Non-Fiction Textbook Review – How to Get Started as a Technical Writer

  • Title: How to Get Started as a Technical Writer
  • Author: James Gill
  • Subject: Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/24/2013

In a sense this book does exactly what it says on the tin, especially if you include the subtitle questions. But that’s why I loved it. As a person in their early 40s looking at a career change, this book answered all the questions I had, and then some. It also confirmed that I had finally made the right choice in finding a career I’d love. Technical writing seems like the perfect career for a perpetual student with a love of writing.

This book is brief (only 70 pages), clear-cut, and full of no-nonsense advice and information. It’s a practical guide, and although the author occasionally uses personal examples, it does not read like a tell-all book or expose’, rather it’s a plain, common-sense guide to the realities of working in the technical writing field. The author is calm, not condescending, helpful, not hurtful, and has no political agenda other than to answer questions from potential technical writers and offer practical help and advice. It makes for a nice change from several of the “career manuals” out there which seem to think anyone investigating a new career is a potential rival who must be shot down – cruelly.

Most of the chapter titles are questions, and the chapter accurately answers those questions. Additionally, each chapter offers “Do This” assignments, which far from being pointless homework, are practical suggestions for investigating the tech writing field, and also in some cases examples of things to do that can be applied to any new career, whether you are a 24-year old new college graduate, or a 40-something looking to try something new. I really wish I had read this book my senior year in college.

Chapters include:
• Who is this book for?
• How to use this book
• My story
• Why become a Technical Writer?
• What is Technical Writing?
• Life as a technical writer
• Five Must-Have Skills
• Should I get more education or training?
• How do I get experience?
• How do I get hired?
• Putting it all together
• Resources
• Glossary

Again, this is a practical no-nonsense career guide. It’s a helpful tool for the new technical writer. Unlike other writing guides and career books I’ve looked at or read, it’s completely free of condescending talk — and avoids re-hashing advice you find everywhere from Monster to The Ladders. And yes, it’s well written.

My highest recommendation. Oh, and by the way, if you are a perpetual student who loves writing – technical writing might be the career for you!

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Non-Fiction Textbook Review – Thinking with Type

  • Title: Thinking with Type
  • Author: Ellen Lupton
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Typography
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/29/2015

This book wasn’t what I was expecting – but I enjoyed it anyway. The first section was about the history of typography, which was very interesting but not necessary what I wanted to know. Although to me, with no formal graphic design training, I had always assumed that Graphic Design was like Architecture, a field where the emphasis was always on “the hot new thing” with little knowledge or care for the past (other than the “opposite” effect – that is, new trends tend to rebel against the previous trend.) But as someone completely new to Graphic Design, it was nice to see everything laid out from the beginning of hand-painted and copied Illuminated Manuscripts to modern website design.

This book also has a very easy style about introducing information. It doesn’t say, “Now here are the parts of a letterform – memorise them.” Information you want to know is slowly introduced and teased out as various examples are presented. It made for an enjoyable, and quick read. There are a lot of examples in this book, I hesitate to call it a textbook, though it probably is, because it’s also a fun, enjoyable read.

A couple of frustrations – included in the examples were things called “type crimes”, sort of a “What not to do.” Sometimes the two “good” examples and the “bad” example, side-by-side, made it obvious why the “type crime” was a bad idea. But more often, I found myself wondering why the bad example was so bad. To my, admittedly, untrained eye, it didn’t look any worse (or better, usually) than the good examples. Now, part of the reason I’m reading books on graphic design in the first place is to try to train my eye, so to speak, but I can’t do that if it isn’t explained why Option A is so much better than Option B (and if it really is just personal preference or opinion the author should state so). Rules make a lot more sense – if you know why they exist. And rules can be broken if you know what they are, the reason for the rule, and the effect of breaking it – in art and design.

