Techniques for Choosing a Technical Book

I often get e-mails from potential readers asking whether a book I’ve written is the right choice for them. I try my best to ask about their needs and provide an unbiased answer. It’s in my best interest to provide the best answer I can, rather than make a quick sale and have to deal with a discontented reader later. However, in all honesty, it’s hard for me to be completely unbiased because I know my books better than any other book out there. I’ve spent many hours carefully crafting my books and know them quite well. Even when I read a work written by someone else, which I do regularly, I’m less familiar with it. Still, I do try my best to provide a good answer.

Getting a potential reader to make a good selection is still the best scenario in my mind. A number of readers have asked that I provide them with some specific technique for doing this, but all I can offer is a partial solution. The technical content of a book is only part of the solution for any reader. A reader must also consider the author’s method of presenting material and writing style. The use of teaching aids is also important. You must ask whether you want a book that contains questions or activities at the end of each chaptermany readers learn more by doing, than by reading. Communication, even in books, is a two-way process. The author often communicates ideas in subtle ways that help some readers and offend others. When a reader writes to an author, the author picks up subtle hints on how to improve the next book. It’s an ongoing process.

Everyone begins looking for a book by viewing the cover. Something about the title tells you that this could be a helpful book. The cover design and text tell you something about the book’s content from a marketer’s perspective. If you stop here, however, be prepared for disappointment. I’ve had more than a few covers that just didn’t do justice to the content of my book and a few that ended up misleading some part of the reader population. Believe me when I say that it’s never my goal to mislead anyoneI want my readers fully informed before making the purchase and happy with the book they receive. Covers are incredibly hard to get right because there is so little space on them to convey information that’s truly useful to everyone.

When I select a book, I normally begin by reading the Introduction. This important bit of reading is only seven or eight pages long in most cases, but usually characterizes the author’s attempt to convey everything the book contains as an overview. Reading the Introduction tells you about the author’s writing style and informs you about skills required to use the book successfully. You also discover special equipment and software that you need to use the book. If you find yourself disagreeing with the Introduction, you can be certain that you won’t like the rest of the book either.

Next, I look at the Table of Contents to determine whether the topic I need is covered in sufficient detail to warrant a purchase. A book’s title and cover material is often deceiving. The Table of Contents tells me more about the book content from the author’s perspective. I go through the entire Table of Contents just to see what sorts of interesting information the author has decided to include. I may also thumb through the index to determine more about topics covered in the book. It’s important to note that the index is normally created by a professional indexer and not the author, so the index may not tell you everything you need to know, but it’s a great place to see the sorts of topics the author has chosen to discuss.

Finally, I go to the specific chapters that I feel provide the information that I want from the book. I’ll eventually read most of the book, but these chapters are my main reason for buying the book today, so that’s where I look. I probably won’t read the entire chapter in the store (or online using Amazon’s Look Inside feature), but I’ll scan it and pay attention to particulars such as the code provided in examples or figures used for explanation. I’ll read segments of the discussion to see how much information the author provides and how the information is conveyed.

I know that many people consider my approach too time consuming. It is a time consuming approach, but I find that I make fewer bad purchases using this technique. I’ve had more than a few people write to me to ask why I didn’t cover a particular topic in my book and I have to wonder why they didn’t realize that the material was missing when they made the purchase. A few readers have literally written that they ran into the store during lunchtime, looked at the cover and decided the book must include what they need, put down their hard earned money to buy the book, ran back to work, and only then bothered to look inside. If you truly are pressed for time, please do write before buying one of my books. I’ll provide you with the least biased answer I can. However, the best way to buy a book is to make your own decision using the techniques found in this post. Let me know your ideas about buying books at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Ongoing Education

I was talking to one of the local children the other day who somehow had the idea that getting out of high school or college was the end of the educational process. After all, you immediately go to a job at that point and use the knowledge you’ve gained to make a living. He seemed to think it quite funny when I corrected him by telling him that I learn something new every day. Of course, education is ongoing. Anything that isn’t growing is dead and a form of growth is the increase of both knowledge and wisdom.

Of course, I do obtain daily increases in knowledge. The art of writing technical books is embracing a strategy of learning all the time. I read voraciously, subscribe to word builders, and conduct experiments to see just how things really work (as contrasted to the theoretical discussions in the books and magazines I read). The very act of writing involves learning something new as I discover new ways to express myself in writing and convey information to readers. I’ve picked up books I wrote early in my career and am often appalled at what I considered good writing at the time, but it was good writing given my experience, even though it would be unacceptable today.

Learning is part of every activity in my life and I relish every learning event. So it was this weekend that my wife and I packed our lunch and sent to Get Ready…Get Set…Garden! We look forward to it every year. This year we took classes on hostas (for fun) and horseradish (as part of our self-sufficiency).

