analyzing Twitter data (chapters 1, 4, and 5). I use Twitter more than any other type of social media, so that might explain why I found the book applicable without using any of the sample code.
The “Introduction: Hacking on Twitter Data” chapter introduces the Python development tools and then follows this with an overview of Twitter’s application programming interface (API) that you can use to analyze data. The samples tend to be generic; for example, the sample code that Russell uses to answer the question “What are people talking about right now?” (p. 9), you can find on Web sites that provide this information.
In chapter 2, Russell explains that microformats are “. . . an effective mechanism for embedding ‘smarter data’ into web pages . . .” (p. 19). The author does provide an adequate explanation and analysis of this technology followed by an example of how you can gather and use geographic data. I find the information new and interesting, yet I did try to apply the information. Instead, I considered how this information, along with the content from chapter 3 about mailboxes, might transition to the next two chapters about Twitter. I couldn’t find any reason to delay chapters 4 and 5 as I think Russell could have grouped the three chapters together.
Chapter 4 “Twitter: Friends, Followers, and Setwise Operations” explains how you can collect data about friends and followers. While a good introduction, I think Russell leaves the door open for another book with the things you could try in the Summary (p. 117).
The positives that I found that Mining the Social Web offers are Russell’s enthusiasm about the subject, the chapter summaries, and the index. I did, however, find too many negatives: I don’t write Python code. I don’t believe the sample code is useful without extrapolating the scenarios and the code to fit your own needs. I find the lack of transitions disheartening and the information outdated. I love O’Reilly books, yet it bothers me to write a negative review. I don’t recommend buying this book unless you can overcome the hurdles that slowed me down.
Angela Robertson is a technical communicator at IBM in Research Triangle Park, NC. Angela has a Master’s of Science degree in Technical Communication from North Carolina State University.
Steven Pinker. 1999, 2011. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. [ISBN 978-0-06-201190-9. 370 pages, including index. US$15.99 (softcover).]
Steven Pinker has gained considerable success explaining complex cognitive and linguistic concepts to non-academics. From The Language Instinct (1994) to How the Mind Works (1997) to Words and Rules (1999) and beyond, his books have helped people understand cognition and language.
Words and Rules re-issued in 2011 adds what Harper calls a “P.S. Insights, Interviews, and More.” The P.S. section adds who Pinker is, why he wrote the book, and provides an update from the current research. The main text, however, is as originally published in 1999.
While Pinker addresses the relationship between cognition and language in previous books, Words and Rules tackles the difficult question of why we have irregular verbs—especially why the past tense forms. English has thousands of regular verbs and a little over 160 irregular ones. We create most past tense forms by adding a suffix, usually “–ed.” But irregulars are different. You could form the past tense by substituting a vowel in the stem: get becomes got. Or, undergo a more radical change: bring becomes brought. There are even cases where the stem disappears: go becomes went. So, why do these changes happen? Do they appear in English from a memorized list of words? Or do they appear because of rules?
Pinker goes through a number of theories ranging from the late 1880s to recent times as to why irregular verbs appear. He analyzes each theory and finds all lacking. Then, he addresses the words-and-rules theories, which he also finds defective.
Pinker establishes his own version of words-and-rules theory: The brain has a list of memorized stems that are associated with other forms and rules that make association possible. He then devotes the rest of the book to “how words are used in conversation and in reading, how new words are created, how children learn their mother tongue, how language is organized in the brain, and whether languages of the world conform to a universal design” (p. 119)—any one of which could merit its own book. But, given that his audience is not academic linguists, he makes each accessible and understandable.
As for the added sections, the most interesting is the one where he updates his theory. In it, he discusses the great past-tense debate; reviews the history and speculates on the future of regular and irregular forms; presents new, physiological evidence of how the brain works with language; adds more wordplay, solecisms, and other nuggets; and closes with how irregular verbs can change your life. In the last case, citing irregular verb usage from a novel he had read led to his marrying the author.
If you have read the 1999 version of Words and Rules, the added P.S. section is nice to have, but not vital to your understanding of irregular verbs. Otherwise, this reissued edition is well worth the money. It will prove valuable, especially if you edit authors whose first language is not English and who have problems with the irregular verbs.
Tom Warren is an STC Fellow, Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence recipient, 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.
Joseph A. Dane. 2011. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. [ISBN:978-0-8122-4294-2. 244 pages, including index. US$59.95.]
Out of Sorts: On Typography and Print Culture is an example of a truly specialized book for a unique, narrow audience. A critique on the history of print and typography, and a critique of others’ theories and assertions on this subject, Out of Sorts is written for those who have advanced knowledge of and interest in this topic.
Dane makes a supposition that readers are already familiar with experts in this field as he uses their names casually and does not explain who they are or provide any background information about their theories or work. And while in most cases, foreign language passages are translated into English, times occur when they are not. This is certainly a sign of a writer addressing an audience that he knows and feels confident that they have the same knowledge base that he does. But, for someone like me, who has a working and practical knowledge of print and typography, such passages are meaningless and make the reading frustrating to comprehend because I feel left out and as if I might be missing something important that will put the whole book into perspective for me.
There are moments of clarity and hope for the novice on this subject, such as when Dane mentions the purpose of chapter 1 which is to discuss how little is really known about type and how this “ignorance challenges larger cultural narratives generated by modern studies in the History of the Book” (p. 17). However, the chapter’s promise of providing such insight is shattered within a short time as readers are inundated with details about type that would, I imagine, make sense to only those who are versed in the history of the book. A very simple example is that Dane mentions DK type throughout the first chapter, but does not define it until the second chapter. The reason this is important is that he constantly refers to this type in making his argument in chapter 1, yet without having any knowledge of this type and its history, the argument and critique are lost on me.
Out of Sorts has some interesting historical and cultural commentary, such as in the “Editorial and Typographical Diplomacy in the Piers Plowman Archive” chapter which discusses style sheets and the various types that have evolved from their first use. Unfortunately, a great deal of this knowledge is hidden in the highly academic language and underneath the thick layer of assumed knowledge. If you are looking for something practical and utilitarian on this subject of print and typography, then Out of Sorts will not meet your needs. However, if you are someone who has an in-depth knowledge of this subject, then Dane’s critiques may be worth the time it takes to read this book.
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.
Handbook of Research on Discourse Behavior and Digital Communication: Language Structures and Social Interaction
Rotimi Taiwo, Ed. 2010. Hershey, PA: IGI Global. [ISBN 978-1-61520-774-9. 1056 pages, including index. US$495.00 (ebook).]
Increasingly, language scholars from a variety of disciplines are using the Internet for data collection and the exploration of questions related to computer-mediated communication (CMC). This hefty handbook serves as a guide for academics and scholars interested in discourse behavior in digital spaces. Linguists, psychologists, sociologists, and communication scholars can all find something of interest in this handbook from the various media discussed, to the research methods used, to the theoretical approaches to analyze CMC.
