About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 35 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you're in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you're dealing with someone who can't.

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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 6/2/2024

Totals
Posts - 2654
Comments - 2677
Hits - 2,669,973

Averages
Entries/day - 0.35
Comments/entry - 1.01
Hits/day - 349

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:17 PM Pacific


  08:16 AM

Twenty years ago today, I posted the first entry on this blog. As I’ve recounted, I wrote some blog software as an outgrowth of a book project I’d been working on. The book purported to teach people how to program websites, and a blog seemed like a good exercise to test that.

It’s hard today to remember how exciting the idea of blogs was 20 years ago. Before then I’d contributed some articles to a couple of specialized publications, and I was proud to see those in print. But dang, with blogging, you could sit at your desk and draft something, press a button, and presto, anyone in the (connected) world could read it instantly.

In the early days, there was handwringing and skepticism about blogs. “The blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought,” according to Alan Jacobs.[1] And in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Rago dismissed blogs as “written by fools to be read by imbeciles.”

Despite these Insightful Thoughts from pundits, somehow blogging survived. (haha) In my world—software documentation—blogs turned out to be perfect for a niche that otherwise could be filled only by conference presentations, or occasional articles, or books. Blogs became a way to get news and information out fast. They were also unfiltered, as compared with company-created documentation: authors could provide personal and opinionated information. And in blogs like The Old New Thing (about Windows) and Fabulous Adventures in Coding (about programming languages), to name only two, readers got all sorts of insights into how and why software was developed as it was.

And it was all free!

Once blogging overcame the initial doubts, people and companies were keen to learn how to do it. In the mid-oughts, I was teaching classes in Microsoft Word and in editing at the local college. The woman who ran the department called me up one day and said “I think we need a class about blogging.” So I put together a curriculum and taught that class for a couple of years. Which naturally I blogged about.

A bit ironically, in my own blog I didn’t follow some of the advice I was dispensing. My subject matter was (is) all over the place, as the Categories list on the main page suggests. I also was not very disciplined about adhering to a strict schedule, about planning my posts around specific dates or events, or about optimizing for SEO. (In my defense, I’ve never thought of my blog as a commercial project, so I wasn’t very concerned about maximizing traffic, building a corporate or personal brand, etc.)

And here it is, 20 years on. Counting this entry, I’ve made 2,648 posts. A rough count tells me that I’ve written almost 900,000 words. The pace on this blog has slowed considerably, but the process has been valuable to me in many ways:

  • Blogging is writing. Putting together all those blog posts has given me lots of practice and I’m sure it’s improved my writing skills.
  • It’s a resource. Countless times I’ve reached back into the blog to look something up that I wrote long ago.[2]
  • It’s helped people. Perhaps the high point was when some Microsoft documentation pointed to one of my blog entries as the quasi-official story on something. Per my reckoning, the blog has gotten about 2.5 million hits, so hopefully some folks have gotten some value there.
  • I "met" many people via blogging, and some of those in real life, even.
  • It’s helped me in my career. I’ve used the blog to (in effect) draft things that were later turned into “real” documentation. I’ve used blog entries as writing samples when applying for jobs.

But over time, a couple of things changed. One was that Google killed Google Reader, a tool for tracking blogs, citing declining usage. This seemed to indicate that the popularity of blogs had crested, but I think that that change itself also contributed to making it harder to keep up with blogs.

The real change, of course, was social media. In particular, Twitter, which sometimes has been referred to as a “micro-blogging platform”, really took the air out of blogging. (For example, you're probably reading this because of a link on a social media site, not because you saw the post in your aggregator app.)

Although Twitter isn’t a good way to capture long-form posts, its immediacy became the default first-reaction medium for breaking news. And it was a perfect way to post from a smartphone; Twitter’s original 140-character limit was dictated by the constraints of the SMS protocol that was used with phones. Some will remember that as with blogging, early Twitter faced skepticism—“Why would I want to know what someone had for lunch?” for example—but it, too, found its footing.

But, gee, what goes around. In 2012, right about the time that Google Reader went away, the Medium website was launched. “Williams, previously co-founder of Blogger and Twitter, initially developed Medium as a means to publish writings and documents longer than Twitter's 140-character (now 280-character) maximum.” (Wikipedia) And there’s also Substack at al., platforms that let authors publish newsletters, as they call them, and push them to your email. Maybe I’m a bit cynical, but the difference between a blog entry that appears in your aggregator and a newsletter that appears in your inbox seems pretty small to me.

Although the software that originally inspired this blog (Web Matrix) is long gone, the blog persists. For about 19 years, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll rewrite the code to modernize it. We’ll see.

It’s had a good run, this blog, and I think it still has value to me and who knows, maybe to others. I’ll check in again in five years. :)

[1] He updated that thought a few years later.

[2] The funniest example of this was just recently. I was having an issue with the blog, so I did a search on the error message I was getting. Google pointed me to an entry on my own blog that outlined the fix.

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  04:34 PM

Part 4 of a series about what I did to self-publish an ebook and then a paperback version of it.

This is the final part, which is about creating a manuscript for print and then publishing the book on the Amazon site as a (print-on-demand) paperback. This entry covers a lot:

About formatting for print

When you format for print, what you see is what you get. Unlike an ebook, your choices about typeface, font size, paragraph spacing, etc. are reflected directly in the final product. And you need to worry about page layout: page breaks, page numbers, headers and footers, etc.

When I was formatting the paperback version of the book, I pulled books off my shelf and studied their formatting and layout. There's a whole art and science to book layout, of which I know some rudiments. I reckoned I could do worse than try to copy how they did things in professionally formatted books.

Because someone asked me about this, I'll note that the book uses only two fonts. Body text is Times New Roman. I used a sans serif font (Calibri Light) for headings, headers/footers, and a few other purposes, as I'll explain. My choices here were all conservative and possibly even boring. I don't know enough to try to be creative in this sphere.

The Kindle paperback template

One of the formatting decisions for the paperback edition is to choose the book size ("trim size"). Amazon has Word templates that you can download for different trim sizes. The templates include sections that have predefined margin sizes and that are set up to have right/odd pages (recto), left/even pages (verso), and gutters. When they say "template," however, they don't mean a Word template—a .dotm file—just a .docx file with predefined settings and some sample content.

I made a copy of Amazon's 6 x 9in.docx template, which is a standard size for trade paperbacks (in the US, anyway). Their template has different sections (in the Microsoft Word sense of "section")—a section for the title page, another section for the copyright page, and sections for the table of contents, the acknowledgements, and of course a section for the main text. The point is to allow you to control pagination and headers/footers separately for each of these sections.

Once I had the template, I copied the contents of my original manuscript (not the ebook manuscript) into the section of the 6 x 9 doc that was for the body of the book. Then I did the title page in the title-page section, and so on. Then I got to work at formatting this manuscript for a print book.

