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April 2, 2014

What I Must Deal With

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

A For Dummies book is successful when it demonstrates the ability to connect with the reader. That’s a high bar for any technical book.

When writing to a peer, such as programmer, I can be informal and casual. I can reference things I figure another programmer would know, such as using the term stack without fear of the reader thinking about pancakes.

For a beginner’s book, the task becomes more difficult.

For example, I know what it means to cycle power. It’s safe to assume that a beginner won’t know that term, but they will know how to do once I explain what it is and when it’s necessary. That’s imparting good information, which is what I assume my reader wants.

The problem with writing a beginner book is to constantly keep that perspective in mind. Further, a For Dummies book should never make any assumptions; just because it’s Chapter 23, I don’t assume that my reader yet knows how to open the Control Panel or even what a Control Panel is. That’s difficult to write properly, which is why so many beginner books fail utterly.

Further, you have to assume that the reader will never “get it.” Some will, but you need to keep in mind those who never will. For me, the essence of that puzzle was presented a few years back when I was visiting a friend in the hospital.

Now I love visiting people in a hospital. I love lightening the mood and cracking jokes. Hospitals provide fertile fields for my mischievous mind to plow. They’re so grim. The surroundings just beg for levity.

So I’m with my son and we have to wait in line at some counter somewhere deep in the hospital labyrinth.

Before us in line is a very old lady. She isn’t dumb, but she’s probably overwhelmed — just as I assume my readers would be when reading a technical book. After all, this person has been thrust into an unfamiliar realm, a world of importance to her life and health, under circumstances probably not of her first choosing. Just like new technology, such situations are intimidating.

The elderly woman has a serious question, one that I found amusing at the time — a question I still find amusing, but for her it was serious. She said something like this, “The doctor told me to take these pills on odd numbered days. But the month ends on the 31st. Am I supposed to take the next pill on the 1st of next month, because that would be two days in a row?”

At the time, I thought the question peculiar, comic even. The problem isn’t that the women doesn’t understand how to take the pills: She could probably guess that the doctor really meant to take a pill every other day. But he didn’t say that, did he? No, he was a bastard and said to take the pills on odd-numbered days. Those were needlessly confusing directions.

The old lady actually had foresight to see the impending problem: Two odd days in a row. The doctor wasn’t that clever or didn’t care; his motivation was probably to see the next patient. Such things happen all too often in a technical book, where the author “gets it” but fails to impart good, basic advice to the reader.

“Take a pill every other day.” Anyone can understand that. No one will be confused. That’s what works best for what I do. It may seem like a simple direction, but all too often that’s not how such advice is given.

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