The handbook is divided into two volumes, five sections, and over 56 different chapters from scholars located on five different continents including Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and the Oceanic. There are two major strengths to this text: the authors’ global perspective and the various kinds of CMC analyzed. Having a global perspective from scholars located across the world on five different continents provides an interesting take on the English language especially as English as a lingua franca. Also, not only are various theoretical perspectives and research methods used but the authors investigate a variety of CMC to include email, instant message, chat, discussion forum, blog, video conferencing, YouTube, Web-based learning, and SMS, as well as issues regarding online discourse such as flaming, scamming, trolling, cyberbullying, language mixing, repelling, and creativity.
The first section contains 14 chapters that broadly discuss the relationship between discourse behavior and social interaction. The second section, with 10 chapters, moves to a more focused discussion on formal and structural language characteristics in digital discourses. Language characterizes discussed include “predicator-argument structure of frequently used lexical verbs, prosodies and spelling forms, first person pronoun usage, orthographic forms, stylistic features and information structure” (p. xxxvii). The third section contains 12 chapters that approach the study of discourse from the perspectives of semantics and pragmatics, and addresses themes such as politeness, relevance, and inference. Section four addresses discourse behavior in virtual learning environments. The final section takes a broader approach to digital discourse and reviews earlier approaches to digital discourses and proposes newer ones “that will help in the study of relational communication in mediated contexts” (p. xlii).
Overall, this handbook achieves the goal of a reference book—to provide substantial information on a particular topic that can be read at any part of the book, not necessarily from beginning to end. Strengths include the diverse backgrounds of the scholars, the CMC researched, and the various approaches to the research. As the editor noted “the diverse, but related disciplinary perspectives presented in this book further establish how modern communication technologies are shaping discourse and social interaction all over the world” (p. xliv). While the book serves as a great handbook for academics, I would not recommend this book for the technical communication practitioner who may not be as interested in the academic approaches to digital discourse.
J.A. Dawson is a PhD candidate in Technical & Professional Discourse at East Carolina University. His research interests include professional communication and social change within a global context.
Leo Mallette and Clare Berger. 2011. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood. [ISBN 978-0-313-39408-9. 230 pages, including index. US$29.95 (softcover).]
Though the title suggests that the book is intended for faculty and graduate students alike, Writing for Conferences: A Handbook for Graduate Students and Faculty seems to be primarily aimed at new graduate students.
The book is roughly organized by the conference timeline itself, beginning with the justifications for presenting at conferences in Section I. The strongest points that Mallette and Berger make in this early section involve conference presentations as a branding strategy, a point that can be useful no matter the level (new graduate student, tenure-track faculty member, etc.). The authors also include some excellent practical advice about the hidden costs of conferencing and how to address those costs. Section II asks readers to locate conferences and calls for proposals that fit their current research, a process that may seem familiar to experienced presenters.
Many, if not most, readers will find the discussion in the later chapters to be valuable. In Section III, Mallette and Berger guide the reader through the process of writing the abstract with an excellent “thought experiment.” This activity generates the basic elements of an abstract from the reader’s current research. Section IV takes readers through perhaps the most difficult part: writing the paper itself, presenting the paper, and networking at the conference.
Despite this helpful information, Writing for Conferences has some odd details that might confuse the new presenter. The authors conflate writing conference presentations with publications. Though many conferences publish proceedings that include paper versions of the best presentations, and many other conference presentations are later turned into journal articles, it’s important to clarify that conference activities are not publications in the same way as a journal article or book chapter publication.
Other emphases detract from the practical information that is the book’s strength. The book’s sidebars include too much tangential information—on topics such as the “dreaded” conference chicken—for most readers. Mallette and Berger might also have been better off leaving out photos: the stock images included here frequently seem cheap and cheesily posed.
Despite these flaws, Writing for Conferences fills an important need: there are few book-length or even article-length discussions of the practical aspects of attending conferences. That’s surprising, given how important conferences are to many fields. That leads to one of the difficulties with the book: in an attempt to offer something for many fields, and something for both graduate students and faculty, the book loses some of its clarity and power. At the same time, its breadth of information is such that it can serve as a valuable introduction to the overall conference process. Readers looking to develop or refine a compelling presentation style would do better to look elsewhere; new graduate students and others who have not presented at conferences before will find this book extremely valuable.
Ashley Patriarca is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric and Writing at Virginia Tech. She earned her master’s degree 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.
Jan Gauguin. 2011. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BIS Publishers. [ISBN 978-90-6369-228-5. 200 pages. US$49.]
How do diagrams help make information more accessible? According to Ludwig Wittgenstein in the first page introduction of Designing Diagrams, diagrams are used to present facts clearly, visualize relations and matters that are not inherently visual, and present information without many words or figures. Jan Gaugin then shows us tools, techniques, and examples for creating diagrams effectively.
Designing Diagrams’s organization is somewhat eclectic, and useful as an inductive way to learn about diagrams. Its coffee-table design and square shape will make you refer to it often. The European focus is refreshing and forces this American to rethink standard ways of presenting diagrammatic information.
Section one, The Tools—The Techniques—The Methods, is the most intriguing. Gaugin introduces us to geometric shapes and their variations that can be used as the base for diagrams. His examples of grids, color, and projection types prepare the reader for ways to communicate business information creatively and effectively. Gauguin includes examples of how diagrams can take liberty with exact distances on maps to highlight important features.
Section two describes basic ways to present statistical information. Many examples are dramatic in 3D. I was disappointed that Gauguin didn’t explain how 3D graphs can also distort data. I found his inclusion of International System of Typographic Picture Education (ISOTYPE) and American Institute of Graphic Art (AIGA) symbol signs and matrices and their application very challenging, and will add these to my inventory of ways to communicate business information.
Section three shows examples of ways to show business operations with dramatic graphs and diagrams, many of which are 3D. This section ends with the meat of the book: how to plan and execute creating and using diagrams.
In Section four, Gaugin concentrates on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS), and PowerPoint. He clearly is intrigued by the use of GIS and GPS and how to merge map information with data to improve business processes. A brief chapter on how to make PowerPoint work for you is very general.
The Designer’s Gallery in section five includes a wealth of examples of diagram types. Gaugin shows how a college campus touch screen visitors guide was created. Wayfinding examples of London illustrate numerous types of diagrams. Corporate communication diagrams are shown, many quite dramatic, which illustrate ways to creatively show sales figures. Organization charts, interactions among departments, and two versions of a user-experience map are worth studying for application to many situations.
I expected food for thought for new ways to create diagrams: I got snacks and dessert, but not a full meal. I will keep this on my reference shelf for the different shapes that can be the basis of diagrams, the computer formats and program options. I was disappointed, however, that Gauguin includes so many graphs rather than a discussion of diagram types.
