Writing short

My last book was with someone who’s an ER doctor. Subsequently, he asked if I would edit something he was putting together with papers from other doctors. It was unintelligible drivel. Oh, I could figure out what it was saying, but it was just onanistic parading of one’s vocabulary to no good effect. I told him I could eventually turn it into English, but I didn’t think he’d like it. He said no, he’d do it, thanks.

There’s a tendency in medicine, academia, and government to try to make things really, really fancy, purely for the reason that you CAN, which doesn’t impress me at all. You’re supposed to admire the puissant prose of the person who put it together, but it fails in its ability to actually communicate. FWIW, gov’t agency PowerPoint slides also have a tendency to use every possible shred of white space on every slide so that you could just about read the slides. This is a dumb way to do things, too. Yes, you can make it work, but just because you can open a bottle of beer on the nose of a Trident submarine does not mean that it’s actually any good at that.

There’s a classic George Bernard Shaw quote:”I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” The same thing applies to technical writing. Making things short and snappy gets you to the point quickly and usually communicates better… but it’s harder. One of my favorite examples of good, short communication is someone’s comment about the morning after an incredibly drunken night:

The morning was death, with birdsongs.

Six words and you don’t need a lot more picture than that to describe exactly how things are. (For an even better example of minimalist communication, go look up Hemingway’s 6-word short story.)

Dictation software

I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about dictation software these days. I was very interested in it when it first started becoming a real possibility 20, 25 years ago. Dragon NaturallySpeaking was the market leader back then as I recall and this hasn’t changed in all this time. I recall that it would do 75wpm way back when, which was fair, but not great: most people speak at 125-175wpm and I know that I speak pretty quickly, so dictation with NaturallySpeaking would be.




Even with this shortcoming, I knew that Dragon NaturallySpeaking would get better, smarter, and faster fairly quickly as faster generations of software came out and there were better codecs for processing audio. And it did. Checking out it’s capabilities for this post, I found a video of Dragon NaturallySpeaking handling 200wpm. It’s also very good with specialized vocabularies (such as medical and legal transcription), which makes it a godsend for specialized applications and fields.

And with all that wonder and power, I’m still not interested in using it to write books. The basic problem remains, and it’s not with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

I type.

I type for a lot of reasons:

  • I type because it’s fast. I can type at 120-130wpm when I’m really cruising (that’s because of decades of power typing and also these fancy-schmancy Avant Stellar super-clicky keyboards I buy). That’s nowhere near as fast as Dragon NaturallySpeaking can process these days–and good for it–but it’s as fast as I could probably talk comfortable for hours on end.
  • I type because I don’t have to think about it. My fingers are automatic. So automatic, in fact, that they become spooled devices, like a printer. I recall when I was writing my first book back in 1987 that I was thinking ahead a couple paragraphs while my fingers were running automatically to get things down on paper as fast as I could. I didn’t have to interrupt the creative flow at all: the process of getting things out of my head was not a real-time operation. (This is also why I hate using the mouse for things: it stops the stream of thought and kicks me into a real-time mode where nothing’s automatic.)
  • I type because I can listen to music or the tv or be talking on phone. When I’m working, I live for having background noise. I can also do a lot of pro forma writing while I’m talking about something else (that “spooled” thing again). Having background noise (music) or other voices (TV) or trying to talk on the phone while dictating (ha!) just ain’t gonna work. But the music, TV, and phone calls are all a part of the writing process for me.
  • I type because I simply cannot talk into a microphone for 12 hours at a time. I don’t think you can, either. And I don’t think you could do it for 4 months at a go. Your tongue would dry up and turn to dust.
  • I type because it uses a different part of my brain. This is a little hard to describe, but I know that I simply can’t listen to certain types of music or have the TV on when I’m trying to write specific pieces. It keeps feeling like the part of my brain that’s processing the words in the song or TV is the same part that I’m using for some very nitty writing tasks, and the two tasks keep bashing into each other. I usually have to put on Chopin or a Hearts of Space show or something. Trying to speak while I’m trying to create would be equally difficult, perhaps even more so: I’ve noticed that I frequently don’t like talking at all when I’m working on a section like this.