Before we went to class though, we just had to spend a little time looking at some of the displays. A personal favorite of mine was the gourds:

Gourds

I’ve always wanted to make some bird houses, but never quite have the time. They actually had a class on the topic this year and I was tempted to take it, but that would have meant missing out on the horseradish class, which I considered more important. Here’s Rebecca and me standing in front of one of the displays:

JohnandRebecca

Well, onto the classes. I found out that there are over 2,000 varieties of hostas, which I found amazing. They originated in Japan, Korea, and China.  It takes five years on average to grow a hosta to full size, but it can take anywhere from three years to ten years depending on the variety. I found out our place for growing them is perfect, but our watering technique probably isn’t, so we’ll spend a little more time watering them this summer. Our presenter went on to discuss techniques for dealing with slugs and quite a few other pests. Most important for me is that I saw some detailed pictures of 50 of the more popular varieties that are easy to get in this area. I’ll be digging out some of the old hostas in my garden and planting new as time allows.

The horseradish session was extremely helpful. I learned an entirely new way to grow horseradish that involves laying the plant on its side for the first six weeks, digging it up partially, removing the suckers, and then reburying it. The result is to get a far bigger root that’s a lot easier to grind into food. I can’t wait to try it out. Of course, our instructor had us sample a number of horseradish dishes while we talked. I’m not sure my breath was all that pleasant when we were finished, but I enjoyed the tasty treats immensely.

So, what are your educational experiences like? Do you grow every day? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

True Peace

Today I thought I’d share a poem I’ve written with you.

True Peace

Peace, lend a hand.
Peace isn’t the absence of war,
It isn’t the result of war.
Peace begins within,
but it ends without.

Peace, lend a hand.
You cannot win peace alone,
everyone labor and groan.
Envy, greed, and lust,
these make peace a bust.

Peace, lend a hand.
All your neighbors you must see,
as your friends with spirits free.
Your lives intertwined,
spirit, body, mind.

Peace, lend a hand.
All peace with God must begin,
a peace without is too thin.
Look above to see,
what your life could be.

Copyright John Paul Mueller, 2011

 

Handling Source Code in Books

One of the biggest conundrums for the technical writer is how to handle source code in a book. The goal is to present an easily understood example to the readerone that demonstrates a principle in a clear and concise manner. In fact, complexity is a problem with many examplesthe author tries to stuff too much information into the example and ends up obfuscating the very principles that the reader is supposed to obtain. So, very often simplicity must win the day in creating application source code for a book, despite the desire of the author to present something more real world, something with additional glitz and polish.

Because the goal of an example is to teach, very often the examples you see in a book have more comments than those that you see in real life. An example in a book must include as much information as possible if the code is going to fulfill its purpose. Of course, book comments should illustrate all the best principles of creating comments in real code. In short, if real world code looked a bit more like book code, then its possible that developers would spend far less time trying to figure code out and more time making changes.

Some readers will take the author to task because the code may not always provide the error trapping that production code provides. In fact, as with many teaching environments, the safety features in code are often removed for the sake of clarity. This problem plagues other environments too. All of my woodworking magazines post a note near the beginning of the magazine telling the reader that the safety devices have been removed for the sake of clarity and that no one in their right mind would actually work with woodworking equipment without the safety devices. Likewise, the code you see in a book often lacks good error trapping, making the principle that the code demonstrates clearer, at the cost of fragility. You can usually cause book examples to break easily, but no one in their right mind would create production code like that.

The feature that I’ve constantly worked on with the code in my books is accessibility. In as much as possible, the code demonstrates how to make an application usable by those with special needs. Of course, as with the exception handling, it isn’t always possible to add all of the required accessibility features without making the code less clear. Still, I’m a strong advocate of making code completely accessible whenever possible.

Readers will likely question just how useful book code is if it leaves safety and accessibility features out. Remember that the goal is to teach. Let me know your thoughts about source code in books at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Errors in Writing

I get upwards of 65 e-mails about my books on most days. Some of the conversations I have with readers are amazing and many readers have continued to write me for years. It’s gratifying to know that my books are helping people—it’s the reason I continue writing. Although I make a living from writing, I could easily make more money doing just about anything else. The thought that I might help someone do something special is why I stay in this business. When I actually hear about some bit of information that has really helped someone, it makes my day. I just can’t get the smile off my face afterward.

Of course, I’m constantly striving to improve my writing and I do everything I can to help the editors that work with me do a better job too. Good editors are the author’s friend and keep him from looking like an idiot to the reading public. In fact, it’s the search for better ways to accomplish tasks that has led me to create the beta reader program. Essentially, a beta reader is someone who reads my books as I write them and provides feedback. The extra pair of eyes can make a big difference. Beta readers who provide constructive feedback on at least three chapters receive my thanks in the book’s Acknowledgments and a free copy of the published book. (If you’d like to be a beta reader, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com for additional details.)