Beth Lisberg Najberg has more than 20 years’ experience as an information and instructional design consultant, documenting systems, developing custom training solutions, and creating technical presentations for large corporations and public entities. She is principal of Beginnings (www.BeginningsDesign.com), an information design consulting firm.
Kristen James. 2011. Portland, OR: Bravado Publishing. [ISBN 978-0-9846368-2-2. 144 pages, including index. US$9.99 (softcover).]
With the rise of self-publishing, people who never would have considered writing books before are now becoming authors. Publishing a book and getting it into readers’ hands are two different things, though, and many who go to the trouble of writing and publishing books never see their work find an audience. Even authors who publish through the large, traditional publishers typically find that they have to do their own promotion if they want their books to sell. Kristen James, who runs a small, independent publishing company in the Pacific Northwest, has written Book Promoting 101 to help this new generation of authors take the final step by understanding that books are products that must be marketed if they are to succeed. “As a published author,” she says, “you are an entrepreneur” (p. 24).
James covers the process from the beginning, giving some tips for promoting the book even while it’s still in the manuscript stage. She continues through the book lifecycle, promoting during its launch and afterward, through the day when the book eventually becomes part of the author’s backlist. She supplements her own advice with a few chapters reprinted from other sources and includes samples of marketing plans and materials that were used for this and other books. James concludes with an overview of the publishing industry as it works today (emphasizing print-on-demand publishing), some author success stories, and a list of resources. If Book Promoting 101 goes to a second edition, James might want to have it copyedited first. The frequent typos and mechanical errors in the text detract from her credibility and will annoy careful readers.
This edition, however, includes ideas from the free (blogging) through the cheap (Facebook ads) to the expensive (book tours), and the quixotic (winning a writing contest) to the creative (holding book signings in nontraditional venues). James includes useful tidbits such as the fact that different publications prefer to review books at different points during the book’s lifecycle. She covers what marketing materials writers should produce, how to arrange a book signing and how to behave while there, and which book promotion services to pass up. As the subtitle suggests, the information on promoting books on the Web is intended for less tech-savvy readers than the typical STC member. The tone is reassuring for Web newbies as she gives advice such as what information not to put on Facebook. The marketing advice is similarly beginner-friendly and not intended for an audience of marketing professionals.
James has written an engaging, encouraging, and easy-to-read introduction to do-it-yourself book promotion for first-time authors. Readers who study her advice, construct solid marketing plans, and follow through with the necessary effort throughout the lives of their books should find themselves rewarded with readers of their own.
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.
Doug Russell. 2011. New York, NY: AMACOM. [ISBN 978-0-8144-1615-0. 272 pages, including index. US$19.95 (softcover).]
With a focus on increasing the success rate of projects, author Doug Russell argues in this book that when it comes to priorities, a shift from process to people will help.
With nearly 30 years of project management experience, Russell explains how a system of TACTILE Management can increase the chance of project success while making the job of project management less stressful. The TACTILE approach is a people-based approach to project management with the following elements:
- Transparency is key to the project’s success. Everyone on the team should know the truth about decisions that affect them as well as the details of organizational policies and business climate.
- Accountability means that team members feel empowered and supported in their role with each member knowing the roles of other team members.
- Communication means keeping information flowing quickly and seamlessly.
- Trust refers to working toward a common goal. It also means that all team members promote the same agenda.
- Integrity is a key element involving the team relying on a consistent set of values to guide group efforts.
- Leadership is effective when motivating team members to meet technical goals and driving cultural change while promoting individual growth of team members.
- Execution results refer to blending the other characteristics to produce success.
With case studies from organizations such as Motorola, Textron, and the US Department of Defense, the book explains techniques that project managers can apply to their own projects. I found these case studies to be some of the more interesting parts of the book.
Succeeding in the Project Management Jungle addresses toxic management styles in sections that are especially noteworthy. Russell defines Country Club Management as “a lax, undisciplined project environment where project managers are not allowed to build the right culture for success” (p. 70). Take the Hill (At Any Costs) Management is one where failure occurs because the manager scrutinizes every detail of a project and treats team members as if they cannot be trusted.
While schedule, cost, and scope make up the traditional project management triple constraint triangle, Russell proposes an additional triangle of equal importance. This additional people triangle includes team members, management, and customers.
If you already are familiar with the triple constraint triangle, the book provides a good review of it and related project management basics. If you do not know the triangle and related concepts, the book provides a good introduction and food for thought.
Jeanette Evans has more than 15 years in the field. An STC Associate Fellow, she is active in the NEO STC chapter where she serves as academic relations co-chair and newsletter coeditor. She has published in Intercom and presented at various STC functions including several national conferences.
Deltina Hay. 2011. Fresno, CA: Linden Publishing Inc. [ISBN 978-1-884995-70-5. 456 pages, including index and companion CD. US$24.95 (softcover).]
Deltina Hay provides a step-by-step guide to creating and implementing a social media strategy for promoting a career or a small business. The introduction includes definitions of common social media terms, such as “RSS feeds”, while the initial chapters explain how to plan and prepare for an optimized social media presence. Subsequent chapters deal with a specific type of social media, such as RSS feeds, social bookmarking sites, and widget creators. The final chapters show how to update the tools automatically and how to measure the chosen strategy’s success. Appendices provide detailed instructions on installing WordPress and creating custom RSS feeds. The Social Media Survival Guide illustrates all its chapters with screen shots, while its companion CD includes additional resources and fillable forms.
While implementing a social media presence is helpful for freelance technical communicators, the tools Hay describes are geared more toward marketing to consumers rather than businesses. Her extensive explanation of the available Facebook features, for example, is more useful for authors selling their books than for technical writers marketing their skills in creating whitepapers. As a freelance technical translator, I market my services using some social media tools. The Social Media Survival Guide provided ideas on how I could better use these tools.
The forms on the companion CD require the full version of Adobe Acrobat (not Acrobat Reader) to complete online. Otherwise, you can print them out and complete by hand. The CD also includes lists of additional Web sites as PDFs, with clickable hyperlinks.
The Social Media Survival Guide is intended to be worked through in sequence, although Hay states in the introduction that the chapters can also stand alone. That is true to some extent, but the frequent references to prior chapters make it difficult to read only specific portions of the book. Few readers, however, are likely to implement every single tool covered here, so they may want to skip chapters not relevant to their particular strategy. Assuming a WordPress-powered Web site, in particular, seems not that helpful. Many small business owners probably already have a Web site and are picking up this book to build a more interactive Web presence.
The references to other sections in the book give it an interactive feel that makes me want to click links. Given the transitory nature of Web sites, the screens depicted in the illustrations will likely have changed long before the book is out of print. Both these facts suggest that the book might be more helpful as an interactive online tool rather than a static printed item. Yet, I like not having to sit at my computer to read a book. Maybe the answer would be an electronic book, with integrated links both to sections within the book and to the Web sites mentioned in the text.