So far all these reasons and probably more, I type. I am very pleased that Dragon NaturallySpeaking has gotten to be such a monster product and I may find a use for it some day, but I type well and I type quickly, and I just don’t feel a need to dictate my books.

We’re doing it for the money

Sometimes in the course of looking at book projects, you may end up considering a project that you think is lowering your standards. And what the heck? Maybe it is. Ask yourself how much money and opportunity this book is and if this is something that could actually damage your reputation. If it’s simply a matter of you don’t care much for the subject or the publisher’s style but the money’s good, then you should go with it. Here’s why.

As you’re whacking out books, one after another, bear in mind that what we’re doing isn’t really Great Art. Oh, very occasionally, you’ll get a nonfiction book that is going to last on the shelf for some years and if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll have one that lasts for your career. But what we’re writing won’t last for decades as a rule. Shucks, most of us are lucky if our writing lasts on the shelves a year. Do your job, enjoy your job, be professional about the stuff you’re turning out, but don’t ever kid yourself that this is usually a Work for the Ages. If you keep this in mind, you’ll probably be able to be more flexible. (There are pleasant exceptions to this observation, but they’re few and very far between.)

A couple hundred years ago, Dr. Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Some things just don’t change: we are doing this for the money. It should be fun whenever possible, but if it pays the bills, that’s the best part of all.

More thoughts on readability

I had a few more thoughts on readability to share. Making sure your text has a low Gunning Fog Index is not the only thing you can do to improve your readability. There are broader things that will help as well.

The first of these is good structure. The old saw about telling someone what you’re going to tell ‘em, telling ‘em, then telling ‘em what you told ‘em, is still true for good technical communication of any kind. Give your readers enough information to whet their interest and to give them a mental framework to understand what’s coming soon. Then give them the explanation that they’re there for, and close with a summary of what they learned.

The next idea is parallelism. Parallelism sets your readers’ expectations and fulfills them. If you’ve told ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em at the start of the last four chapters, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be looking for the same thing at the start of the fifth chapter. And when they get there, they’ll be able to get the hang of what you’re doing that much faster. Parallel structure in your writing is comforting to the reader. There’s a general rule of “no surprises!” that works really well. (Yes, you can break the rules periodically, but you need to follow them most of the time.)

Hand in glove with parallel writing is an established and understandable format. Make the format support the writing. Don’t use too many fonts, make the hierarchy in the heading levels self-explanatory, and have plenty of white space. Just to let your readers know what to expect, have information up front in the introduction in a “How to Use This Book” section that lists all your formatting conventions. Show what bold, italic, underlining, different fonts, and so on mean. Give examples of notes, tips, cautions, and warnings.

Illustrations and graphics are very good. They add a measure of interest to the text and give the visual learners something to latch on to. The “Dummies” books are very good examples of using margin art to support the text. Even a set of standard graphics to highlight heading levels, notes, and definitions will give your readers a level of visual excitement that can turn a good book into a dazzling book.

And, as Richard Hamilton pointed out on yesterday’s post, just because you use a small word, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best or most understandable word. I was in a meeting Thursday where the leader used the word “onus.” It’s a wonderful word and it was perfect for the venue (another good, short word, come to think of it), but it’s a high concept word that may actually decrease readability. “Responsibility” would’ve had generated a higher grade level on a purely mechanical readability score, but it would’ve been a better word for most audiences to give them better comprehension.

Those are all the thoughts that I had this morning before caffeine had seeped into my brain. What do you think adds to readability?


I know people working at a contract right now with some specific house style requirements. Some of the house rules are:

  • Avoid using “that.” Most uses of “that” are actually unnecessary.
  • Ditto “all.” There are some cases where it makes sense, but the typical usage is something like “Sort all the parts in the bin.” In this case, “all” is really not adding anything.
  • Avoid “you” when writing. (Years of writing books make this one scrape my nerves.)
  • Avoid contractions. (Again, it’s a little tighter and friendlier with contractions.)

All this (or just “This,” as some would have it) brings me to a discussion of readability.

