Contemplating the Future of the Written Word

Last week I wrote a post entitled, “An End to the Written Word” that generated more e-mail than most of my posts have in the past. The e-mail content covered a broad range of thoughts and emotions about the written word. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that anything we have used so successfully for so long will eventually go away, but that’s how technology works. A technology is kept only as long as it’s useful. However, I need to provide some more input on my thoughts about the written word based on some of the e-mails I received.

Let me put one thought to rest immediately—I’m not just talking about paper print. Yes, everyone has been predicting the end of writing on paper for many years now and if anything, some businesses actually use more paper than before the computer revolution. However, paper will eventually go away in its entirety. There are a number of indicators of its demise in my own life and I’ll share them with you.

 

  • Manuscripts: At one time I sent my manuscripts to the publisher in printed form. I boxed up my books and sent them for editing in double spaced form. The manuscript would come back with editors marks in place at some point, I’d make any required changes and send it back (the postage really got out of hand at times). In fact, paper would pass back and forth several times before a printed book came out. The process was incredibly slow. Today I’m using electronic media for all my book needs and my printer is collecting dust.
  • Royalty Statements: All of my royalty statements used to come in paper form. Some of them still do, but many of them come electronically now. I eventually look for the huge folders used to store my tax information to become quite svelte indeed.
  • Contracts: A lot of my contracts are now issued in electronic format. I use an electronic signature to sign them. Not only is this approach faster, but I don’t have to provide storage for bulky contracts any longer—the contract goes right into the same folder as all of the other electronic files for my book.
  • Book Purchases: Most of my books are now sold as e-books, not as printed books. It will eventually become uncommon for me to sell a printed book. In fact, I have to wonder how long I’ll continue to obtain printed author copies.
  • Banking: More and more of my banking is done electronically. Even when I do send a check to someone, they often don’t send it back to the bank. The transaction is performed electronically.


I’m sure you can come up with examples from your own life, but the fact is that printed matter is going to go away. However, that’s not what I’m talking about. Eventually, writing itself will become something that professionals use to express abstract ideas that can’t be presented in some other way. People will commonly not use any form of writing because there will be other ways to convey thoughts and ideas to other people. In fact, those other ways already exist. I don’t look for writing to go away in my lifetime, or even in the lifetime of my grandnephew or grandniece, but I do look for it to go away.

Many of the uses that writing once fulfilled are being filled by other technologies. For example, it’s quite possible that contracts in the future will be written using a video record, not writing. A mortgage might show an actual recording of the property in question and include pictures of the participants in the deal. An iris scan of the parties will encrypt the video so it can be played, but not changed. Of course, this technology is quite futuristic indeed, but the concept isn’t all that hard to grasp.

Books and other forms of general communication are already starting to become more visual and less written—it isn’t much of a leap to think other communication will follow. Sites such as YouTube have become popular because it’s easier to show a video of an event than to write about the event in words. In addition, the recording is actually easier for other people to understand. Sites such as Facebook also rely heavily on graphics, not on the written word. The point is that anything that is concrete and easily conveyed using a combination of audio and graphics is already being presented in precisely that form, without written words.

I’ll be discussing this topic more as time goes on, but for now, this gives you an idea of some of the questions I’ve received. This whole idea of writing going away has taken some people by surprise (and others simply expect it to happen). What are your ideas about writing? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Too Much Detail

A trend has started in publishing of all sorts and it affects technical writing most of all. A friend of mine recently wrote a piece entitled, “A Multimedia Avalanche.” The post spoke to me on many different levels. As an author, it spoke to me of the need to keep my pieces short and to the point. No one wants to read every detail about every event that has ever happened—it simply isn’t possible to absorb more than the “Reader’s Digest” version of many of the events that take place in our lives. It makes me think of the supposed Sergeant Friday (Dragnet) quote, “Just the facts, ma’am.” The problem with using a medium such as the Internet is that people tend to think in terms of unlimited space, rather than limited reader attention. As an author, it’s important to write concisely, yet clearly.

As a reader, it spoke to my desire to throttle some authors to within an inch of their lives. After wasting my time, they never do seem to get to the point. An editor of mine is famous for pointing to the need to state the purpose of an article within the first paragraph and then to keep the article focused on that purpose. It’s good writing practice to write the beginning and ending of the article first, and then write the material needed to fill in the details. It’s a simple trick to keep the article short and focused.

As a citizen, the article spoke to the need to keep the media in check. No, the government shouldn’t perform this task; the reader should. When the media hypes a story all out of proportion, it brings out the mob mentality of some people. Suddenly, the government finds itself swamped with calls for needless changes for a non-event that was sensationalized by someone who wasn’t thinking. These sorts of issues tend to waste considerable funds that could be better used for other purposes (such as saving the taxpayer from an increase in taxes).