Barbara Jungwirth, an STC Senior Member, owns reliable translations LLC (www.reliable-translations.com) where she translates technical documents from German to English and codes for an HIV Web site. She also writes a blog, On Language and Translation (http://reliable-translations.blogspot.com) and posts updates on Twitter (@reliabletran).
James W. Pennebaker. 2011. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press. [ISBN 978-1-60819-480-3. 354 pages, including index. US$28.00.]
When we think about the tools of the technical communication trade, it’s easy to focus on the technology. The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us reminds us that words are the real communication tools. Words on paper, words across a telephone line, words on a screen—each says something.
Pennebaker, a University of Texas professor of social psychology, is quick to admit that behind his interest in words is his desire to understand “the relationship between word use and people’s psychological states” (p. 9). Because of his decidedly humanistic interest, Pennebaker’s approach is not very “technical”, but he does say much about “communication”.
The author talks to the masses by analyzing with equal fascination tweets from Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton, speeches from American presidents, and lyrics from the Beatles. He talks about his research like one might converse at a dinner party with friends by offering this warning: “If you are a serious linguist, this book may disappoint or infuriate you” (p 17).
The book caused me to think about communication strategies in a new way, and made me aware of some tiny, seemingly inconsequential words that are loaded with meaning. Pennebaker focuses on stealth words, which are the smallest language tools that connect and shape our content words, but mean little on their own. His attention focuses on pronouns because his research suggests that they reveal the most about us, yet he also finds meaning in the most seemingly inconsequential words we use including articles, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs.
Pennebaker stumbled on the significance of pronouns while investigating why writing seemed to help people cope with traumatic experiences. He and his research team developed the Language Inquiry and Word Count program (LIWC, pronounced “Luke”), a computer based text analysis tool capable of sifting through thousands of writing samples in seconds, categorizing and counting various word types.
Pennebaker uses LIWC to look for and identify word use patterns in men and women, bosses and underlings, dating couples and lying witnesses. For example, he finds that women use more first-person, singular pronouns (“I”, “me”) than men, while men use more articles than women. Pennebaker explains that pronoun use reflects the writer’s focus of attention, and therefore women’s high usage of first-person pronouns, or “I”-words, indicates that they are more self-aware and self-focused than men. On the other hand, since articles are usually paired with nouns, and in particular concrete, highly specific nouns, men’s higher usage of articles points to the fact that “guys talk about objects and things more than women do” (p. 42).
Despite Pennebaker’s non-academic writing style, his extensive notes and bibliography confirm that he’s done his homework. He also provides a website, www.secretlifeofpronouns.com, where readers can engage in short online exercises and even analyze their own writing samples. The Secret Life of Pronouns is a pleasure to read and offers technical communicators and other language enthusiasts valuable insights into our communication tools.
Lynn Ponder has more than 15 years of editorial/publishing experience and is currently pursuing an MA in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. Her interests include composition, document design, and online publishing. She is a member of the Houston and TTU chapters of STC.
Angus Stevenson and Maurice Waite, Eds. 2011. 12th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [ISBN 978-0-19-960110-3. 1,728 pages. US$35.00.]
This dictionary is the centenary edition of the one that came out in 1911. While Merriam-Webster may boast a similar history, American readers ignore Oxford dictionaries only at their peril. My favorite dictionaries are Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, and my preferred versions of those are their collegiate versions.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED) bills itself as a “handy, reliable resource for home, school, or office,” according to its promotional materials. I think that is a correct assessment. Slightly smaller than the collegiate dictionaries, it is handy. And based on the powerful Oxford English Corpus, it is reliable. The Oxford English Corpus is the database that has been painstakingly developed since the 19th century and which is the source of the magisterial and multi-volumed Oxford English Dictionary, gold standard of all dictionaries.
From several months use of this dictionary, what might tempt technical communicators to add this dictionary to their shelf or computer? First off, it includes a new Usage section for many words, similar to what you find in the American Heritage Collegiate Dictionary. So that for example, if a word is used differently in standard American English and British standard English, you’ll find out how. We say “humor” and they say “humour,” but we both say “humorous.”
What I discovered most about this dictionary had to do with the differences between the online and print versions. When you buy the dictionary, you get a one-year “free” subscription to Oxford Dictionaries Pro. Here are some of the things I found:
I love hearing how things are pronounced. The word “pannier” always vexes me. The pronunciation is not given in the paper version, but I can hear it online clean as a bell. And it is more fun to hear Homer Simpson’s “d’oh” with a British accent!
The online version has words that the paper version does not, such as “optimific” and “Terpsichore,” though “terpsichorean” is found in the latter.
Though “fortnight” is primarily a British word, you will occasionally read it in literature. The paper version does not have a usage example, while the online version does: “In the last seven years at home there were regular fortnights in hospital: periodic detention, we called it.”
These things being said, the paper version does not go down and force you to reboot. The paper version does not require a re-up every year. And the paper version will undoubtedly last for years, while the online version is only as good as the operating systems with which it’s compatible.
And as paper versions go, I intend to put the Concise OED next to my Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage. You can never have enough good reference books.
Charles R. Crawley is a lead technical writer at Rockwell Collins, Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He also teaches as an adjunct at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.
David Sibbet. 2010. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-470-60178-5. 262 pages, including index. US$29.95 (softcover).]
Technical communicators who are looking for new ideas and fresh approaches to holding workplace meetings should read Sibbet’s Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity. This book’s primary goal is to share accessible, powerful tools and apply them to visual meetings. No professional facilitation experience or serious drawing ability is required. The ideas presented are “all things you can suggest, jump in, and be pretty assured of getting a much more productive result than if you didn’t work visually” (p. 50).
With 23 chapters in just over 250 pages, Visual Meetings is not a quick read. It is divided into four sections that follow a progression—imagining, engaging, thinking, and enacting—to present the core ideas and practices involved in visual meetings. This same progression also mirrors how people work in the process of moving from ideas to action.
Sibbet argues there is a “visualization revolution going on now in business” (p. xiv) that is rooted in the tools themselves—draw and paint programs, layout and presentation software—which once were only for designers, but are now available to everyone. A second reason for interest in visual meetings is “the rising need and in many cases demands for more interesting and productive meetings” (p. xv).
I found the chapters that specifically focused on meetings to be most useful. In chapter 3, pre-designed graphic templates—big worksheets on a wall—are introduced as something to create before a meeting. Then during the meeting, the common practice is to fill out the template by using sticky notes. In chapter 5, Sibbet makes the convincing case that slide presentations in meetings are often a “push” type that creates resistance; the “pull” type alternative, which creates participation and attention, are the better choice for decision making, virtual teams, project kickoffs, and many other meetings.
