Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A good blog

Even though she does lots of Java stuff, Kathy Sierra has a really cool blog. I really liked this one on writing. The graphics she uses are pretty funny too - really get the point across. I am somewhat "graphically challenged" myself - wish I could drop in a picture like that and make it work as she does.

The crux of her message was "write like you talk". I agree. In my writings, it is as if we were having a conversation (I hope). She points out a conversation she had with a "technical consultant" who claimed to have a "reputation" to protect - that writing like you talk was bad for your reputation. I don't agree at all. If a book (any book) doesn't grab me right away, isn't fun to read, I'll never make it through it. That consultant with the great reputation, I'll not read their material.

I'm curious - what authors out there (technical books) do you think come across conversational and 'fun' to read? (please don't list negative ones, just looking for 'fun to read')

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43 Comments:

Anonymous John Spencer said....

I realy like the style of Programming Perl (LArry Wall, Tom Christiansen & Jon Orwant). It explains things clearly, and with a fair bit of humour.

Wed Sep 07, 11:02:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

If a book (any book) doesn't grab me right away, isn't fun to read, I'll never make it through it.

I believe this simple, conversational style is the philosophy behind the "Complete Idiot's Guide" series of books:

http://www.idiotsguides.com

While I've only looked at the non-technical ones, like learning Yiddish and Italian, I have found them very engaging. They do have a large catalogue of technical titles.

Wed Sep 07, 11:30:00 AM EDT  

Blogger R Menon said....

Well, one of my favorite books is your expert one-on-one :) It was conversational - did not really have a lot of humour but the subject and the way you explained things with examples was an attention grabber.

Regarding humour, it is good to have but it is very tricky to get just the right amount. Not every author can pull it off. In the end, I personally look for content delivered in a clear and concise manner with convincing logic.

Btw, IMHO, Howard's humour (though sometimes a bit over the board and sarcastic) is very attention grabbing.

Wed Sep 07, 11:50:00 AM EDT  

Blogger David Aldridge said....

"Formalese" writing is an irritant to me professionally where it occurs in documentation also, where it is alleged to sound more "professional". Long words, tortuous phrasing ... here's an example:

"By utilizing the system process, a great advantage in automating data visualization and comparison can be accomplished."

Talk about a "sentence not seen in nature".

Wed Sep 07, 12:55:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Robert said....


Tom said...
I am somewhat "graphically challenged" myself...


maybe you hould outsource that department to your boy ;) heheh

Wed Sep 07, 01:01:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

I find this very true when reading history books. A great example is Stephen Amborse's Band or Brothers. I couldn't stand to read history until I came across some that was well written. Wouldn't it be nice if Text Books were that way?

Wed Sep 07, 01:03:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Niall said....

There's this Kyte fellow, and Jonathan Lewis isn't a bad read either.

I definitely rate Christopher Lawson and Dan Tow as well for accessible explanations of complex concepts as well.

Wed Sep 07, 01:25:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Jonathan Lewis is one of the first that comes to mind; especially some of his short articles. I posted his Fan Hit Ratio paper over my desk after struggling to make the same point to my teammates for months. The article got their attention, and I don't think I've heard anyone mention BCHR since.

Mogens writes some really good stuff and Howard does too, but 'conversational' may be a bit of an understatement for them ...

Wed Sep 07, 01:39:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Alberto Dell'Era said....

Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" and "The Tipping Point" - psychology in an absolutely technical and rigorous, yet fast-flowing, style.

"Tales of the Oak Table" - funny but instructive examples of interactions inside the technological society :)

Steve McConnell's "Code Complete", a cornucopia of (good and bad) real-life examples about code development, that grounds the provided "theory" into reality, yet very easy to read.

Obviously, your "Expert", that it's still my best example of a book that's "conversational and 'fun' to read" - a perfect balance of all the ingredients that make a perfect technical discussion (a style quite similar to Malcolm Gladwell, I may add). I'm happy to see, judging from the excerpts you have published, that you have kept the same style in the new edition.

