Technical Writing for Dummies

d04a.jpg (13448 bytes)There are amusing quotes at the beginning of each chapter of Technical Writing for Dummies (Hungry Minds, Inc., $19.99). Those quoted are mostly industry leaders who were very wrong about the future of technology. Unfortunately, the quotes have nothing to do with the text, or even technical writing in general. This demonstrates one of the biggest problems with the book. While reading Technical Writing for Dummies, I kept asking myself, “Why is this here?”

Technical Writing for Dummies is, simply, poorly organized. In a normal book this would be bad, in a book purporting to explain how to organize and present information, it is disastrous. Information on document structure butts up against entries on using pie charts effectively. General information on writing and font usage is buried in a section on tables. Grey “sidebar” boxes are scattered randomly throughout the text, often having little or nothing to do with the information presented around them.

That said, Technical Writing for Dummies is not all bad. Most of the information presented is accurate, and even useful, if you can find it, and if you can get around the cutesy, uninformative headings, and the pointless, precious, personal anecdotes. I know that silly alliterative headings are a hallmark of the For Dummies series, but I don’t see why anyone should be subjected to “Meet Prints Charming” (for a section on photographs).

The final problem with Technical Writing for Dummies is scope. This is a book that tries to be all things for all people. At least all people who might want to:
     1. create a questionnaire;
     2. give a presentation;
     3. write an abstract;
     4. file a patent;
     5. publish in a technical journal;
     6. or develop computer based training.

Not to mention those brave souls who are writing user manuals, doing on-line help, creating a spec, or any of the other standard “technical writing” tasks.

This is a worthy goal, and perhaps if Ms. Lindsell-Roberts had spent more time illustrating basic principles and less trying to fit in marginally connected information — such as how to do on-line research — it might have been achieved. However, in this case, the result is a document that feels scattered and incomplete.

This book will give you some good basic information on how to write technical documents, as well as a few tips for whatever specific type document you are working on at the moment. However, there must be better ways to get the information you need. Spend your money somewhere else.

Shari Finkel-Punyon is a New York-based technical writer with extensive experience creating user manuals and technical documentation for telecommunications, information systems and medical device manufacturers.

Need a better book?
Reporting Technical Information by Thomas E. Pearsall, Elizabeth Tebeaux, Sam Dragga and Janice C. Redish (Oxford University Press, $65.00) is an established textbook for college-level technical writing courses. The newest, 9th edition is available with a companion CD-ROM.

Michael Markel’s Technical Communication, 6th edition (St. Martin’s Press, $66.00) is another popular text.

For a comprehensive reference book, try The Handbook of Technical Writing, 6th edition, by Gerald J. Alred, Walter E. Oliu and Charles T. Brusaw (St. Martin’s Press, $35.95).