It is important to mention that Visual Meetings was “not” written specifically for technical communicators, so sales-related topics (chapter 6 covers using visual meetings to successfully connect with customers), case studies (chapter 1 covers how Apple used visualization in meetings in the 1980s), and digital photography tips (chapter 14) may not be relevant to your job situation. Feel free to skip sections or even entire chapters.
Visual Meetings is very ambitious in scope; it is nearly impossible to think of a topic related to visual meetings that the author has left out. This book’s bibliography even includes all the mentioned print resources and a separate annotated list of online sources. I recommend Visual Meetings to anyone that is open to reading about alternatives to traditional meetings. Another visual thinking book to consider is Back of the Napkin (Portfolio, 2008, reviewed in the November 2009 issue of Technical Communication) where Dan Roam argues for using simple visuals for problem solving and strategy.
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.
Robert A. Day and Barbara Gastel. 2011. 7th ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood. [ISBN 978-0-313-39195-8. 302 pages, including index. US$29.95 (softcover).]
Day (Scientific English) and Gastel (Health Writer’s Handbook) team up for the second time on the seventh edition of How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Keeping the eight-part structure of the previous version, the text has been updated and revised to better serve the international reader and to provide new information on electronic communication and publication. Although the book’s perennial popularity attests to its success as a tool for science writers, professional technical communicators may find the book light on detail. Nevertheless, Day and Gastel provide a clearly written and playfully humorous overview of scientific writing that is a valuable read for beginning scientists and a useful resource for technical communicators new to the field.
Day and Gastel follow their own advice for accommodating the international reader: using plain and consistent language, simplifying verb forms and sentence structure, and eliminating cultural references and idioms (for example, “a good deal easier” became “much easier”). The book only touches on more complex concepts of cross-cultural analysis (such as high/low context communication), but includes resources (www.authoraid.info) where writers can seek information on communicating science within specific cultures.
Although the book’s tongue-in-cheek humor adds to its charm, the choice not to revise earlier chapters, where the humor sometimes muddles important concepts, seems unfortunate. For example, in the “Use and Misuse of English” chapter, the authors opt for wry examples of dangling participles (“A large mass of literature has accumulated on the cell walls of staphylococci.”) rather than explaining how to identify and avoid them, which may leave international and US audiences confused.
Addressing advances in technology, the authors provide guidance on preparing and submitting papers electronically and on writing emails, Web sites, and blogs. Concepts like “chunking” for online content are introduced on a basic level (for example, there is no discussion regarding adjusting the coarseness or granularity of information chunks for specific contexts or audiences). A new appendix offering “Some Helpful Websites” contains useful resources, but could be more comprehensive than the nine sites listed.
Technical communicators may be a bit dissatisfied with the book’s lack of depth. They may also object to the limited view of scientific writing as the “the transmission of a clear signal to a recipient” (p. 4), a definition that does not reflect the rhetorical nature of scientific discourse or current theories in technical communication. Even so, the book offers an eminently readable introduction to scientific writing and publishing with some salient advice as well as references to more detailed resources.
Perhaps, the book’s greatest value comes from the authors’ words of encouragement to new scientists and science writers. Day and Gastel point out that journal editors and peer reviewers want you to succeed. Faced with the daunting task of getting published, the authors’ insights and encouragement should help beginning science writers gain enough confidence to tackle the writing task.
George Bendele is an STC member and a contract technical writer for Bolder BioPATH, Inc., which does pre-clinical pharmaceutical research. He is currently attending Texas Tech University’s online MA program in Technical Communication and Rhetoric. George is a member of the Austin, TX chapter of STC.
Wanda Warren. 2011. Houston, TX: CreateSpace [ISBN 978-1-46360-480-6. 76 pages. US$19.99 (softcover).]
Wanda Warren’s How to Write In-House Software User Manuals aims to provide a straightforward, sequential process for developing a software user manual. Despite its lack of novel ideas or approaches, this book offers entry-level business professionals an effective, though basic, cradle-to-grave overview for developing in-house software user manuals.
In addressing the fundamental aspects of software user manuals, Warren starts with the preparatory prewriting steps, wherein the reader is initially encouraged to gather information. This section is particularly valuable for entry-level professionals, as it advises scheduling a kick-off meeting, studying the software, and interviewing subject matter experts.
For the creation stage, Warren discusses the basics for developing a cover page, manual outline, headings, step-by-step instructions, and screen shots. In doing so, she provides useful tools for efficiently creating a user-friendly document, such as Microsoft Word Styles and SnagIt, premium software for capturing and formatting images.
Though Warren maximizes user convenience by providing instructions that emulate the principles outlined within, she missteps concerning one significant aspect. Namely, while published in 2011, this guide provides instructions based on Word 2003. By solely accommodating readers who may not use current software, Warren limits users familiar with the revamped versions of Word. As such, Warren’s guide not only fails to accommodate a wider audience base, but also disregards the standards of its genre.
Despite this shortcoming, Warren’s introduction to SnagIt may pacify readers disgruntled with the book’s adherence to an archaic version of Word. In addition, Warren also provides the thrifty reader with a free, though slightly tedious, alternative method for capturing screen shots using the Windows Print Screen key.
After discussing SnagIt’s utility, Warren effectively transitions from the creation to the formatting stage, broadening her scope to comprehensive formatting conventions, including instructions for formatting body text, headers, and footers as well as creating an automatic table of contents and list of tables. Though perhaps monotonous for those familiar with Word, this section offers the novice useful steps for achieving an appealing layout.
Though well conceived, Warren’s tolerably executed guide is not without notable shortcomings. Besides its dated instructions, the guide’s appendix includes grammatical rules and punctuation tips that are remedial at best and thus may offend Warren’s intended audience of educated professionals. Moreover, Warren’s book possesses a few unwarranted flaws. In addition to easily rectified grammatical errors, Warren’s inconsistent use of parts of speech violates the rules of parallelism. By contradicting the very principle she advocates, Warren hinders her credibility.
In short, the book’s cons most likely outweigh the pros for many prospective buyers. Warren’s guide may be an ideal starter book upon which a novice can build their repertoire, as it is an excellent resource on the basics of preparing, creating, and formatting a user manual. However, for the intermediate or experienced professional, I recommend Dr. David Tuffley’s recently published book, Software User Documentation: A How to Guide for Project Staff, as it provides a more sufficient overview.
Tami Ullom is a technical writer for a defense contractor in Huntsville, AL. She holds a BA in English and is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in Technical Communication at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Elias Aboujauode. 2011. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. [ISBN: 978-0-393-07064-4. 352 pages, including index. US$26.95.]
Elias Aboujauode, a psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, explores the darker regions of human nature as he discusses how virtual and actual personalities collide on Web 2.0. Working from traditional diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) related to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Aboujauode considers how using the Internet causes people to develop dangerous “e-personalities.” In the process, he sends a general warning to watch for signs of harmful online activities.