If you've been following along, this means I now have three versions of the manuscript (original, ebook, print). As I was fooling around with book formatting, I found more content issues, so I had to make changes in all three versions of the document.

Paragraph formatting

It's common in books for text to be justified. In running text, there aren't blank lines between paragraphs. The first line of a paragraph is indented unless it follows a heading or other break in the text. Books also have page headers and footers.

To implement all this, I tweaked and amended the formatting of the Word styles I was using. Here's a diagram that captures a lot of this, with descriptions afterward.


(Click to embiggen)

A. Body text

I adjusted the settings for the Normal style for book layout: I set alignment to justified and I indented the first line. I also set line spacing to 1.12 to give the text a little breathing room but not too much.

For the typeface, I chose Times New Roman 11 pt, and I used the font-formatting option to set kerning for 11 points and larger. My thinking here is that the tool probably has more smarts built into it than I do about text layout, so I should take advantage.

B. Widow and orphan control

You don't want page breaks to leave individual lines dangling at the end or beginning of a page, aka widows and orphans. As with book design generally, there's a craft to this. I enabled the Widow/Orphan control setting for the Normal style. (Probably not what a professional book designer would do? I don't know.)

C. Body text after headings

I had to create a new style (Body after heading) that was the same as Normal except that the first line wasn't indented. I then had to go through and manually apply that style to any paragraph that followed a heading, a diagram, a blockquote, an example, or a list.

D. Headings

For headings, I used the contrasting, sans serif typeface (Calibri Light), bold. I ended with Heading 1 at 18 points and Heading 2 at 13 points.

For the heading paragraphs, I enabled Keep with next and Keep lines together, but I disabled widow/orphan control. I also set some space before and after the heading-style paragraphs.

E. Page headers

For print, you also need page headers. The Kindle template is set up to allow different headers on odd (recto) and even (verso) pages. As noted, it also lets you set different headers and footers for different sections.

In the body part of the book, for the headers on even (left) pages, I used the name of the book. For the headers on odd pages, I used the STYLEREF field set to Heading 1; this shows the text of the current Heading 1 paragraph. (See Rhonda Bracey's explanation.) As you can see from the diagram, the result was that when the book was open, the title was on the top left and the current entry was on the top right.

There are no headers or footers for the introductory sections of the book (title page, copyright page, TOC).

For the page headers I used the contrasting font (Calibri Light) and set it to 10 pt instead of the 11-pt size that's in the body text.

F. Page footers

I used the page footers for page numbers. I set up page numbering to start at 1 in the main section of the document. You can't see it in the diagram, but for the preliminary pages in the book (table of contents, intro), I set up page numbering to use small roman numerals (i through iv). The section for the title page and copyright page has no page numbering.

In the original manuscript, the "Related terms" list at the end of each entry was a Heading 2 paragraph followed by a paragraph styled Related terms list. (Earlier explanation) I'd created this style to be able to control its formatting separately from the spacing (etc.) of the Normal style. For the print book, I thought having an H2 + a separate paragraph took up too much space in the book. I ended up removing the text "Related terms" as a separate heading and I just added it to the beginning of the list. This was a manual process, with an assist from find-and-replace.

This is what it looks like in the ebook manuscript:

And this is what it looks like in the print manuscript:

H. Footnotes

I changed the settings for the Footnote style to use be 9.5 points. However, I didn't use footnotes in the print book the same way I had in the original manuscript, as I explain next.

Rethinking footnotes

As noted before, I had a lot of notes/footnotes in my original manuscript. For the ebook, I'd done work to make these into links to end notes at the end of each entry.

For the print book, given especially the small format (6x9), the footnotes took up a lot of space at the bottom of the page. (IOW, they didn't look as clever in the print book as I'd thought when I wrote them.) Also, I needed footnotes for a different purpose.

So I removed almost all of the informational footnotes. Instead, I integrated the footnote text into the body text, sometimes parenthetically.

A big dilemma was what to do about links. The ebook had links to outside sources, and it had many, many cross-links within the book to related terms. I ended up doing several things. This included adding a paragraph in the introduction that spelled out my conventions, which I'd also had to do in the ebook.

For external links, I went through one by one, copied the URL of the target, and put that target URL into a footnote. In a few instances, the URL was so long that I used a URL shortener. After I'd added a footnote for an external link, I removed the Hyperlink style of the original link. This was a manual process.

In case you're wondering, I experimented with putting the URLs directly into the body text. Not only did this look awful, but it messed up the formatting (justification) in the paragraph.

The original looks like this in the ebook manuscript:

And it looks like this in the paperback manuscript:

I also removed some of the external links altogether. Some number of the links felt like they weren't all that necessary—more CYA than FYI. The rough rubric I used was whether I thought that the intended reader for the book would find the external source interesting enough. I did this pretty quick, so I probably made a few bad calls, dunno. This means that there are some small content differences, citation-wise, between the ebook and the paperback.

For internal links—cross-references to other entries in the book—I created a new style called Cross-reference. This new style uses the contrasting font (Calibri Light) and has no color or underlining. Since I'd already removed all the external links, I changed the remaining instances of Hyperlink style to use the Cross-reference style. (You can do this in the Styles pane, as Rhonda Bracey explains.)

The result was that something that originally looked like this in the ebook:

… looks like this in the print book:

I'm reasonably happy with this solution.

Hyphenation

When text is justified, you can get some weird spacing in a paragraph unless you enable hyphenation. So in Word, I enabled automatic hyphenation. Word did a pretty decent job of hyphenating words.

What about indexing?

An ebook can get by without an index if you accept that searching the ebook is a workable substitute. Print books ... well, they should have an index, right? I did not create one/have one created. My very weak justification is that my book is in some ways an alphabetical reference, so if I want to look up, say, "biscuit conditional," why, it's right there in the table of contents. But I do recognize that there are many terms in the book that don't have headwords and that the book definitely would benefit from a real index. Perhaps for the next edition?

Checking the layout

Ok, whew! After I'd made these adjustments to the formatting for the print book, it was time to check everything. I saved the document as a PDF file (the format that Amazon wants) and then paged through it. I did all of these checks:

  • Make sure new each new section starts on an odd (recto) page. Not each entry, but each section (TOC, Introduction, etc.)
  • Check for bad page breaks e.g. leaving a heading by itself, or awkward gaps between entries. I fixed some of these with small adjustments, such as slightly resizing images, or adding or removing small amounts of space around images, block quotes, or cites. This is part of the craft of book design, and there's much here for me to learn.
  • Check for widows and orphans.
  • Check for bad hyphenation. I attempted to review every instance of auto-hyphenation in the book. In the end I found only, like, 4 words that were awkwardly split. Interestingly, while checking, I discovered that Merriam-Webster and American Heritage sometimes have different ideas about how to hyphenate.
  • Check that the TOC page numbers were correct. I had to remember to refresh the TOC every time I did anything that affected page flow.