Another frustration was the inclusion of pieces of typography that, while they may be nice pieces of art, or pretty to look at, or really cool – were impossible to read. I’d think that for any sort of graphic design or typesetting, or typography – Rule 1 would be “Can you read it?” Now some of these frankly illegible examples (and I’m not talking about historical documents) were “Art” pieces – so maybe I missed the point, but in modern pieces – say a poster for an art gallery opening, if people can’t read the day, date, time, and location – How on Earth do you expect them to show up? It’s like those advertisements that you see, and remember for being amusing or strange or unusual or just plain weird – but you can’t remember what the product was, much less what company produces it. And, to my mind, it’s even worse – because in other sections of the book, the author does talk about the necessary utility of design – that is, the importance of it being used, and leading the reader to understand the information better. Ellen Lupton’s section on tables, charts, and graphs is especially clear on the subject of how good design can help make information clearer and easier to understand (or by implication, obscure information or even make it misleading.) There is now even a new field that combines information into graphics – Infographics, which when done well, is accurate, makes the point, and is easy to understand. But when Inforgraphics are done poorly – they are difficult to understand. And Infographics, like statistics, also has the capacity to be very misleading.

Anyway, I just wish Lupton had made the importance of making graphic design, especially when typesetting a book, legible – more clear.

Overall, it was a fun, informative, quick read that I don’t regret purchasing. Recommended to graphic design students.

Non-Fiction Textbook Book Review – Adobe InDesign CC Revealed

  • Title: Adobe InDesign Creative Cloud Revealed
  • Author: Chris Botello
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Adobe InDesign, Software
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/08/2015

This was my textbook for a recent class in Adobe InDesign, at a local Community College. I liked the textbook, and I’ve bought two more in the series. The book starts with the very basics of InDesign – the workspace and adaptable panels, and precedes, chapter by chapter, to go through major features.

Each chapter includes numerous project-type examples you can do with the software (if you have it) and learn along with the book. The end of each chapter has a Skills Review – usually assigned as homework in my class, for practicing the skills explained in the chapter, a Project Builder – one or more more involved exercises, that can be added to a student portfolio, and the Design and Portfolio Project – which are further examples for building a portfolio or discussion-provoking questions about a design. In order to successfully complete any of the skills reviews, Design Projects, Portfolio Projects, or Project Builders, you must be able to download and access the data files for the textbook. For me, these were found on the school server, from the path my instructor gave me. However, going from the other books in the series, there are publicly-accessible websites from the publisher for downloading zip files of the data files.

The chapters included good information, and the skills review and other exercises reinforced the knowledge of each chapter.

There were a few things to watch out for, however:

  1. Sometimes instructions referred to skills one hasn’t learned yet, and were in the subsequent chapters – this happened rarely, but was annoying when it did.
  2. Following the skills reviews step-by-step often involved using different methods to accomplish the exact same goal. Though I understand why multiple techniques towards the same end might be taught, it often became either annoying or boring (who wants to do the same thing three times using slightly different methods?); on rare occasions it even became confusing (I thought I did X by using tool Y – now you’re telling me to use tool C?).
  3. Format of the book/skills review. Sigh. It’s a rectangler book, which opens on the skinny side – depending on your desk, it can be hard to work with, compared to a standard portrait-style book. (Try picturing a landscaped Excel spreadsheet verses a standard Word doc). The font in the skills review sections is a bit too small to read comfortably.
  4. Every once in awhile the printed instructions and the pictures did not match. My guess is the text was revised but some illustrations weren’t updated.

Finally, just for me, personally, I would have liked at least some chances to do more creative things, rather than blindly following instructions. I mean, I did try various things out anyway, but when someone hands you a playbox – it’s a shame when you can’t creatively use the toys.

Overall, a great textbook, and, like I said – I ordered two other books in the series. Recommended.

Non-Fiction Textbook Review – The Non-Designer’s Design Book

  • Title: The Non-Designer’s Design Book
  • Author: Robin Williams
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 01/22/2015

I bought this book for an advanced Technical Writing class, then ironically had to drop the class because I got a full-time job. I just picked up the book again and read it all the way through.