Information overload, wasted money, wasted time, and other such problems will only increase as citizen journalists and others with way too much time on their hands contribute toward an increasing array of articles that bury the reader in detail. To quote my friend’s article, “just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.” It’s good advice.

What is your take on too much detail, especially as it relates to technical writing? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Source Code Support

Sometimes I need to make really tough decisions.  It isn’t a matter of wanting to make the decision—the need to make the decision is thrust upon me. The topic of this post is source code support in the form of reader uploads. The topic of just how far I need to support book source code has come up before in conversations with readers. For example, in the Source Code Download Issues post, I discuss problems that readers have had in obtaining source code for my books in the past. The issue addressed in this post is files that are removed from archive (.ZIP) files by applications such as firewalls. In some rare cases, files are missing from the download and the reader looks to me to solve the problem. A few readers have gone so far as to say that I really need to provide CDs with the source code on them and mail those disks out free of charge as part of supporting the book. Unfortunately, supporting the books in this way is well beyond my ability. I could easily go bankrupt providing this level of support.

Up until now, I’ve been willing to send source code to a reader who needs it using e-mail unless the book is on my unsupported list. This past month has been especially hectic with reader requests for source code uploads (well over a hundred of them). In some cases, the books in question are ten or more years old, which means I must look the book up in my archives and determine whether the source code is even available. Once I make that determination, I copy the source from the archive and send it to the reader in one or more e-mails. Some of the source code files are 20 MB or so in size and many reader e-mail accounts won’t accept a file that size, so I have to break the file down into pieces and send multiple e-mails to the reader—a time-consuming and error prone task. This past week I went through several problematic uploads and finally gave up trying to support the reader in a number of cases. Nothing I would do would allow the reader to receive the file using e-mail.

I’ve thought about making the source available on my Web site, but that approach hasn’t worked well in the past because readers will often complain they can’t find the source or that the source on the Web site is corrupted (or any number of other issues). Of course, there are also costs associated with online storage for source code for 89 books. After a lot of thought, I have decided that trying to support a book’s source code in this manner won’t work either.

With this in mind, I’ve decided that you’ll need to rely on the publisher’s site for downloading any source code associated with a book, unless the publisher provides a CD for the book. If there is a source code CD, then you need to follow the procedure described in my Obtaining Replacements for Broken Media post to obtain a new CD. I didn’t come to this decision easily because I prefer to provide the fullest possible level of support for my books whenever possible. The issue is the time required to provide the support. On some days it has gotten to the point where a good part of my day is spent looking for resources that readers need and not getting much else accomplished.

When a publisher decides that it’s no longer feasible to provide download support for a book, the source code for that book will become unavailable. In fact, I’ll likely add the book to my unsupported list. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I had to make it because the e-mail support has gotten to the point of affecting the support I can provide to readers for other needs. Please let me know about any concerns you have about this new policy at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. If someone has a really good solution for this problem—one in which I can provide long term source code support without incurring huge monetary or time issues, I’ll provide an updated post. Thank you for your continued support of my books.

 

Obtaining Replacements for Broken Media

A number of my books, including C++ All-In-One Desk Reference For Dummies and Java eLearning Kit for Dummies, come with some sort of media. As hard as the publishers try, it isn’t always possible to ensure that you receive this media in pristine condition. If you’re buying the book at a bookstore, make sure you check the media before you check out and get another copy of the book if you find that it’s broken (make sure the bookstore staff know that the media is broken so they can return the book for another copy).

With the demise of the larger bookstores, most of my readers are buying their books online today, which means you can’t look at the media when you’re browsing the shelves. If you buy from Amazon, make sure you return the book and get a new copy and let them know that the reason for the return is the broken media. Amazon will send you a new copy and they’ll return the copy with the broken media to the publisher.

Unfortunately, the book vendor may not always be very helpful or you might get the book as a gift and not be able to easily return it. In these situations, contact the publisher for a replacement. For example, if you have one of my Dummies books that includes media, you can contact the publisher, Wiley, at http://dummies.custhelp.com/app/ask/ for a replacement.

You know that I make it a top priority to help my readers with book-related whenever I can. In fact, the major purpose of the Technical category of this blog is to provide you with better service. This is unfortunately, one of the few situations where I can’t provide you with assistance, no matter how much I’d like to do so. I don’t have the resources required to create copies of the media for you and send it your way. If you do encounter problems reaching the publisher, please let me know and I’ll be more than happy to try to help you. As always, contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com with any thoughts or concerns.