This was an iterative process—if a change affected page flow, I had to recheck everything that followed the change. I don't know how many times I went through the book, but it was a lot. And naturally I still missed stuff, because self-editing is hard.

Configuring KDP for publishing the paperback

After all this reformatting, I was ready to set up the print book on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). I created a new project and chose the option to create a paperback. Some of this process is similar to how you set up a Kindle ebook—do you have your own ISBN? What price do you want?

But the print version has a couple of additional options and steps. What color paper do you want? Should the cover be matte or shiny? These choices seemed straightforward to me.

They also ask about Territories, which has something to do with distribution rights. I went with the default ("All territories"). They also ask about Primary marketplace, which is basically which national flavor of Amazon you want to use for your book—for example, Amazon.com versus Amazon.co.uk. This is interesting for international sales and for calculating prices and royalties. I have no advice for you, though.

A few print options required some work.

Cover art

For the ebook, you have to provide just a cover image. But for a printed book, you have to provide the entire cover: front, spine, back. Ideally, they want a PDF or TIFF file that has text and art for this three-sided cover. They have a template for this.

Fortunately, they also provide the Cover Creator tool. The tools let you enter text for the summary (back cover), author bio (also back cover), and for the spine (title and author). You also upload the cover image. The tool has a certain number of knobs and levers, like font choices and a few layout options. It's okay; I wasn't super pleased with the resulting cover. If you have the skillz, you can probably create a much better cover with e.g. Photoshop. This is what the cover looked like in Cover Creator when I was done:

Upload and preview text

For the text, you upload a PDF file that you create from your Word document. They then really want you to preview the book layout. You might think that you'd already done that in Word and then perhaps after you created the PDF file. But the KDP preview is definitive—it shows you exactly what your printed book is going to look like. I'd encourage you to flip through your entire book yet again, again looking for weird page breaks, odd formatting, or whatever.

If you spot something (I did, multiple times), you can fix it in the Word file, re-save as a PDF, re-upload the PDF, and re-preview the book. This sounds tedious, and it is, but in the greater universe of book publishing, it's actually kind of amazing that you can do this from the comfort of your computer.

Ready? Not quite yet

Once you've set all the options and you've signed off on the preview version of your book, you're ready to go. Oh, wait! Not quite.

Before you finish-finish (contrastive-focus reduplication, it's in the book), you should proof your book. Order a proof copy and wait impatiently until it arrives. Then scrutinize it page by page, line by line. I guarantee that you'll find things you want to change. (If you're me, you'll still miss stuff.)

With your marked-up proof copy in hand, go back to the Word file for your print version and make the fixes. (You might even need to go back to the KDP version of your Word doc.) Then do all the review stuff again (don't forget to update the TOC) and save it as a PDF. Check the PDF. Re-upload the PDF to KDP and preview it there again.

Ok, now for real

When you've decided that your post-proof Word file is as perfect as you can make it (perfect used in a non-absolute sense, it's in the book), you're really ready. After you've uploaded the perfect version of your PDF file and previewed it, click Publish Your Paperback Book. Shortly thereafter your book will appear on Amazon.

Because the book is published on demand, and because they have to mail you the thing, it takes a while to get a copy. I think I waited about two weeks for my copies, but YMMV.

Linking book formats

A final note: when you have both a Kindle version and a print version of your book, you can link them in KDP. I believe that the effect is that Amazon has one listing for your book but shows both editions. Seems like a no-brainer, but you do have to explicitly do this.

Lessons and what's next

A few thoughts about what I'd do differently next time, and some things I might still do.

  • (Possibly) Test the entire process first by publishing a shorter, easier book. I would have learned a lot by writing and publishing, say, a 30-page giveaway book.
  • For some things, it would have been useful to start with the print version and then adapt that for the ebook version. Either way, though, there would still have been manual work in converting one to the other.
  • Stay my hand with the footnotes. Those proved to be a lot of work, and as noted, in the print edition I ended up incorporating many of those notes back into the text anyway.
  • Edit and proof even more. I went over the manuscript and the proof copy many times, and I still find stuff, oh well.
  • Get someone to design a better cover. Especially I'd get someone who can create a PDF file with the front, back, and spine laid out per the KDP spec.
  • Get my own ISBNs. That way I could publish the book on different platforms, not just Amazon.
  • Professional book design?
  • Index for the print version.

After thinking about it for a while, I think I'd do the same thing again that I did with links. For the ebook, I'd keep external and internal links and mark external ones. For the print book, I'd convert external links to footnotes and convert internal links to special formatting for print. I'm interested in other people's opinions about how to handle this.

Someone asked whether the book is available other than through Amazon, since some people don't like that platform. At the moment, no. I think I can make the book available on other self-publishing platforms based on the existing ebook and paperback manuscripts that I have. I'll need to investigate. Is the book available in a bookstore? Sadly, no.

And someday, I suppose, I'll get around to releasing the second edition. :)

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  03:15 PM

Part 3 of a series about what I did to self-publish an ebook and then a paperback version of it.

I mentioned earlier that I published using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). To do that, you create a KDP project in Kindle Create (KC), as I covered in Part 2. You create one project for your Kindle ebook. If you want, you can create additional projects for other formats, which I'll get to in Part 4.

To get through the KDP publish process, you need to create and decide on a few things. Here's what I cover in this entry.

The book description

You must provide the text that Amazon uses on their site to describe your book, up to 4000 characters. It's probably a good idea to have that text ready to go when you start your KDP project. Here's where the description text shows up in Amazon:

ISBN

All books can have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). (I could call this an ISBN number, which would be a redundant acronym phrase, as covered in my book, haha.) In the US, you can buy ISBNs from Bowker at $125 a pop or $295 for 10. Because each edition of your book—including ebook vs print—uses a different ISBN, the package deal seems like it could be useful.

Amazon says that Kindle books are not required to have an ISBN. Because I really wasn't sure what to do, I skipped the ISBN for my Kindle edition. For other formats, like paperback, Amazon will give you a free ISBN, and that's what I did for the print edition.

Important point: if you want your book to be available anyplace other than through Amazon, you must provide your own ISBNs. If I were doing this all over, I'd probably buy my ISBNs independently so that I could use them as I wanted.

You can read more about how ISBNs work and whether and how to get them in Publishing: Everything the Indie Author Needs to Know about ISBNs for Self-published Books.

Cover art

Even though you're publishing an ebook, you need to have cover art. The cover appears in your Amazon listing and in readers' Kindle libraries. Ideally, you'd probably hire a professional for your cover art. (I didn't, and it shows.) KDP wants you to upload a .tif or .jpg file that's (ideally) 2560 pixels high by 1,600 pixels wide. There's a page on the KDP site that provides some more details about cover art specification.