The good points – this is a quick and breezy book with a lot of examples. I felt most of the examples clearly illustrated the points that the author, an experienced graphic designer, was trying to make.

The bad points – the section on website design was extremely out of date. Recent research on how people use the web emphasizes two things: for websites, san serif fonts are easier to read, especially for large blocks of print (the opposite is true for printed books – where serif fonts are easier to read); and second, although customers hate horizontal (or back-and-forth) scrolling on websites, vertical scrolling is OK. In fact, with the phenomenal growth of tablets and smart phones, vertical scrolling is not only OK – it’s expected.

The author repeats the out-of-date, graphic design advice that “everything has to fit on a standard screen size for a webpage”. That simply isn’t true anymore, in part because there is no standard screen size – a flat-screen monitor may be large and square – or thin and rectangular (widescreen). And then there’s screens which are very small and vertical (smartphone), or vertical and larger (tablet), or even medium sized and horizontal (tablet in landscape mode). Since you have no idea what the viewing screen will be – deciding the “optimum” screen size and designing for it isn’t possible. The latest marketing tools talk about “flowable” screens and “design for mobile”. However, that’s really only one chapter of this book – and the basic design principles probably haven’t changed, especially when designing for paper (books, magazines, newsletters, print ads) etc.

My other gripe was the Mac-Centered nature of the book. Yes, I realize that graphic design was one area that has been traditionally dominated by Apple computer products – but I use a Microsoft Windows PC, and when I use Adobe products (Acrobat, InDesign, Photoshop) it’s the Windows-versions of those products that I use. It was annoying for most of the sample typefaces to be Mac-specific fonts, or the Mac version of fonts because that makes it hard to figure out the specifics of some of the lessons. At least a comparative list of Mac vs. Window fonts would have helped.

Still, I enjoyed reading The Non-Designer’s Design Book and I felt I learned something from it. It also wasn’t overwhelming at all, which is perfect for an introductory textbook.

Here are three recent blog posts all declaring that for on-line use san serif fonts are more readable (serif fonts still rule for paper publications).

What’s the Most Readable Font for the Screen?

Screen Readability

The Best Fonts: Print, Screen, Email

The concept of designing, without design, that is – to allow a website site to flow correctly on any screen size from an extra-large PC Monitor to a small smart phone is known as Responsive Design.

 

Non-Fiction Textbook Review – Spring into Technical Writing for Scientists and Engineers

  • Title: Spring into Technical Writing for Scientists and Engineers
  • Author: Barry J. Rosenberg
  • Subject: Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/22/2012

Update: – Read this for a technical writing class, back in 2012, per the date on GoodReads.

Spring into Technical Writing is a textbook, however, it is useful and even amusing at times. Some of the examples are a bit overwhelming but I like a challenge, and they weren’t so dense as to be completely off-putting or to cause me to put the book down.

This was a very readable textbook. It kept my interest and was a quick read. It also seemed to be full of good advice. I really liked the “bad”, “better”, “good”, “best” examples throughout the book and it could have used even more. I did at times find that the book was a bit simplistic (I do know, believe it or not, the difference between a serif and sans-serif font) and throughout the book often the starting point for a section or chapter was too easy. On the other hand, the chapter on HTML was very difficult for me. Yes, I realize this wasn’t a manual on learning HTML, but that seemed to be the only section in the book that assumed some pre-knowledge that I didn’t have. (The web is like a car, I can use it but I don’t know or care how it works. I know more about how a server and a network “serve” web pages, and the meaning of terms like “caching web browser” than I do about HTML – and I’ve learned more HTML from the Goodreads website than any web design book I’ve read or class I started then quit). But I digress. Other than the HTML section, which I intend to re-read, I found this textbook to be light-hearted, useful, and fun to read. The humor and examples helped.

Second Update: Since reading this book, I’ve learned more HTML by using WordPress, and from my four-month stint as a knowledge base writer/editor. So I should probably re-read the HTML section and see if it’s less confusing.