There are cases where it’s very tough to figure out the correct presentation of material in a book, which is made more difficult by some readers preferring one presentation and other readers another. It comes down to how people learn in many cases. Visual learners prefer screenshots, abstract learners prefer text. Of course, there are all sorts of learners between these two extremes. So, what seems like a simple question can become quite complex.
The question at hand is whether to present screenshots of an IDE in a book with the associated example code and its output. The problem is that vendors now assume that developers have very large displays and so have made use of all of that extra screen real estate. In addition, book publishers don’t want books where a single image consumes an entire page. The result is that it’s very hard to get a screenshot where the text is completely readable. It can be done, but the text will generally still be smaller than the print in the book. Older readers complain that they need a magnifying glass to see the text at all.
However, there are benefits to using screenshots. The most important benefit is that, even if the text isn’t completely readable, visual learners can see what their IDE should look like as they follow the progress of procedures in the book. This feedback lets the visual learner know that they are doing things correctly and are getting the correct result. Another benefit is that an example tends to stay in one piece. The graphical output of an example doesn’t end up several pages away from the source code that produces it. Sometimes, textual output is wider than the page will allow using the normal font size. So, the options are to print the output in the book at the normal font size, but in a truncated form, which means that it’s no longer complete. A screenshot can show the complete textual output, but at a smaller font. For beginner readers, the second form, while not optimal, is preferred because truncating the output produces questions in the reader’s mind.
So, how do you feel about IDE screenshots in books? Are they more helpful or more confusing? Part of the reason for posts like this is to get your opinion and discover more about you as a reader. Obviously, a book author wants to use the communication techniques that work best overall for everyone, book space often not allowing for the investigation of every presentation alternative. Let me know your thoughts at [email protected].
This is an update of a post that originally appeared on October 4, 2013.
Readers contact me quite a lot about my books. On an average day, I receive around 65 reader e-mails about a wide range of book-related topics. Many of them are complimentary about my books and it’s hard to put down in words just how much I appreciate the positive feedback. Often, I’m humbled to think that people would take time to write.
There is another part to reader participation in books, however, and it doesn’t have anything to do with me—it has to do with other readers. When you read one of my books and find the information useful, it’s helpful to write a review about it so that others can know what to expect. I want to be sure that every reader who purchases one of my books is happy with that purchase and gets the most possible out of the book. The wording that the publisher’s marketing staff and I use to describe a book represents our viewpoint of that book and not necessarily the viewpoint of the reader. The only way that other readers will know how a book presents information from the reader perspective is for other readers to write reviews. A good review will tell:
- What you liked about the book
- How it met your needs
- What it provides in the way of usable content
- Whether you liked any intangibles, such as the author’s writing style
- When you used the content to obtain a new job or learn a new skill
- Who recommended the book to you
The review should also present any negatives (obviously, I want to know about the flaws, too, so that I can correct them in the next edition of the book and also discuss them on my blog):
- Did the book provide enough detailed procedures needed to accomplish a task?
- Are significant technical flaws and why do you feel they’re an issue?
- Are there enough graphics to augment the text and make it clearer?
- Is the source code useful?
Many reviewing venues, such as the one found on Amazon, also ask you to provide a rating for the book. You should rate the book based on your experience with other books and on how this particular book met your needs in learning a new topic. The kind of review to avoid writing is a rant or one that isn’t actually based on reading the whole book. As always, I’m here (at [email protected]) to answer any questions you have and many of your questions have appeared as blog posts when the situation warrants.
So, just where do you make these reviews? The publishers sometimes provide a venue for expressing your opinion and you can certainly go to the publisher site to create such a review. I personally prefer to upload my reviews to Amazon because it’s a location that many people frequent to find out more about books. You can go to the site, click Write a Customer Review (near the bottom of the page), and then provide your viewpoint about the book.
Thank you in advance for taking the time and effort required to write a review. I know it’s time consuming, but it’s an important task that only you can perform.
Graphics can be a tricky issue in technical writing. Some authors use graphics at the drop of a hat. Often, the graphic shows something that the reader can readily understand from the text or contains nothing of value to the reader. For example, some books contain images of objects that don’t have any intrinsic value of themselves and possibly contain a little text that the author could easily include in the text. However, some authors err to the other extreme. Some abstract concepts lend themselves to pictorial representation. For example, a block diagram can often convey relationships that would be impossible to describe using text alone. Consequently, the issue of whether to use graphics within a text or not often hinges on the graphic’s ability to convey meaning that words alone can’t.
However, the decision to use graphics often involves more than simply conveying information. The quality of the graphic also matters. Graphics that appear too small in the book make it impossible for readers to make out details and render them useless. Designing a graphic that provides all the required details can be time consuming. However, including a less than useful graphic in the book is generally a waste of space. In some cases, the solution is to provide a reference to an external source (such as the Internet) for the graphic, rather than include the graphic directly in the book. Some authors have a strong desire not to use external sources because they tend to change, but using poorly designed graphics that fail to convey the desired information to most readers is equally problematic.
Focusing the graphic is also a problem. When a graphic contains too much detail or contains elements that have nothing to do with the discussion, the message can become lost. Using a cropped graphic helps focus attention and reduces the amount of space the graphic consumes in the book. By focusing reader attention on specific details, it also becomes easier to convey a specific message. Most important of all, keeping individual graphics small (yet easily readable) is essential to allowing use of as many graphics as is needed for the book as a whole.
The bottom line is that authors who use graphics effectively are able to communicate a great deal of information to readers in a modicum of space. In addition, using graphics presents the reader with another way to learn the material. Many people don’t learn well just by reading text, they also require graphics, hands on activities, exercises, and the like in order to learn a topic well. When choosing to use graphics, you must consider all aspects of how the graphic will appear to the reader. Let me know your thought on graphics usage at [email protected].