I got help from one of our art- and tech-savvy kids. I created the speech-bubble word cloud on wordcloud.com and exported that, and then Art Kid imported that into Canva.com and we did the rest there and then exported a high-quality JPEG file. (She was taking my lead, so the amateur-ish nature of the cover is not to be blamed on anyone but me.)

Anyway, have your cover art ready to go when you start your KDP project.

Configure KDP for publishing the ebook

When you've got your manuscript and other prerequisites sorted out, you go to the KDP site and sign in with your Amazon credentials. Then click the big yellow Create button to begin your project. This starts a multi-page configuration process.

You upload your cover art and content on the second page. For the text, you upload the .kpf file that you created with Kindle Create.

After you've uploaded the manuscript, you can preview the book. Even though you might have previewed the book in Kindle Create, KDP really wants you to preview the book during the configuration process. Launch the previewer and have a look. If you want to make changes, you go back to Kindle Create (or all the way back to your Word doc), make the change, and then re-upload the .kpf file. When you're happy with the book, then—gulp—click the accept button.

Keywords and categories

You can specify up to 7 keywords that describe your book. This is basically SEO-lite, I guess? I used the keywords language, vocabulary, and linguistics.

You also have to enter "browse categories" based on the existing categories that Amazon uses on its site. Because my book was about language, I ended up using these two categories:

Nonfiction > Language Arts & Disciplines > Linguistics > General
Nonfiction > Language Arts & Disciplines > General

I admit that I don't understand how the categories that KDP was offering map to categories I see on the Amazon site itself. That said, you do have to pick two from the categories they offer, so one does one's best.

Pricing

The last page of the KDP configuration is about sales and pricing: where to sell the book, how to sell it, and what to charge for it. This is confusing, because they give you a range of prices and royalties, and unless you've already studied up, you might not know how your choices here affect the availability of your book. I chose $9.99 because I got the sense that that's what Amazon was trying to get me to do. :)

Ready? Go

After you've finished the KDP configuration, you click Publish Your Kindle ebook, and you're done. Within a pretty short time (a day? less?), your book will be live on Amazon as a Kindle book and you can tell all your friends.

Up next, Part 4: Formatting and publishing the paperback

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  03:10 PM

Part 2 of a series about what I did to self-publish an ebook and then a paperback version of it.

When I began working on creating a Kindle version of the book, I duplicated my manuscript—I had the original Word doc and then a Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) version of the Word doc, where I made all the Kindle-specific changes that I describe below. This meant that if I decided to make a content change, I had to make it in both documents.

Here's what I cover in this part:

Some Kindle basics

It helps to understand a couple of things about how Kindle works. (I'm not an expert, so bear with me.)

  • Readers can pick a preferred typeface, font size, paragraph spacing, paragraph alignment (left, justified), and some other layout features. Being able to change these settings is one of the great features of reading ebooks, actually. This means that although you can set these things in the manuscript that you upload, readers might change them. That said, you can control a few formatting settings, like relative font size.

  • A lot of Kindle e-reader devices don't support color, so color by itself isn't going to be significant for readers using those devices. You'll want to try to be sure that everything in your manuscript also works with a non-color display.

  • People can switch between dark mode (light text on dark background) and light mode. One person noted that this was an issue with graphics—if someone is reading in dark mode, a light-colored graphic really pops out, sometimes in unpleasant ways. Spoiler: I have no solution to this issue.

When I wrote my original manuscript, I did a few things that I had to ponder when converting to Kindle (and later to print):

  • I had a lot of links to websites, i.e. external to the book.
  • I had a lot of internal links, i.e. cross-references to other entries in the book.
  • I had a lot of footnotes. Some were asides, some were additional information, some were … well, anyway, I had a lot of them.

I realized that a lot of people would be reading their Kindles offline—that is, in airplane mode. I wanted to make it clear to readers when a link was external, so that they didn't click it and then get the "You're offline, do you want to turn off airline mode?" message over and over. Therefore, in my KDP manuscript, I added a caret (^) to every single external link, like this:

I did this by hand, but the process was a little easier because in my Word file I used the Link Checker tool from AbleBits. Among other features, this tool produces a list of all the links, so that helped me home in on the external links.

Because the convention of using ^ after a link to mark it as external wasn't necessarily obvious to readers, I added a section in the introduction to the book (and only the ebook) that explained this convention. I did this although I don't think people read introductions, and I also feel fairly strongly that formatting shouldn't require explanation.

Footnotes introduced a different problem. The conversion tool for Kindle (see later) can handle footnotes fine. In fact, better than fine; it can generate footnotes that include Wikipedia-style back links to return you to where you clicked the footnote.

However, the converter turns footnotes in your Word file into endnotes in Kindle. Because I had over 100 footnotes (probably unwise), it would have meant an enormous section at the end of the book, and I didn't want that.

So I created chapter endnotes, in effect. In the Word doc, at the end of each chapter (i.e. each entry), I added the words "Note 1," "Note 2," etc. and then the text of the corresponding footnote. I restarted the note numbering for each entry, and I manually made sure the numbering was sequential in the text and in the footnotes. Then I used Word bookmarks and internal links to manually create the links to these chapter endnotes. I also manually created the backlinks to return to where the footnote was marked. This sounds confusing, but here's an example:

Needless to say, this was a lot of work, and somewhat error prone. More than once I questioned the wisdom of my approach and of footnotes generally. Nevertheless, that's what I did. (I can explain this process in more detail if you're interested.)

I'm pleased to say that this worked great. It imported perfectly into the Kindle book and has exactly the effect I wanted.

The Kindle Create tool

Amazon has a free tool that's a huge help for creating books: Kindle Create (hereinafter KC).

The tool lets you import a .doc/.docx file, fix up the formatting (with some limits), preview the result, and then create a file to submit for publishing. Although you can edit and format most text, you can't edit everything—for example, at the time I was using the tool, you couldn't make any changes in lists.

The tool also lets you create a title page, a table of contents (TOC), an Acknowledgments page, About the Author page, and so on. I had already created those in my original manuscript, so I didn't really take advantage of those features.

Importing and applying styles and formatting

The KC tool supports a modest selection of styles, which they call elements. These include Chapter Title, Subheading, Block Quote, and Body Text. These are fine for a lot of uses, such as novels.

Headings as chapter titles

When you import your Word file into KC, KC recognizes text that's styled as a heading (any heading, not just Heading 1 paragraphs) and marks those headings as Chapter Title elements. When the import process finishes, KC offers you suggested chapter titles that shows you everything that it thinks is a chapter title:

You really want to scrutinize this list and unselect the elements that are not real chapter titles. You should do this right at the beginning, because it's easier to do this now than to fix up the formatting later. When I did this, some of the non-heading paragraphs were marked as Chapter Title elements, I don't know why. I just unselected those as noted here.