Readability is simply a measure of how easy it is for your readers to understand you. There are a number of metrics for measuring basic readability, all of which look at the sentence length, word complexity, and punctuation marks, and then do something arcanely mathematical with these data points.

There are a lot of different readability indexes, including Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning Fog Index, and several dozen others. The first two of these are available in Microsoft Word in the proofing options. The Gunning Fog Index is available here. You just plug a chunk of text in and hit “Calculate.” Most tests measure in grade level—what grade would you expect someone to be able to read this?—but some measure in 1 to 100. I prefer grade level, as it’s easier to envision this how the writing will be received by my audience.

I’m not going to tell you what formulas these use, as it’s not important. You’ll find online testing options for most of these on the net, so when you have a method you prefer, you can plug sample text in and see how it reads. It doesn’t matter which you use as long as you’re consistent. With all of them, the lower the score, the easier the text is to understand.

It is rarely a problem having your readability too low. In fact, the lower your readability, the better the chances your audience will understand things. My favorite example of how you can communicate big ideas with small words is a great piece of writing that describes Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in words of four letters or less. (Go look; I’ll wait. It’s worth it.)

What is so totally cool about this piece is that the Gunning Fog reading level on this comes out to about 5.5. That’s incredibly low for technical writing of any kind, but Brian did a great job. You still get a clear picture of how relativity works.

I know a number of people, including academicians, government workers, and doctors, who really love saying things with big, meaty words. The reading level of their writing is frequently in the 20s and it’s largely impossible to figure out what they’re saying. I’ve asked them about this and there are several factors for why they like writing so much dense garbage:

  • Big words prove that they’re qualified to write this. (Absurd, but do go on.)
  • Big words ensure that I, the reader, am qualified to read this. (They should be happy I’m even trying without making me want to hurl their stuff across the room.)
  • Big words prove that they’re smart. (That’s not communicating; that’s just shoving their college degree up the reader’s nose.)

Anybody can write drivel. Many people do. It takes a qualified writer to produce something intelligible. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive belief in these folks that they won’t be perceived as qualified or smart if they don’t write such dense crap. This may even be true, but it should be noted that you may just be dealing with a whole lotta phony assholes hiding behind their degrees, too.

You don’t have to bring everything down to “1984”-style Newspeak, where things are doubleplus good and you have to drink victory gin while writing. But when you’re selecting choosing words, you will communicate make your point better with your audience readers if you use words that aren’t as esoteric strange and are more comprehensible easier to understand and more concise shorter.

Crawling into a hole

I’m in the latter half of the current book. There’s nothing much new about what I’m feeling right now on the current book in terms of the writing process for me, but I should mention that it’s still as much of a pest as the previous 26 books have been. Don’t get me wrong, I really like this job, but writing a book is always a PITA during parts of it no matter what. As I’ve said before, writing a book is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer: it feels so good when you stop.

My process, as one of my co-authors recently reminded me, is to grind along on the first third of the book figuring out what I want to write, then I hit smooth sailing for most of the rest of it with a possible long chapter in the middle and a bump near the end of the road when I’m almost done. I am jamming out chapters right now and it feels bloody marvelous.

What I actually feel like right now (other than the enormous pressure to hit my deadline) is that I’ve got tunnel vision, rather literally. I’m not focusing on anything much except what’s right in front of me. There’s a pressure in my forehead and I don’t want to talk to people because it’ll shake me out of the writing reverie… and I really need that to help the words keep flowing. I’m thinking of little more than the stuff that I’m writing about. And I’m listening to a lot of music from Hearts of Space: drifty, non-vocal, background Nouveau Age stuff that doesn’t get in the way.

My sleep schedule’s getting strange, too. I’m drinking a lot more tea than coffee because I can keep drinking tea and don’t get as wired as I do on coffee. (Unsolicited plug here: I buy all my tea from Seattle Teacup, which is one of the premier tea stores in the Pacific Northwest. They do lots of mail order–how I usually get mine–and they’ve got a wider selection than I’ve seen anywhere else. If you want something interesting, delicate, and flavorful without being fruity or floral, let me recommend Queen Anne’s Treasure, which is what I’m drinking today.)

