Apr 27

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

Books Like Blogs

I recently posted this interesting book review to the O'Reilly editors mailing list, pointing out this phrase: "The Nathan book is brilliant. It reads like a blog and competes toe-to-toe with anything you'd find on the web." I was struck by the idea that a blog's voice is a good thing. Although we've been willing to work within our authors' voices (see Programming Perl as the ultimate expression of this), there seems quite a gulf between the ultra-casual tone of a blog and the edited, polished, reviewed (and spellchecked) tone of a book.

I guess I'm not the only one who thought this. O'Reilly technical evangelist chromatic wrote a reply that made me spray my morning Wheaties over my laptop screen when I read it. Put down your cereal and enjoy ...

It's difficult for me to separate the web's voice from what seems to be the web's ignorance and polemics. Is this appropriate outside of cookbook or a hacks book? Of course, that ought to make Ruby books easy to write:

Ruby is the most powerful programming language ever! Anything invented before 2005 is bear skins and chipped stone knives! Don't hire anyone who doesn't lick his MacBook every ten minutes! I've been programming for three weeks! Ruby is the new Lisp! DHH is dreamy! I can solve that problem in just two lines of code, and it's absolutely impossible in any other language (except maybe Erlang, oooh)! DSLs! DSLs DSLs! DSLs DSLs DSLs!

Expect a sharp rise in ink prices as all punctuation suddenly gets more expensive. (The dot in an exclamation point is actually a little cartoon fox.)

Java's fun too:

Open source is bad because forks are bad! Open source is good because we can fix bugs! Closures! Closures closures! Yay Groovy! Boo Groovy! Yay Jython! Jython what?! Yay JRuby! Boo JRuby! Boo J2EE! We're still relevant we promise! By the way we still use JVM 1.2! Yes us too!

For equal time, here's Perl:

When will Perl 6 come out? I read a Ruby blog today and I actually felt my brain cells committing suicide. We're hiring, but we can't find enough good people. Announcing a new conference/hackathon/developer day/workshop/mongers meeting!


Monads explained! Monads dissected! Monads disassembled! Monads illuminated! This is the best tutorial ever! The perfect Haskell tutorial! Some esoteric math paper I have no hope even of describing.

At least this would be a good test of our Unicode printing process, and we'll save on printing costs because there are no identifier names over six characters long in the entire Haskell universe.

*I* certainly don't want to tech edit a blog.

P.S. from Tim: As promised, here are the bookscan graphs comparing the performance of the two books. More in the comments:


tags: publishing  | comments: 11   | Sphere It

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Comments: 11

  Chris Shiflett [04.27.07 02:51 PM]

Not all blogs are poorly written. :-)

  Michael R. Bernstein [04.27.07 03:16 PM]

/me is lurking in wait for Tim's promised graphs...

  Haacked [04.27.07 05:32 PM]

It makes sense to me. According to studies referenced by the intro to the Head First series,

"In recent studies, students performed up to 40% better on post-learning tests if the content spoke directly to the reader, using a first-person conversational style rather than taking a formal tone."

I wrote some more about this here:

  chromatic [04.27.07 06:16 PM]

@Haacked, It's not the informality that bothers me, it's something else I can only describe in metaphor.

If you want to teach me Haskell, for example, don't show me how it's the best language ever for calculating the Fibonacci sequence or the digits of pi or factorials lazily. If you're going to review a new Linux distribution, don't spend four out of your five pages talking about installation and then say that BeOS had a better interface than anything before or since and conclude that you still prefer Mac OS X. If you want to sell me on a new Ruby library, don't use the word "DSL" at all. Ever.

That's tired, banal writing, and count how many times you see any of those in a given week online. If we (O'Reilly) can't explain things with better examples and draw more insightful conclusions in our books and articles and weblogs and conferences, we might as well stop what we're doing, because we no longer add sufficient value as editors and technologists and thinkers.

  Michael R. Bernstein [04.28.07 12:45 PM]

/me is still lurking in wait for Tim's promised graphs...

  Tim O'Reilly [04.29.07 10:17 AM]

Michael -- sorry this slipped my mind, and thanks for the reminder. Distractions are many and free minutes are few.

The graphs showing the trajectory for the two books are in a postscript to the entry above. (Our MT configuration doesn't seem to allow even me to publish images here in the comments.)