All other text

As far as I can tell, anything other than a heading style from the Word file is imported as Body Text.

However, KC imports the formatting (as opposed to the style) of text in your Word document, up to a point. Kindle renders body text using the reader's choice for typeface and font size. Beyond that:

  • Character formatting. KC imports italics, bold, color, underline, and other basic character formatting. It retains font sizes that you've applied, but not typefaces/font families. For example, because KC doesn't import font families, I don't know how to get it to import a monospace font like Courier or Consolas.

  • Paragraph formatting. In my manuscript, the body text was aligned left; in other words, I didn't explicitly set alignment to center, right, or justified. When KC imported the text, paragraphs were justified, which is the Kindle default. (As noted, Kindle readers can change this.) During the import process, KC retains paragraph formatting such as line spacing and indentation. If you've aligned paragraphs center or right, KC retains that. If a paragraph has a non-default font size, the import process retains that, too. For example, I set the font size for my blockquote paragraphs to be 1 point smaller than for body text, and the import process respected that.

  • Page breaks. Page breaks are retained.

  • Links. Links in the Word file are imported as links in the Kindle format.

After you've imported the Word file, you can (mostly) manually edit and format text in KC. The formatting options are fairly rich: you can set font (including font face), color, bold, etc. For example, if you want to set some text to monospace, you can do that in KC with manual editing. For paragraphs, you can set indentation, spacing, and justification.

You can also "cascade" your format settings for the element you're playing with. (This is like CSS, or in Word, like making a change in Word to the style definition for that text.) For example, by default, KC renders all Chapter Title elements (headings) using all caps. However, you can select a heading (element: Chapter Title) and then set casing to UPPER CASE, lower case, Title Case, or None. I did this—I selected a heading, set casing to None, and then made sure that the Cascade formatting changes for elements option was selected:

This told KC to leave the casing of my headings as I had set them in the manuscript. Because I enabled the "cascade" option, it made this change to all my headings.

I mostly did not make text or formatting changes in KC (except for headings, see previous). Instead, when I wanted to change the formatting, I went back to the KDP version of my Word doc, changed formatting there, and then created a new KC project and re-imported my text. I ended up doing this many times—4? 6? 10? I forget. I did it however many it took me until I'd ironed out all the issues I found in KC and until could import a clean doc. I did this because I knew I was going to need to do further work in Word later and I wanted the changes to be in the Word doc.

Tables

My manuscript had several tables in it, but I'd read repeatedly that ebooks don't handle tables well. For small tables, I converted them to graphics. Here's an example of a small table that I converted to a graphic—I just took a screenshot of the table in the original manuscript:

A lesson I eventually learned here is that before you take the screenshot, make sure that the text of the table is perfect. And make sure that spell-check and grammar-check haven't left squiggly lines under words in your table.

For large tables, I didn't try to create graphics from them. Instead, I converted them into lists. In HTML terms, I emulated a description list, though I did that manually, not through styles.

Here's what one of those tables looked like originally:

And here's what I converted it to:

To do this, I created a special paragraph style for the terms and descriptions so that they'd be indented and so they'd have a smaller font size. I had to manually convert the original table to this new set of styles. But once I'd done that, the KC tool respected these formatting choices when it imported the text.

Still, lesson learned: if you know you're going to publish in an ebook format, stay away from tables.

Graphics

I had read that KC could import embedded graphics directly, and that was my experience. fwiw, I had only JPEG and PNG graphics.

KC imports any alt text that you've assigned to graphics in the Word file. But you can also write alt text in KC if you didn't do it in Word.

In KC, you can resize a graphic using t-shirt sizes: Small, Medium, Large, or Full. If you choose Large or Full, the graphic is centered. If you choose Small or Medium, you can also specify whether you want text to flow to the left or right of your image.

As I noted earlier, someone pointed out to me that graphics will pop out at them uncomfortable way if they're reading in dark mode. As of now, I have no answer to that issue.

Previewing in KC

The editing layout that you work with in KC is a pretty good approximation of what the text will look like. But KC also has a Preview mode that lets you get an exact sense of how the book will look like in different form factors. You can choose to preview in Kindle E-Reader, Tablet, or Phone device types.

When you're done with KC

When you've got your text done in KC, you save your project as a .kpf file. That's the format you use for the next stage, which is to set up your Kindle book for publishing.

Up next, Part 3: Publishing the ebook

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  01:39 PM

I self-published a book recently. (Crash Blossoms, Eggcorns, Mondegreens & Mountweazels: 101 Terms About Language That You Didn't Know You Needed) I used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which lets you set up and then publish Kindle ebooks, paperbacks, and hardbacks. The print versions are print-on-demand.

I learned a few things about the process (by no means everything), so I thought I'd capture so that I have a reference for the next time I decide to do this. :)

I've done this in a multi-part blog post series.

A couple of the individual parts are sort of long, sorry. I didn't want to split them up any more than this, though. Here's what's in this first part:

The Word file

I wrote the manuscript in Microsoft Word. For better or worse, Word files (.doc, .docx) are a (the?) favored format for importing into the KDP pipeline.

Using styles

My advice is that if you're intending to publish to both Kindle and as a print book (paperback or hardback), use styles in Microsoft Word. As I'll explain later, this will make it easy for you to convert things like headings for the Kindle, and to convert hyperlinks into something else in the print editions.

For most publishing needs (fiction, say), it's probably sufficient to use styles for headings and body text. I wanted to use some special formatting, so I created custom styles. (I love styles.) In the sections that follow, I have a short list of the styles I created. These are specific to my scenario, which is a non-fiction book; I'm not suggesting that you follow this lead. If you're not a style nerd, skip to the General formatting section later.

Paragraph styles

Normal. The body text for my book was all in the Normal style. For the original manuscript, it doesn't really matter what your style settings are. The settings for your Normal style don't become important till you're formatting for print, which I'll explain when I get that far.

Example. I wanted a special style for paragraphs that were for examples. I defined this style as .25 inch indent, non-default paragraph spacing. In my manuscript, I had this as a contrasting (sans serif) typeface—that didn't matter for the ebook, but it did later for the print book.

Blockquote. I created a different paragraph style for when I had a longish cite from another source. This was indented, and it used the default typeface, but 1 point smaller.

Related terms list. At the end of each entry I have a "Related terms" heading followed by a paragraph that lists related terms in the book. I wanted to be able to control the formatting of this list independently of the body text. This ended up helping a little later for the print edition.

Character styles

I really went to town on character styles, many more than I needed. A couple of notes about character styles.

Word as word. I created a character style for when I wanted to call out a term that I was talking about. This renders in the default font and in italics.

Word as word emphasis. This style was for when I wanted to call out an individual part within a word-as-word. This renders as italics + bold.