That’s probably all I have for the moment. I don’t want to stay away from the chapter too long or I’ll lose the flow.

Background noise and writing

I’ve got a huge deadline on the book, but while the coffee brews, I wanted to mention something about background noise.

A lot of writers like quiet when they write. I don’t. I need something going on in the background to write well. I was greatly amused when my Myers-Briggs said that I’m an ENFP or ENTP (don’t remember; it was close either way) and that I thrive on a little background stimulus to keep the words going. I’d known that, but I never had had an explanation for it. Very interesting!

Gerry Weinberg described something in “The Secrets of Consulting” about early radar systems. People thought the gear should be stable, solid, and not move. They’d bolt them down in relay racks. However, it turned out that radar systems need systemic noise or they get stuck and don’t work. As a result, people would add a jiggler, something that would inject random motion to the gear, which would keep the background noise up and the radar systems didn’t get stuck after that.

I’m like that. A lot of writers are like that. For me, I’ll frequently have the TV on while writing. But it can’t be just anything; it has to be something I’d like to listen to regardless. I’ll also play classic rock (such as King Crimson) or comedy albums. All of this helps me write.

But there are times when what I’m doing requires a lot more thought and analysis and then I simply cannot have something going on with words. It becomes enormously distracting. I’ll put on classical music with a single instrument then or maybe ambient stuff (also usually with one instrument, now that I think of it). The music keeps part of my brain occupied and I can write, write, write.

I’m currently putting together a chapter in the Author-it 5.5 book that’s requiring a lot of planning as I write because I need to use it as a leaping off point for the structure of the next 3 or 4 chapters. Right now, it’s Scarlatti and me against the world. (I feel a bit like Jimmy Cagney here: “Top o’ the harpsichord, Ma!”)

Ah, the coffee’s done. Life is good.

Do you need to know your topic when you start writing a book?

In a recent post, I described how you don’t need to have an idea to get a book. Yes, it can help, but it’s not necessary; there are plenty of books floating around publishers that need an author to have them assigned to. Easily half of my first dozen books were assigned to me by the acquisitions editors I was working with. They’d suggest ideas for books to me. Some of the ideas I said “No” to: I don’t know enough about programming to write programming books, for example. Others just didn’t grab me or didn’t grab me enough with respect to some of the other projects available to me at the time.

But let’s suppose you like an idea that’s been lofted by the ack ed and want to pursue it. They ask you for a proposal, you say “Yes,” they hang up, and you suddenly realize that you don’t really know the product or the software or whatever very well. Are you doomed? No, probably not. And unless you’ve gotten yourself into completely deep water far out of sight of land, chances are that you’ll be okay.

What you’re going to be doing is writing to learn, as William Zinsser described it in his book of the same name. (I recommend that you buy a copy of this and read it, btw. Zinsser’s books are very approachable and really quite entertaining.) You won’t know a great deal about the topic when you start, but you’ll learn an awful lot as you write the book.

My technique for writing on a topic that I don’t know much about is to take it apart and figure out what skill sets I need to master it. Once I’ve gotten the skill sets identified for the topic, I match my skill sets with the skill sets for the topic and do my best to “surround” it. I then start making connections to the remaining skills I need. In the case of software, I frequently will find that I have most of the skills necessary to use the software, but need some conceptual knowledge and a chance to play with the software to get an idea of what I’m doing. (Picking up software quickly has been an essential ability for me.)

Here’s another place where networking is going to help you: it’s a good idea to cultivate friends who know things you don’t so when you have a question or need someone to give you a quick rundown, they’re able to help. And never discount the wealth of resources on the Internet: look for training materials, exercises, documents, and FAQs. Many colleges post their course materials online. Googling for the topic plus “training” or “classes” can produce a surprising number of relevant hits.

You may not realize it, but you’re already writing to learn. If you write technical manuals or magazine articles, chances are that you’ve written about something you didn’t know everything about when you began. You might have known the previous version of whatever or the topic your article was about, but your research and experimentation filled in the holes in your knowledge. That’s writing to learn, too!