In chapters with titles such as “Narcissism,” “Ordinary Everyday Viciousness,” and “Impulsivity,” Aboujauode describes the dichotomies that may exist between our online and offline personalities. Patients who live relatively normal lives become entirely different people when they communicate on the Internet. His examples vary from work email exchanges to secret existences in virtual worlds such as Second Life, Sims, and World of Warcraft. “Delusions of Grandeur” discusses instances of patients who enhanced their intelligence, physical attractiveness, and life experiences to create perfect virtual presences. He then relates the associated tensions and heartbreaks that occurred as the patients’ electronic lives began to merge with their actual lives. His ultimate observation is that his patients’ e-personalities need psychiatric treatment while their actual personalities are relatively normal. A man has a terrible online-gambling addiction, yet he passes real casinos on the way to work and has no compulsion to stop and gamble. A quiet, intelligent woman uses an online site to look for a relationship, lies about several important aspects of her actual life, and cannot meet possible life mates because of her online mistakes.
Aboujauode cites several studies that argue that the Internet has introduced physiological changes in humans. Various scans show that the same parts of the brain that are affected by drug and gambling addictions are also affected by Internet usage. He also discusses possible long-term changes on memory, the breakdown of language caused by the overuse of emoticons and texting, and the shallowness of knowledge that Web surfing has created. The chapter on privacy touches on the current fears that social networking Web sites are effectively redefining the meaning of human existence in the Internet age.
The underlying argument throughout Virtually You is that Aboujauode believes Internet addiction should be added to a future DSM edition. While the book does well at introducing this subject to the general reader, its aim is not to build a complete argument for the APA board members. Several times Aboujauode calls for more academic studies before such a change can occur. His anecdotal evidence and primary research, though, should serve to increase attention to this important aspect of human existence.
While the information in Virtually You may not be new to technical communicators, Aboujauode does an admirable job in gathering the salient themes that are now influencing American society. His clear, accessible prose and contemporary examples make the case that persons who spend much time on the Internet should contemplate its effects on their actual and virtual lives.
Russell Kirkscey is a doctoral student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. His research interests include health and medical rhetoric, traditionally marginalized persons, narrative theory, and power issues.
Phillip A. Laplante. 2012. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. [ISBN: 978-1-4398-2085-8. 229 pages, including index. US$39.95 (soft cover)]
It is often difficult to find a textbook that has a chapter on every topic you want to cover in a particular class. However, Laplante’s text comes very close to what would be covered in a typical introduction to technical communication course geared specifically for engineers and scientists. Concisely written, fast-paced, comprehensive, and written with workplace expectations in mind, Laplante hits the mark when he says his book is intended to complement reference books or other technical communication books. It could also be used as a primary text if instructors are knowledgeable about working in an engineering environment and able to supplement with their own material.
Laplante briefly covers many of the usual topics associated with teaching technical communication, such as defining technical writing and distinguishing it from business communication, defining and describing various types of technical reports and scientific writing, using graphics, writing for electronic environments, and discussing the writing process. Yet, one of the unique aspects of Technical Writing: A Practical Guide for Engineers and Scientists, and probably one of the most enjoyable, is the abundant use of examples that engineering and science students can identify with. The examples are important for this text and the intended audience because engineering and science students many times do not foresee technical writing fitting into their job descriptions in their future.
While publication is desirable in any professional field and should be encouraged, the emphasis on writing for publication in Laplante’s book can be a bit overbearing for students who are being introduced to technical communication for the first time. Most recent graduates will likely write reports and other workplace correspondence in teams before they write for publication, so it might be more helpful if Laplante focused more on collaborative writing in the earlier chapters and ended with encouragement and discussion about the benefits and process of publication.
Technical Writing is definitely worth reviewing if you teach technical communication for engineers and scientists. The language is easy for students to understand; the design, graphics, and examples keep readers engaged; and it can be a great supplement or primary text depending on how much original material of your own you would like to provide to your students.
John M. Ackerman and D.J. Coogan, Eds. 2010. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. [ISBN 978-1-57003-931-7. 308 pages, including index. US$49.95.]
In this essay collection, John Ackerman and David Coogan catapult the tenets of New Rhetoric into the 21st century, along with 12 other citizen-scholars, by suggesting we look at scenes in our community where change is happening and engage in that change. These essays address both theory and practice, frequently building on case studies of engagement in public life, addressing real-life ideas and issues as opposed to mere service work or service courses as learning opportunities. The citizen-scholar authors are “community teachers, ethnographers, Web designers, mediators, consultants, writers, and organizers” (p. 11). These citizen-scholars are writing on topics such as democracy, disability studies, race, and conflict resolution, yet the controversial topics are identified in the themes of scene, the construction of power, and the role of education.
The scenes discussed in this volume break new ground in terms of how and where people might engage in public life. Thomas Benson, in the series editor’s preface, says some scenes include the street, technical and professional world, and the Internet. Other scenes authors observe include the city; the university; specific classrooms; parks and teen centers; video conference, e-mail, and Web sites; and many others. Juergensmeyer and Miller describe these as places where, “Within their communities, individuals can collaborate in spaces where they can mutually discuss issues and create change” (p. 238). The citizen-scholars name these scenes “third space” (p. 9), the “middle space” (p. 159), and “free spaces” (p. 82) based on the purpose of relational and community transformation as opposed to mere agreement in public work.
The scenes that frame case studies and theories give rise to the question of power in civic engagement, because it is in these political spheres where power is transformed, according to Ackerman. Specifically, the citizen-scholars seek to address the issues of how and by whom power is held. In some situations, individuals and groups can empower themselves; whereas in other situations, it takes another individual as a mediator or authority to give others power; and in others, there is a combination of both.
This balance of power as social action is often stimulated by education in the theories and case studies with such topics as the Cherokee Nation, conflict resolution skills, cultural economies in universities, and the legitimate use of public texts and engagement in the classroom.
ThePublic Work of Rhetoric: Citizen-Scholars and Civic Engagement volume is useful for citizen-scholars or citizen-scholar-educators who are looking for ways to engage themselves or students in the public work of rhetoric. Several of the essays on education include specific readings and assignments the authors have used with students, which could be helpful for other educators. In addition, citizen-scholars will find the balance of rhetorical and social theory and case studies to be enlightening for thinking through not only what constitutes public work, but why we should engage in it and how we can create change by empowering ourselves and others.
Sarah K. Smith is a PhD student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University, a lecturer of English at Chapman University, and a teacher of online English and communications courses through California Baptist University. Her areas of research include online pedagogy, rhetorical theory, and power and discourse.
Tony Beshara. 2011. New York, NY: American Management Association. [ISBN 978-0-8144-1762-1. 324 pages, including index. US$16.95 (softcover).]