Example emphasis. A style for calling out something within an example. This uses the same font that I used for the Example paragraph style, plus italics + bold.

Hyperlink. I had links in my manuscript, both external links (to websites) and internal ones (to other sections of the document). When you create a link in Word, it styles the link as Hyperlink (blue + underline). It became important later to be able to work with this style.

As I say, I had many styles. You can see that a lot of the character styles end up rendering the same: italics, bold, italics + bold, etc. This is generally true of character styles—there are a limited number of ways that you can format words. Still, it's useful to have "semantic" styles: styles based on the purpose of the formatting, as opposed to what the text looks like.

Using semantic styles did end up being beneficial. For the most part, the look of the text didn't matter much for the ebook—Kindle has its own ideas about how to render text. (Some of the styling information translated to the ebook when I exported it to Kindle, as I'll eventually explain.) Styles were particularly useful later when I formatted the book for print—when I was laying out the print version, using styles made it easy to change my mind about how I wanted things to look in print. That said, I would have been okay with fewer character styles and with using direct formatting for the few oddball instances.

General formatting

In addition to formatting using styles, I did the following formatting.

Non-breaking spaces. I added non-breaking spaces when I wanted a space but didn't want Word to break a line before or after a piece of punctuation.

Non-breaking hyphens. I used non-breaking hyphens when I didn't want Word to break a line before the hyphen:

So that's what I did in the Word manuscript. In the next installment, I'll talk about how I worked with the Kindle Direct Publishing tools to prepare my manuscript as an ebook.

Up next, Part 2: Formatting the Kindle ebook

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  09:38 PM

When we talk to users about software documentation, we consistently get feedback that they like having screenshots in the docs. But screenshots are a conundrum for a technical writer because they introduce issues for the writer—issues that don't necessarily affect any one reader, but that can reduce the quality of the user experience over time and that have other meta implications. In fact, I'd say that screenshots are a documentation feature where the interests of the reader and writer can be quite at odds, as I'll explain.

Pros of screenshots

You probably know the advantages of including screenshots in documentation, but let's review. Screenshots have the following benefits:

  • Orientation. A screenshot can help the reader understand the layout of a console or window that’s in front of them.

  • Compact information. This is the "picture is worth a thousand words" benefit—a screenshot can save the reader from having to read a lot of words. For example, a screenshot can show a computer form with all the values already filled in that the writer otherwise has to describe in text.

  • Signposting. A screenshot can reassure the reader that they've done something correctly—"when you're done, it looks like this." A corollary is that if the user isn't seeing the thing you're picturing, they know that something went awry. (I've written elsewhere about signposting in documentation.)

  • Chunking /graphical relief. Readers hate "walls of text," meaning long blocks of uninterrupted words. One of the ways that you break up (that is, chunk) text or long procedures is to include graphics. Procedures that include screenshots feel friendlier to readers.

Cons of screenshots

The benefits of screenshots are clear enough that many authors use screenshots enthusiastically. I've seen procedures where every step included a screenshot. However, the following downsides to screenshots are often not immediately apparent:

  • Time and resources. When you're working on software documentation, getting a computer system into the proper state where you can snap the correct image takes time. Then there might be additional tasks like adding image files to your content management system, writing alt text, and staging all the screenshots and checking them.

    Sure, it's all part of the documentation process, but it's added friction. The more screenshots, the more friction.

  • Space in the document. If you're working on paper-based or PDF-based docs, adding screenshots adds pages to the docs. If you have space or size constraints, this can be an issue. (For the most part, this isn't an issue for web-based documentation.)

  • Rendering differences. A screenshot might look fine when you're testing a procedure in a browser window on your 24-inch monitor. But users might be using different form factors. Can users still get the benefit of the screenshot if they're looking at it on a smaller monitor, or on a tablet, or even on a phone?

  • Maintenance. As we know, computer UIs change, sometimes frequently. But a screenshot has to reflect the UI that the reader is seeing when they're reading, which might be months after you wrote the procedure and snapped the screenshots. Adding a screenshot means you've given yourself a big ol' maintenance task, because …

    A screenshot that's wrong is worse than no screenshot at all.

    Remember orientation and reassurance from the "Pros" list? An incorrect screenshot disorients and un-assures the reader. It significantly degrades the user's experience and their perception of the document. (This is not just speculation; users tell us this.)

    To add to the issue, there's the burden of re-creating a screenshot to reflect an updated UI. The work that you had to do to create it in the first place you have to do all over again for a new version of that screenshot.

  • Searachability. Any text that's inside a screenshot probably isn't searchable. If you take a screenshot of a computer form, the labels and values shown in that screenshot will not be indexed for search.

  • Accessibility. Screenshots are not going to be visible to some part of your audience. If someone is using assistive technology like a screen reader, the screenshot is effectively opaque.

  • Translatability. If your documentation is translated, you need to think about how screenshots will work in translation. Do the screenshots reflect the UI that someone sees who's using a translated version of your product?

    If your localization process doesn't include translating screenshots, are you okay with non-English readers seeing a graphic that doesn't reflect their UI? If the screenshots are going to be translated, who's snapping the screenshots in localized versions of your product and adding those screenshots to the localized docs?

    Even if you don't have a translation pipeline, it's worth thinking about whether non-English speakers might consume your documentation using machine translation and how screenshots then work for those readers.

Advice for using screenshots

So: users like screenshots, but they can be trouble for writers. I've worked in environments where the default approach was no screenshots, for the reasons stated. How can we reconcile the pros and cons? Here are some suggestions:

  • Think about the doc type and audience. Screenshots are more useful in tutorials and quickstarts than in other types of docs. If the document is for someone who's experienced with your product (and you have made this clear in the doc intro, right?), they might already be familiar with its interface and don’t need as much orientation, reassurance, and signposting as someone new to the product.

  • Use screenshots judiciously. As you work through a procedure or if you're studying users who are doing that, pay attention to where there are hitches and snags. Use text to guide users through these (more on that in a sec), but note those hitches as places where a screenshot might help. Definitely don't add screenshots only to make a procedure friendlier-looking.

    Obviously, if the interface is so complex that it's difficult to use without visual guidance in the docs, that's a problem for all users. In that case, while you're using documentation to work around issues in the product design, file all the bugs you can about these flaws.

  • Don’t rely on pictures alone to convey information. Even if a screenshot can theoretically replace a lot of text, in practice, it shouldn't. Accessibility requirements mean that if you show a filled-in form as a screenshot, you should also describe the form fields and their values in text. The same applies for any document that's going to be translated.

    For all contexts, the writer also has the curse of knowledge: they know why they took the screenshot and what it's intended to convey. But that isn't necessarily clear to readers, so they still need explanations of what the screenshots shows. A screenshot should enhance the writing, it should not replace it.