You’d think that with all the pairs of eyes looking at my books, they’d come out error free. After all, it isn’t just me looking at the book, but several editors and the beta readers as well. Unfortunate as it might seem, my books still come out with an error or two in them. The more technical the topic, the greater the opportunity for errors to creep in. Naturally, the errors are amazingly easy for just about everyone else to pick up! (I must admit to asking myself how I could have missed something so utterly obvious.) When there is an error found in the book, I’ll provide the information to the publisher so it’s fixed in the next printing. The error will also appear on the book’s errata page on the publisher’s site. If the error is significant enough, I’ll blog about it as well. In short, I want you to have a good reading experience so I’ll do everything I can to hunt the errors down and correct them.

However, not every seeming error is actually an error. There are times where an apparent error is simply a difference of opinion or possibly a configuration difference between my system and the reader’s system. I’ll still try to figure these errors out, but I can’t always guarantee that I’ll fix things in your favor. After all, another reader has probably found still other results or has yet another opinion on how I should present material in the book.

The long and short of things is that despite my best efforts, you’ll probably encounter an error or two in my books and I apologize for them in advance. We’ll also continue have differences of opinion and that’s usually the source for new ideas and new ways of viewing things. I’m honest enough to admit that I do need your help in creating better books, so I’ll always listen to you and think about what you have to say. I hope that you’ll continue to read my books and do amazing things with the information you find therein. The results of your researches are truly the reason I remain in this business and I realize that we’re in this together. Thanks for your continued support!

 

Is E-mail Dead?

I keep reading articles that tell me that e-mail is dead. In fact, there was one today on ComputerWorld that describes a company that is moving from e-mail to social media as an exclusive option. Currently, I don’t use any of the options mentioned in the article and don’t have time (or the inclination) to start using them. Don’t get me wrong, social media probably solves problems for some part of the population, it just hasn’t worked out well for me. I can’t see myself outputting tweets about my daily activities and some of the articled I read about Facebook are just plain scary.

My main problem with most modern communication solutions is that they’re overly intrusive. I was in the bathroom the other day and a guy was engaging in business while sitting on the commode; he just couldn’t be bothered to turn his cellphone off to take care of personal matters. That’s just one of many scenarios I’d prefer to avoid. There is strong evidence to conclude that our society has become preoccupied with communication, to the detriment of all. Just how many people died last year from texting accidents? According to the Washington Post, 28 percent of accidents now occur while people are texting or talking on a cellphone. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to talk with someone that badly.

I have to wonder how well social media will work for business needs. Social media assumes a level of connectivity that I’m simply not willing to allow. E-mail works better because someone can send me a message and I can handle it later; at my convenience. More importantly, I can handle the e-mail at a time when I’m not distracted by something else. In addition, I can provide a thoughtful answer; one that I’ve researched and thought through carefully. E-mail also provides me with a permanent written record that I can reference later when I have questions about the discussion.

There is some evidence to say that social media is actually costing business big dollars. For example, the BBC claims that social media is costing business £1.4bn. Other articles are equally certain that social media can save businesses money. I’d say it would be pretty tough to come up with a precise statement either pro or con when it comes to social media’s cost to business, but I know the personal cost. I tried a few solutions as an experiment and found that I was considerably less productive using them than turning it all off and using e-mail. Of course, that’s me, you may very well find that using social media makes you more productive; each person is different.

Personally, I don’t see e-mail as a dead communication technology. If anything, it’s becoming more important to me as I age and my memory becomes less dependable. As far as I’m concerned, the always connected nature of most social media today simply isn’t a good solution if you want to be productive. So, what’s your take on social media? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Paper or e-Book?

I’ve been thinking about something for quite a while now. For me, there is nothing better than sitting by my wood stove, coffee cup next to me, reading a favorite book. Of course, I’m talking about a hard cover or paperback book. Nothing quite matches the feel and smell of paper, especially when you’re reading a book for leisure. The hours I’ve spent reading books have been pleasurable to the extreme. I’m transported to worlds of mystery in some cases, worlds of the future in others. Fantasy, science fiction, techno-thriller; they all hold a certain thrill.

It’s a different matter when I start working with technical material. As you might imagine, I’ve collected quite a few technical books in 23 years. In fact, I’ve discarded quite a few books during that time; a mountain of technical knowledge that no longer seems important to anyone but a historian. That is, until I figure out that I discarded the one antique I really did need for a particular project. Suddenly I’m looking somewhere, anywhere, for that book. Even when I know where the book resides and I peruse its well thumbed pages by instinct, finding just the right information can prove difficult.

Unfortunately, no book cataloging system in the world will solve my problem. I could catalog each of my hundreds of books and still not find the information I actually need with any speed. Of course, the ability search quickly is one of the benefits of electronic storage. If I had my books in electronic format, I might avoid the hours upon hours of search time for that one piece of information I actually need. Then again, I’ve accidentally found many pieces of useful subsidiary information during such searches, so it’s not possible to discount paper as unworthy. Still, speed is of the essence while I’m working on my next project.

For now, it appears that my future will rely on two media for books: paper for leisure and electronic for work related materials. It’s a sad thing for me to admit, but the paper book has become a bit too cumbersome for a world where speed is prized above all. What about you? What do you feel about e-books?