Everyone wants the perfect résumé, but even technical communicators need help producing one. I’ve reviewed hundreds of résumés and seen many mistakes that Tony Beshara discusses, like typos or irrelevant and personal information. Unbeatable Résumés reviews what should and should not appear on your résumé, and contains hundreds of examples for fields like sales and marketing, banking, administration, and engineering.
While this book is general in scope and doesn’t cover specific examples for technical communicators, you can adapt the recommendations. Some key features to include on your résumé include company names, job titles, employment dates, and accomplishments. Omit things such as your photo, images, or marital status. Use a reverse-chronological structure rather than a functional résumé.
Unbeatable Résumés starts with a top-ten list of mistakes, but then it digresses into reasons why you need this book and need to trust the author’s expertise. (Beshara isn’t shy about telling you how successful he is at recruiting, and sometimes that boasting is a distraction.) Skip the first chapter; skim the second one that says most résumés are “read in ten seconds” (p. 9). Start with chapters three and four, which contain the bulk of advice, like résumé length. If you can’t write concisely in your résumé, you probably won’t do it on the job. Beshara says 95% of hiring managers want a one- or two-page résumé. Later he covers nontraditional résumés such as the comprehensive curriculum vitae required in education and some scientific fields.
As a former manager, I disagree with some of Beshara’s advice. First, he says always include the year of your degree, but this can give an employer an idea of your age, which you may not want to do. Of course, this information might be relevant in jobs that require up-to-date research or scholarship, yet once you have industry experience, the years of education matter less.
Beshara suggests some creative ways to get your résumé to the hiring manager, yet I would be uncomfortable if job seekers waited at my office just to hand-deliver their résumé. The same is true if they sent it with a bottle of my favorite wine. Beshara does caution readers about going “a little over the top,” such as having a résumé delivered with a singing telegram.
After a hundred sample pages, two useful chapters suggest how to distribute your résumé and how to job hunt. Some advice is amusing: for the subject line in your email use “200% performer” or “a Latin phrase . . . such as ‘non illegitimus carborundrum’” (p. 252). Know your audience and what gets their attention. Most technical managers expect delivery through e-mail, Web form, recruiters, and colleagues. They also want clarity and concision, not long e-mails that restate the information in your attached résumé. Obviously, in the job-hunting process use your own best judgment.
Kelly A. Harrison, MFA, works as a consultant, speaker, and writing instructor in San José, CA. For over 20 years, she has written technical materials and online content for various software companies. Currently, she teaches writing at San José State University and prefers short-term and part-time contracts.
Robin Williams. 2012. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press. [ISBN 978-0-321-77284-8. 230 pages, including index. US$34.99 (softcover).]
It’s always a treat to open a book written by design guru Robin Williams. The Non-Designer’s InDesign Book, as expected, is an attractively designed book that’s easy to learn from.
You should realize, however, that this book is unlike the author’s books on design that you might have read in earlier years. The subtitle’s mention of “design techniques” does “not” mean lots of detail about design principles, as we’ve found in other Williams books. Rather, you’re looking at Adobe InDesign techniques to apply when you design print projects.
Williams restricts her coverage to the InDesign techniques that she feels new InDesign professionals must know—the ones she uses constantly. Thus, the flow of her main chapters is not surprising: the InDesign interface, text formatting, spacing, tabs and indents, tables, style sheets, graphics, and color.
Come to this book prepared to work. Chapters give you tasks both short and long. Besides 118 (that’s no misprint) numbered tasks, there are other tasks, and most chapters end with a “Try This!” section that invites you to create a project using information used in the chapter. The “Try This” chapter graphically suggests tasks of intermediate complexity that you can do using what you’ve learned. Williams repeatedly encourages you to alter her examples so that you can see changes in your output.
You get many examples, close-ups of interface elements, and callouts. A designer’s insight shines in boxed notes: “The point [of kerning ] is not to tighten all the spacing—the point is to make it visually consistent so there appears to be the same amount of space between all the letters” (p. 44).
Williams’s easy style and humor is comforting, as when she notes that one trick “has saved my boompah a number of times, including this very chapter file” (p. 217). In case you’re nervous about sending your work to a commercial printer, her tone works as she explains exactly what the printer needs to see in your file, even if—horror of InDesign horrors—the file is corrupt.
My cavils are few. I wish the book at least mentioned scripting on the “Things yet to know!” page (p. 219), if only to point out how it improves workflow. Also, the book at times seems over-designed where font choices make it difficult to read the figure callouts and index subtopics.
Williams mentions excellent resources, especially some Peachpit books. But I’d definitely add the detailed video courses available from Lynda.com, which as of early January 2012 offers 53 complete courses on InDesign and dozens of other courses on design.
The prolific author brings the same can-do spirit to two other recent books also written for Peachpit Press: The Non-Designer’s Illustrator Book: Essential Vector Techniques for Design (2012) and The Non-Designer’s Photoshop Book: Essential Imaging Techniques for Design (2012). Thoroughly work through all three books, and you’ll master the fundamentals of Adobe’s big three design programs required of today’s designers.
Avon J. Murphy is a technical editor in western Washington. A retired college professor and government writer, he is an STC Fellow, a contractor, and principal in Murphy Editing and Writing Services, specializing in computer and Web technologies. Avon served as Book Review Editor for Technical Communication for 17 years.
Richard Johnson-Sheehan. 2010. Boston, MA: Longman. [ISBN-13: 978-0-205-73941-7. 544 pages, including index. US$75.33 (softcover).]
I have used Richard Johnson-Sheehan’s Technical Communication Today in several technical writing service courses, so I was excited to see how his new, shorter textbook, Technical Communication Strategies for Today, would compare. I was pleased to find that this book is just as well done as the original text.
Despite its brevity, Technical Communication Strategies for Today shares some of Technical Communication Today’s strongest characteristics. Like its predecessor, this book emphasizes audience awareness and adaptation over formula-driven communication, and the early chapters are particularly strong in this regard. Johnson-Sheehan has set up this book similar to the earlier editions of Technical Communication Today. The first section of the textbook introduces students to technical communication as a practice and as a profession, including becoming reader-focused and ethical in their communication. I particularly appreciate how much space the textbook devotes to collaborative writing in chapter 3, as it provides students with the knowledge to work through many of the pitfalls that come with collaboration.
The second section covers graphics, Web sites, and presentations. The biggest updates from the third edition of Technical Communication Today are in chapter 9, which focuses on Web sites and Web 2.0 (though similar updates will appear in the fourth edition of Technical Communication Today). Johnson-Sheehan has expanded the discussion of social networking and Web 2.0, giving the topics chapter-title billing alongside more traditional Web sites. Instructors will appreciate that this section is quite up-to-date, with discussions of how to use social networking to create professional and organizational communication. That being said, it’s difficult to provide up-to-date information about topics that can change as dramatically as these, so this section of the text is at its best when it focuses on the theories and best practices behind communicating with technology.