(Note for those who haven't previously seen our bookscan sales graphs. These are from data collected by Neilsen from point of sales data from major accounts, and represent approximately 70-75% of US sales or 50% of worldwide English sales. The numbers are in units sold weekly.)

  len bullard [04.29.07 11:45 AM]

One of the best technical manuals for the VW was "Volkswagen for the Complete Idiot". It was a firestarter for series that spoke directly to the uneducated garage mechanic trying to fix an engine designed from its inception to be fixable by the average idiot, but documented like it was a top of the line porsche.

1. The tone can match the level of the design if the design is right for the tone. I know that is self-referencing but... It's ok to let your personality show. Just try to remember that it is very easy to provincialize when doing that and sometimes, that is ok, but the web is a global book and in someways, a global mind. Don't forget: tolerance, compassion, self-restraint.

2. If you can't make the technology match the tone, write project books. I don't want to teach vector math and nested coordinate systems when I teach X3D. I teach them how to build something that from the first page they look at it and say, "Oh, I know what I can use that for." In some circles it is called the motivation context for learning, but really, it's just situation-based. Then you can take small jumps to the left of right and get an entirely different application.

3. If the reader is debugging your code while cutting and pasting it, you failed as a writer.

4. Tone should be a memory aid and that means entertaining writing is ok. Tone should not be an obstacle or means to prove you mastered a code list or argot (look it up), or that you couldn't resist inside jokes where inappropriate (we all do it; editors really should point these out).

5. Tone should match training. Some people really are rocket scientists and don't need the filler. They can read and apply the math fast. They are not a large market. Caveat vendor.

6. De-engfish the writing. It's an old term from technical writing days describing sentences overloaded with terms and too many dependent clauses. Some of us really do think and speak that way. Rewrite it. I know it's tedious but do it.

7. Quality == time == money. If they pay for the writing, do a better job. If they don't, do what you please (see Mungo Jerry).

8. Do have fun. Like watching a band perform, those that enjoy each other personally and what they are playing are entertaining. If they don't, no matter how well they execute the notes, the lack of fun shows and the show is boring.


  Tim O'Brien [04.29.07 06:37 PM]

I dislike the overly personal, chatty style of book writing, but I also dislike the idea of a technical book without voice.

It is a fine balance. Good book is Java Threads by Scott Oaks, and I also enjoy Brett M.'s books as being both dense and technical.

First person sparingly, know when to use it. IMO, nothing worse than having to wade through too many "I" statements when you are trying to follow a cookbook recipe. At the same time, the introduction is a good place for an aside or first person...but you also risk seeming formulaic.

  Michael R. Bernstein [04.30.07 12:40 PM]

Thanks for the graphs, Tim! All is forgiven... ;-)

  bellydancer79 [05.03.07 10:39 AM]

in response to len bullard..
I do agree, myself being a writer, and not a highly technical person. The 'uber genius'-may have created a new word there,but oh well, that admire are the individuals that can speak in frank and simple terms, still possess a personality and show it in how they write, speak, and more importantly be able to teach effectively so that many can learn. MANY, MANY blogs, books today are lacking that conversational tone to relate to the reader. 40% seems to be an understatement haacked. Think of how many in the U.S. population are employed in the science,math, computer fields? And for those who aren't, that formality isn't going to stick in their minds for them to actually grasp what the persons saying, the key is being able to relate to the MASS population.

For someone to just spit out numbers, knowlege, verbatim dialogue, where's the individual.? The HUMAN, the person that makes me want to read their book, their blog, their articles, is that a person, Im not saying be Mother Theresa or Bono. Give me a human anyday that embraces some personality,flair. Why did Clinton have so many forgive him for the scandal because he was able to relate to the social masses. That person that understands human nature, culture, sociology and psychology of people and not just a motherboard.
Being a college grad in the social sciences, a southern girl,and currently teaching myself the ropes of programming and development to build a health related site/network-keyword self taught with the trial and error, books, sites, stickies, post its, and all. It would be nice to have that site,book, blog that explains a few things in a simpler less technical dialogue, analogies, step by step whatever. Just my opinion and maybe some or many will understand or nod their heads in agreement or agree to disagree.and no offense meant in this post-was speaking in broad and general terms..

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