As I’m building the outline for something I don’t know very well, I rely on the structure presented in other books, in training materials, and anything else I can find to get an idea of the structure I want for the book. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever run into something that has the same outline and flow that I’d like to use for a topic.

Writing to learn may sound risky. It’s certainly more work than writing about something you’ve already mastered. But it lets you write a book and stretch yourself intellectually while doing so. There isn’t nearly as much risk as you might think, either. You’ll have an early measure of your ability to do this for a given topic: how well you do on your proposal. When you’ve created the detailed outline, you’ll have a feeling for what you can and can’t do. You can then make plans to fill in the holes in the outline and your knowledge.

On the other hand, if the topic’s too far afield and you can’t gain enough knowledge to feel comfortable, the proposal simply won’t happen. The proposal’s kind of a safety release in that way: if you can’t figure out enough of the material to create a good proposal, then you couldn’t possibly create a good book. In that case, apologize to your ack ed and say that you just don’t have enough knowledge on the topic to do well. It’s possible that your ack ed may nevertheless feel that the topic is something you can master (and they can give you some pointers on what you need to learn specifically) or that you might do well with a co-author who’s got product knowledge but lacks your writing skills… in which case, you’ll learn a lot about the product from working with an expert.

Writing to learn works. It takes some extra effort, but if you think about it, chances are you’ve already been doing it for a lot of other writing assignments.

A quick intro to mind mapping

I told you in an earlier post that I’d tell you about mind mapping. A mind map is a diagram that starts with a central word or concept, then spreads out to show how you visualize other words or concepts (or project tasks or images or anything else) connected to that. Mind maps are inherently non-linear, with the focus of the mind map in the center of the page and then everything connected to it moving out from there.

Mind maps are visual, so here are several examples of mind maps to give you a better idea of how they work. Note that these are mind maps about mind mapping, so they’re illustrating the connections between the core concept of mind mapping and the concepts and tasks associated with it. (Be sure to check out the source websites for additional information and resources on mind mapping.)

I’m impressed with the graphics on these; when I do a mind map, it’s usually much more sparsely illustrated, something like the following example:

Sample rough mindmap from Wikipedia

As you can see, thought, the things that make mind maps most effective are to use lots of color and lots of illustrations. You not only have words and key concepts to hang your memories on, but the color and graphics make them easier to remember and make the concepts and relationships stand out. The right side of your brain thinks in pictures and colors far more than in words, so this technique gets both sides of your brain involved, increasing the depth of the associations on a subject.

In addition, you should put your thoughts down without trying to squeeze them into place in an arbitrary linear hierarchy. Mind mapping is a technique for getting your thoughts down on paper on a subject while recognizing that many concepts are not inherently linear. There are certainly many concepts that are dependent on other concepts, things that are linear and stepwise, but you don’t have to make things fit an outline that moves chronologically from A to Z just because.

In fact, if you think about it, outlining is most relevant for books or printed manuals… but if you’re creating an online help system or a web page or something else with hyperlinking and non-linear navigation, outlining presents a false structure. Mind maps are far more radial in their symmetry, frequently without a specific starting point from the central concept. The colors and graphics may give some clues, but it’s also possible that one starting point is as good as any other. Because the purpose of the mind map is to use visual and graphic elements to highlight relationships, the first two examples give a lot of information through the weight of the graphics.

Tony Buzan invented contemporary mind mapping. While there have been many pictorial record systems going back at least 2300 years, Buzan has popularized mind mapping in several books, such as Use Both Sides of Your Brain and The Mind Map Book. His techniques have also expanded on the connections between left and right brain activity and rung in software as well, for all of which is he richly deserving of credit.

Some other links worth checking out:

  • Wikipedia (there’s always Wikipedia)
  • A list of mind mapping software, both free and paid. (I don’t tend to use mind mapping software because I’m usually mind mapping when I’m taking notes or brainstorming on paper, so the process of doing the software takes too much effort that I could be using to write things down, leaping from concept tree to concept tree with a pen, but you may like it.)
  • Information about FreeMind, the mind mapping software package I do use when I use one. (Here’s where to download FreeMind if you want to try it.)
  • Information about Freeplane, another good mind mapping product (and a download link for Freeplane as well).