The third and final section covers several important genres: letters, memos, and emails; technical descriptions; and documentation (including instructions). While it would be nice to see a broader range of genres represented, doing so would detract from the process and audience emphasis that is the textbook’s strength.
At 544 pages and a list price of $75, Technical Communication Strategies for Today is nearly 200 pages shorter and $30 less than the original Technical Communication Today. The differences in size and price, coupled with the updated content, make Technical Communication Strategies for Today an excellent textbook for service courses, in particular, as well as introductory courses for technical communication majors.
Anneloes van Gaalen. 2010. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BIS Publishers. [ISBN 978-90-6369-216-2. 153 pages, including index. US $18.00.]
Almost every design book, or even a book on professional writing, attempts to lay down rules or guidelines that codify what you need to know to be a good designer or writer. That’s why this little book is so much fun: It tries to define those rules for typography, and then proceeds to break them.
The Dutch publisher BIS gives us 51 typographic rules, which are beautifully and often humorously illustrated, and are either backed up or disputed by quotes from well-known designers, typographers, and others.
Let’s look at a few of the rules that are pertinent to technical communicators. One that jumped out at me—because I hear it so often—is “Make it pretty”(pp. 110–111). I take this as an insult that minimizes my skills, but it does acknowledge the truth that if it doesn’t look good, it probably isn’t.
Another rule is “God is in the details” (p. 117). The backup quote I appreciate here is “Don’t let the computer make the decisions for you!” This is supported by another good quote: “My main concern about bad typography is being over-reliant on the computer to solve typological problems” (p. 16). Let me paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant here: Have the courage to override the default.
Another rule ambiguously stated: “Stick with (sans) serif” (p. 35). One of the biggest and most basic decisions we have is whether to use serif or sans serif. The book stays, “To serif or not, that is the question. In general, serifs work well in long texts, while sans serif fonts best serve headings and captions” (p. 35). This is good advice, but there are many good sans serif typefaces used as text typefaces today, and their ubiquity on the Internet is increasing their popularity rapidly. But heed the warning of humorist Stephen Colbert: “Hey Helvetica—you look disgusting. Have some dignity and put on some serifs” (p. 35).
This book will be useful to technical communicators who have to make typographical decisions in their daily work. It would probably also be helpful to teachers of writing who must teach design. Some of it may be aimed toward designers and typographers, and so not be as useful. But for those interested in type, it is a fun book.
A History of Design from the Victorian Era to the Present: A Survey of the Modern Style in Architecture, Interior Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, and Photography
Ann Ferebee with Jeff Byles. 2011. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. [ISBN 978-0-393-73272-6. 208 pages, including index. US$50.00 (softcover).]
Originally published in 1970, this second edition (released in July 2011) covers changes in design over the last 40 years. It also looks at design globally, which opens the door to considerations of how design in Europe and the US differs from that developing in the East and Middle East. Beginning with Victorian England and working through to the 21st century, this survey examines design in everything from architecture to the iPhone. Several hundred illustrations, most of which are in color, document the trends Ferebee covers, and she considers both design styles (Art Nouveau and post modernism, for example) as well as major figures.
This book’s value lies in its effort to match design milestones in interior design, photography, architecture, and consumer products with changes in cultural, social, technological, and aesthetic currents. One of the most interesting themes in Ferebee’s work is how technological innovations in materials and processes found their way into everything from photography to bridge building.
This isn’t a book most instructors would ask students to buy in a document design course because Ferebee doesn’t devote much space to topics about changes in the design of typography. However, graphic design instructors might find its international examples a useful addition. Many instructors and readers whose training in design is limited to one of the areas that Ferebee covers would find her broad overviews of design in many fields of use. In particular, the illustrations, which cover such a range of design examples in one place, are helpful.
Billie Wahlstrom, PhD, is vice provost of Distributed Education and Instructional Technology at the University of Minnesota. She is an author, won a teaching award from the state of Michigan, and is a former coeditor of the Technical Communication Quarterly. Billie is an Associate of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press and on the Executive Board of the American Distance Education Commission (ADEC).
Luke Wroblewski. 2011. New York, NY: A Book Apart. [ISBN 978-1-937557-02-7. 123 pages. US$23.00 (softcover).]
Since Tim Berners-Lee created the first Web client (World Wide Web), the Internet has played host to designers and developers following the traditional pattern of producing Web sites. The Web tides are changing though with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and mobile Internet availability. This is why Web workers today must alter old habits or face being left behind.
Luke Wroblewski’s Mobile First aims to gently, but quickly, transition Web workers into new mindsets for future Web building pursuits. He has spent the past five years focusing his design and communication talents toward tackling the “mobile web experience” (p. 3) with unassuming grace and thoroughly researched support data.
Mobile First’s audience includes anyone who must consider delivering mobile Web content. Wroblewski writes in easily digestible content chunks that help readers move swiftly through the book. The book is organized into two parts: Part 1 explains the reasons why designing mobile first matters; Part 2 discusses how to organize content, develop usable interactions, craft inputs, and rethink effective layouts for mobile experiences.
Each chapter features images of mobile device screen captures, gesture charts, and graphs required for knowing the visual nature. Wroblewski provides readers with a brief overview of the topics covered in each chapter. This small gesture makes navigating his book incredibly easy.
The chapters explaining why designing mobile first matters offer detailed data about mobile growth, the mobile constraints, and the many capabilities of current devices. The first three chapters in this book help readers understand the significance of the mobile Web experience. Because the mobile Web experience is so different from its desktop predecessor, Wroblewski patiently, but systematically, explains how organization must be altered to align with mobile user needs.
Wroblewski’s final chapters detail the important aspects of the mobile Web experience. The chapter covering user actions in mobile is particularly relevant, as he explains the importance of touch gestures, enlarged touch targets, and natural user interfaces (NUIs). Wroblewski devotes an entire chapter to mobile HTML inputs, which he describes as being fundamental to content contribution via mobile.
Finally, Wroblewski completes his discussion by looking closely at mobile layout. Establishing that in mobile “the only thing you can count on is change” (p. 109), he teaches readers about mobile layout best practices, such as responsive and fluid designs, and the concept of reduction. Wroblewski uses screen captures to drive home his points, thus helping the readers to visualize what good mobile layouts can look like.
Overall, Mobile First provides readers with swiftly obtained, relevant, and usable knowledge. Anyone interested in delivering content for the mobile Web experience will benefit from this book. Wroblewski’s writing style, which he has expertly crafted to feel like a comfortable, intimate, and brief explanation from a friend, makes this an intriguing, delightful book to read.
Greg Gamel, an STC student member, is a user interface designer, focusing on no-fuss design, typography, and strong grids. He is currently pursuing an MA in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University, as well as co-founding a startup aiming to deliver responsive, art-directed stories on the Web.