  • Focus on the relevant information. Crop to the part of the screenshot that you want users to see. This helps users focus on what you're trying to show them. It's also possible that cropping can future-proof the screenshot somewhat—if there are changes to the UI, perhaps the small part of the UI that's shown by a cropped screenshot might not need to be updated.

  • Have a maintenance plan. Whenever you snap a screenshot, anticipate as best you can what the UI will look like in a year or two. Create a documentation maintenance plan and include a task to re-run procedures and make sure that all the screenshots are accurate. To put it another way, screenshots are another checklist item in your doc debt, so plan accordingly.[1]

As I say, screenshots are a feature of the docs where readers and writers have different interests. Doc decisions should not put greater weight on what's convenient for the writer versus what's useful for the reader. But we also need to take into account the larger picture of user benefits—accessibility, translation, and the degraded experience that incorrect or out-of-date screenshots provide.

As with other features of the documentation, deciding to use screenshots requires us to take a long view of the content we're creating and how we can best benefit our readers (all of them) for now and in the future.

[1] You really, really learn to appreciate restraint in using screenshots after a big UI change where you had to update 40 or 60 or 100 screenshots in a doc set. [^]

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  03:22 PM

Not long ago, one of the editors at work raised a question in our editing group: do we have any guidance about bolding parts of a sentence in a paragraph? Like this:

The editor asked the author why they wanted to bold things this way. "So they'll stand out visually!" was the reply, or something close to that.

We don't have explicit guidance in our style guide that says "don't bold parts of a sentence just for visual accent," so there wasn't anything we could point the author to. Nonetheless, I've been thinking about this question, and I want to articulate why adding random bolding is not a good idea.

First, formatting "has semantics," as we say at work—when something is italicized or bolded or capitalized or monospace, it conveys information to the reader. Our style guide has guidelines for when we use different types of formatting. For example:

Use bold formatting for UI elements and at the beginning of notices.

Use italics formatting when drawing attention to a specific word or phrase, such as when defining terms or using words as words.

(UI elements means that the text references a button caption or textbox label. Beginning of notices means words like Note: at the start of a note.)

By being very consistent with these guidelines, we help the reader understand not just the words in a sentence, but what their significance is. When a reader sees "Click OK," they know that the bolded OK refers to a button.

We have the additional wrinkle in our texts that they're translated into several languages. Our formatting choices therefore have to be clear to the translators as well. If they see text in bold, they know our guidelines, so they assume that bold text is bold for one of the reasons that we've laid out, and they translate accordingly.

That aside, a fair question (imo) to ask the author is why they need to call out snippets of text in the paragraph in the first place. If the bolded bits are the important ones, then what's all the other text in the paragraph about? Sure, we know that people scan documents and that they don't read them word for word. (For example, see F-shaped Pattern of Reading on the Web: Misundertood, But Still Relevant.) But is using random bolded text the best way to accommodate this approach to scanning? We already have other ways to help readers scan the text: headings, lists, and tables. We can write sections, paragraphs, and even sentences to put the important parts at the beginning or the end.

Moreover, if we're going to use bold to make some parts of a paragraph stand out, what's the algorithm? How do we decide which are the important bits? Do we do this for some paragraphs but not others? In other words, is there some sort of consistent approach to how we're doing this, or is it based on the author's intuition about which text should be bolded?

And importantly, what kind of reading experience are we creating if the text has snippets in bold here and there?

Finally, there's a piece of writerly advice that I learned from the editor June Casagrande. In her piece "A look at the visual component of writing" in the LA Times, she points out the following:

In writing, looks count. In fact, many of the style rules followed so religiously by publishers exist exclusively to make the text easy on the eyes.

[…] some of these more superficial style conventions can give your writing a professional polish, affording your words a subtle air of authority. As a plus, writing that's easy on the eyes does a better job of getting your message across.

After reviewing a number of formatting conventions, she concludes with a strong point: "That's what the pros do." I want this observation framed and hanging above my desk. There are these conventions. Are they right? Are they wrong? It doesn't really matter. That's what the pros do.

If you want your writing to look professional, study professional writing and follow the conventions you see there. If you look at a lot of software documentation, do you see bits and pieces of paragraphs bolded? No. Should you develop your own conventions for your document? Also no. Should your document, among the thousands on our site, exhibit unique formatting conventions? Also also no.

My sense is that many editors agree, as least if "likes" on a tweet are any guide:

The next time we have a discussion about random bolding in a document, at least I'll have my thoughts in order. Whether they prove convincing to an author … well, we'll have to see.

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  08:54 AM

The hazards of overclaiming

I was listening to a podcast yesterday when it was interrupted with an ad that started like this:

Do you have 30 minutes to spare? Because after just one half hour, you'll never have to worry about a break-in at home again. That's how easy it is to set up a security system from [company name].

My editor brain froze at the point. What I heard was a claim that if you installed their system, you would not be broken into—you would be protected against burglary forever ("never have to worry").

When we technical-edit documents at work, one of our priorities is to check for what we call overclaiming. For example, we stay on the lookout for instances of overclaiming about security, like this:

This product prevents bad actors from hacking your system.

A claim like this simply can't be guaranteed. In the realm of security, the apparent strength of your product might just mean that a hacker hasn't found a flaw in it yet. For example, encryption algorithms that once seemed secure enough to be used by the NSA have been cracked.

We look for overclaiming in any discussion of performance:

Using this product makes your applications three times faster.

We look for it in mentions of costs:

This product reduces your computing costs by 50 percent.

For performance claims, we warn authors that anything that states a number has to have data to back it up. If you say your product is three times faster, you better be able to produce the tests that show this. The same applies to any mention of costs: numbers, please.

And we look for it in any text that involves comparison to other products:

Our product is substantially easier to use than [competitive product].

This claim is problematic in multiple ways. First, what does "easier" even mean? Something that's easy for me might be hard for you and vice versa. And competitive products are a moving target anyway; perhaps our product is "easier" than the current version of product X, but who knows what's in their next release.

So naturally I stumbled over "you'll never have to worry about a break-in at home again." But I thought about it for a bit. First, it's advertising copy, not a technical document on how to configure cloud computing. Maybe there's more wiggle room for wild claims, as in, people aren't expected to interpret these things literally.

I also homed in on the phrase "worry about." With some work, this can be made ambiguous. One idiomatic interpretation is that it means that something won't occur:

What if we run out of Cheetos tonight?
You don't need to worry about that[, we just went to Costco].

A more literal interpretation is that, well, you don't need to worry. This is the type of messaging that insurance companies use: it's not that [thing] won't happen, it's that you can stop worrying about [thing] happening because insurance.

I have a hard time fitting this second meaning onto the ad copy for home security systems. But if I had to defend that statement in court, say, that's what I'd go with.