Mind mapping isn’t the tool you’ll want to use for everything, but it’s a great thing to know for breaking the bonds of a heirarchical outline. In fact, I will frequently mind map something first and then, with the concepts and relationships down on paper, I can start assigning weight, order, and presentation methodology in a linear outline. Try it out on some small piece of writing, such as an article or a blog post and see how it works for you.

Final tip: if you’re sweating too much over what goes where on the page, you’re putting too much thought into it. Mind mapping should be as light and quick as possible. Mind maps are usually a lot more fun than an outline because your right brain gets a chance to participate. If your pen is hovering over a section of the page too much, you’re probably stuck on something, so go do something else in another part of the mind map until whatever you’re trying to place pops up again.

Typing or dictating?

34 years ago, I had to learn to touch-type as part of a CETA program. FWIW, I hated the idea of having to learn this, but they said, no, you’ve gotta learn to do it. (grump grump grouse pout stomp stomp!)

Okay, I enrolled in the typing class. And I went from 0 to 48wpm in about 2 months (40 was all they required of you to graduate from that class.) Within a couple years, I’d gotten to 75wpm and 30-some years later after all these books and manuals, it’s now 130wpm when I’m really cruising. Mind you, to do that, I need an Avant Stellar keyboard, which has hard plastic keys with a wide channel, a deep stroke, and a click at the bottom of the keyboard (just like the old IBM AT keyboards). They’ve also got the function keys on the left, just like God intended, and you can reprogram the keyboard to do anything. They automatically include keycaps to put the Ctrl key, the Alt key, and the Caps Lock back where they’re supposed to go, so all those Ctrl + F-key combos are something you can do with one hand without looking. But don’t take my word for it; go look at them here. They’re expensive but they’re totally worth it to me. And they last.

I discovered on my very first book that once I’d sunk into that creative reverie that makes writing so much fun, I was thinking ahead of what I was actually typing by a couple of paragraphs. It was a magical experience for me: I was sitting there watching the screen and the fingers were blazing away and I was thinking of how this was all going to unfold. My hands were feeling like spooled devices, like printers: I’d have a paragraph or so in the mental buffer waiting to get out and the hands would work independently to catch up with things as fast as they could. It was biggedly cool. I enjoyed it enormously then and whenever it’s happened since.

This thinking ahead and letting the hands run on automatic is why I strongly prefer using keyboard commands to mouse commands when I’m working. Keyboard commands can be injected into the stream of things the hands are doing. Doing commands to make a correction or what not is probably a real-time operation as opposed to something spooled, but even so, I don’t have to move the hands from the keyboard, I don’t really have to watch the screen too much, and I don’t have to break my thinking. Picking up the mouse and manipulating the cursor is very much a real-time operation that uses a whole different set of reflexes and is, frankly, just a little distracting.

This “spooled vs. real-time” distinction is a lot of why I don’t dictate my books. I know a lot of people who use Dragon NaturallySpeaking software to dictate to their computers. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is really good software in many ways and everything I’ve heard about it suggests that it’s a product you really want to consider if you need to dictate. But it’s just not feeling like it’s something I’d want to use. Talking the book doesn’t feel right because it’s a real-time operation. I can’t really think ahead when I’m dictating. I also don’t know if I can talk for 6, 8, 10 hours a day. Shoot, talking on the phone for a couple hours a day is difficult enough at times. And there’s also the problem of not wanting to talk early in the morning. It takes more energy than fluttering my fingers. And on top of all of that, I like to have background noise like music or the idiot box, which’d be a problem.

But today I heard about a great use for dictation that I’m going to have to try. Aila Accad, president of LifeQuest International, told me that she dictates into a digital recorder, which she then inputs to the Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. The software inhales the digital information, turns it into text, and voila! I need to give this a shot, because when I’m on the road, I could in fact write notes, ideas, and other things. I could even practice some of my presentations and get transcriptions.

And who knows? I might get in the habit of dictating more and use it here when I’m home, too. But I’d have to turn the music down, so first things first.