Speaking of consequences, all of this hypervigilance about overclaiming is of course ultimately about protecting the company. The fear is not just that we'll be shown to have been wrong. ("Sorry.") When people spend vast sums based on assurances that you've given them about security or performance or cost, and when those assurances don't prove true, they might take a litigious turn of mind. At the very least, they're not going to trust you in the future and might look elsewhere to spend their money.

I'm not personally aware of the various companies I've worked for being hauled into court to defend an assertion. ("You said we wouldn't be hacked!") But clearly the lawyercats think about this a lot, and I've certainly participated in my share of fire drills in which we dropped everything to grub through many documents, tweaking some text that was discovered to be overclaim-y.

I would not be surprised to hear an ad from the same company a year from now in which the claim "you don't need to worry about break-ins" has been hedged to something like "Get yourself some peace of mind." If I were editing their copy, that's definitely what would happen.

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  12:16 PM

Over the weekend, I bought a recliner at Costco, which my wife laughingly suggested was my admission that I'm an Old Guy. But before I could, you know, recline, I needed to assemble the chair and figure out how to work it. In our modern era, reclining chairs are electronic, which means there are 5 different controls, which in turn means that there is an instruction manual.

The manual has instructions for how to perform the one required assembly step, although tbh I had figured out how to do that without the instructions. There are also pictures of how to plug in the two (!) electronic connections, though again, these were self-evident and had also been designed so they could be plugged in only one way.

The useful part of the instructions was the diagram that showed what the buttons on the control panel do. Ironically, this illustration is very small for, you know, Old Guys. This is it to scale as best I can render it (2 inches wide):

A curious part of the manual is that whoever created the manual decided that they needed to cast the instructions as a set of numbered procedures. Here's step 2, which is one of the more forced applications of a numbered procedure step that I've seen.

Where is step 1, you ask? I'm saving the best part for last. Step 1 concerns a feature of the recliner that I had not previously thought needed instructing:

("While seated in the recliner, enjoy the rock feature which allows you to gently rock backward and forward.")

There's a lot of fun stuff to unpack here:

  • It's step 1.
  • Don't do this while standing next to the recliner.
  • Imperative "enjoy."
  • "The rock feature."
  • Which "allows" you to rock.
  • Gently.
  • Backward and forward, as if there might be other ways to rock in a recliner.

Moments after I read this out loud to my wife it seemed clear that "enjoy the rock feature" has a good chance of entering our familect, as it's called: we now have a stock answer to the question of "What are you doing right now?" "I'm enjoying the rock feature."

But to end on a serious note: numbered procedures ("how-to" documentation) are useful if the reader needs to follow a sequence of steps to achieve a task. Rocking a chair is not a task that requires numbered steps. Understanding what the controls on a control panel do needs reference documentation, not how-to documentation. There are many challenges in technical writing, and one of them is choosing the appropriate style of documentation for what the reader needs.

More dubious guidance: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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  10:42 AM

One of the effects of this year's protests is that it has brought about heightened consciousness about language and how it affects or reflects certain thinking. For example, there have been discussions in the editorial community about capitalizing the word Black "in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense."

In the world of IT, we've been discussing the implications of certain terms for a while. The Microsoft style guide has suggested for a over a decade that writers avoid the terms whitelist and blacklist in order to avoid a connotation that white==good and black==bad. (I wrote about this a while back.)

Our own style guide has a section on inclusive language, and it suggests finding alternatives to a range of language that, when you look at it consciously, can have negative connotations or the possibility of offense. In addition to disrecommending the word blacklist, we tell our authors to use alternatives to terms like crippled system, dummy variables, sanity checks, native features, and first-class citizen.

A short digression about cloud technology. (For tl;dr, you can skip to the discussion of terminology.) We work in the world of cloud computing, which has its own concepts and vocabulary. The cloud, as the jokey definition goes, is just using someone else's computer. More specifically, it means using someone else's one or ten or hundreds of computers, because a fundamental benefit of the cloud is that you can adjust computing power as needed. For example, if you have a retail business, your website might need medium power normally, low power during a summer slump, and heavy-duty computing power to handle your yearly sale. The point is that your need for computing resources goes up and down, and rather than having to build out your own data center to accommodate the maximum possible demand (and whose high capacity might mostly just sit idle), you build your system in the cloud and spin up computers (servers) when demand is high, and take them down when they're no longer needed.

In this environment, computers are commodities. Any single computer is just a faceless worker in your overall computing infrastructure. Compare that to the computer sitting on your desk; you've probably personalized how it runs, installed many updates, and otherwise fussed over it. If one of the faceless computers in the cloud crashes, it's not a big deal; another one spins up and carries on the work. On the other hand, if your personal computer crashes, it's usually a disaster.

Ok, back to terminology. To conceptualize the difference between the faceless fleet of computers in the cloud and your personal computer, technologists devised the metaphor "cattle, not pets."[1] If a computer is a quasi-anonymous something that can be replaced any time, it's "cattle"; if it's an indispensable part of your work, it's a "pet."

Some authors love this metaphor, because, undeniably, it has explanatory power. More than once it's appeared in a document I'm editing, and if I question it, I'll be pointed to how widespread the expression is in IT/cloud texts. And we try to use the vocabulary of our audience.

However. One of my colleagues recently pointed out what might be obvious to a lot of people: the expression "cattle, not pets" is … problematic. One of our principles is "avoid unnecessarily violent language," and once you think about it, you realize that there's implicit violence in the metaphor as pertains to the fate of the "cattle." Moreover, there are cultures in which no cow is just "cattle," and for whom the idea of animals being killed is abhorrent. Therefore, we've updated our guidance to "avoid the use of figurative language that relates to the slaughter of animals."

This sets up a tension we sometimes have when we tell writers to avoid terminology that's still common in a field. We might ask authors to avoid whitelist or cattle-not-pets, and they'll point out that these are well-understood expressions and that using some alternative form potentially confuses readers. ("Allowlist? Did you mean whitelist? Why not just say so?") And people might search for these terms and they'll have no joy if they don't appear in our documentation. Plus it can give off the vibe that we don't know our own field.

But change begins at home. Sure, these problematic terms are part of the industry lingo. And we can't just ignore them out of existence. What we often do, then, is to include the expression parenthetically on first mention of the preferred term. So we might suggest something like "Create an allowlist (whitelist)" or "servers as commodities (sometimes referred to as 'cattle, not pets')" to tie the old term in the reader's mind to a new, better one.

We hope that the collective work of consciousness-raising by many editors and writers over a period of time will gradually alter the perception of problematic terms. The work is never truly done, of course, but it has to start somewhere.

PS I should note that not everyone supports the idea of this type of language change; there's plenty of pushback in the IT world against changing to "so-called inclusive language." These things are not easy.

[1] Devised to explain scaling by Bill Baker, adapted for the cloud by Randy Bias.

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