Humour - I love the occasional humour but dislike technical books that are full of it - my idea of a "fun" book is one that makes me learn seamlessly, not that makes me "laugh" - the learning fun is ever-lasting, the laughing fun lasts only until I turn the page ["Tales of the Oak Table" being the only exception, for unknown reasons].

Balance of examples, seamless (but not necessarily effortless) learning, everyday words and grammar, interesting topics - here's what makes a "fun" book for me.

Wed Sep 07, 02:54:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Lisa said....

For an Oracle book, I found Oracle 9i DBAQ 101 by Theriault, Carmichael and Viscusi a good read.

The tone is quite conversational and they make good use of analogies.
I found that I was able to understand things pretty quickly, without having to read and re-read a paragraph before I 'got' it.

Wed Sep 07, 03:31:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Lisa said....

Sorry, that should be 'Oracle 9i DBA 101'

Don't know where the rogue 'Q' came from!

Wed Sep 07, 03:33:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Rob H said....

The q is just below the 1, I believe this is known as the 'fat finger' syndrome

see: homer

Wed Sep 07, 04:11:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Rob H said....

oh, and I in NO way infer you are fat....

Wed Sep 07, 04:22:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Daniel Fink said....

I like the to see a concise explanation followed with examples, simply because that is how I learn. I prefer the conversational style over a more rigid 'academic' style.

It is difficult to find the right level of non-technical content, including humor. A little bit can help in terms of keeping attention and grasping concepts. Too much or just plain non-sensical humor makes it very difficult to read.

As for Lisa, she is not fat, but she is well known for being somewhat clumsy. ;)

Wed Sep 07, 05:24:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Lisa said....

Will the humiliation never end?

Wed Sep 07, 05:41:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Will the humiliation never end?

It is the law of conservation of humiliation. It cannot be created nor destroyed, just transferred from person to person or event to event
In short, I doubt it.

I have this feeling it will come up again at UKOUG (hope you lost that nasty streak that can appear suddenly and without warning :)

Wed Sep 07, 05:49:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Mikito Harakiri said....

I've seen this "head first" books in the bookstore but never took them seriously. I was amaized to discover that HF Design Patterns is rated #309 on amazon! This cartoon book tells a lot about the level of the average programming guy, doesn't it?

Wed Sep 07, 07:47:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Mikito Harakiri --

have you ever actually *read* the work you seem to be condemming or are you shooting first and asking questions later.

Have you talked to someone learning java and gotten their impression of the book (sure -- to someone that "knows" java, they probably would be comical - but to someone that doesn't, hmmmmmm).

Maybe this person (Kathy) has something really smart going here. I was a skeptic, but hey - it works, it makes people smarter.

They read, the read good stuff. Who cares what it looks like at the end of the day, they read it.

That, that is what counts. I strive to be what she describes. It is what I want to read, therefore it is what I want to produce.

I violently agree with her concepts almost all of the time. Don't know of a better adjective other than violent here to describe it.


We were all newbies once upon a time ago. I am every day with different things. Things outside of my expertise - I appreciate the approach of conversational writing.

Wed Sep 07, 08:00:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Mladen Gogala said....

A gentleman named Mogens Norgaard is a riot. Look at the "Tales of the Oak Table". Connor McDonald is also great in the very same book. There is also this gentleman who wrote "Optimizing Oracle For Performance", with his method R and method C and his special kind of serene style which will not provide much of a comedy relief like Mogens, but is exceptionaly clear, interesting and easy to read. I believe that the name is Cary Millsap.

Wed Sep 07, 09:17:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Mikito Harakiri said....

Yes, I browsed the sample chapter. Books like this do a great disservice to programing community by dragging into the business morons who don't belong there. Now you wonder why those java folks aren't able to understand a tiny bit about the database.

This is dose of cold reality for me, however. I can easily predict that my book wouldn't hit top 1000.

Wed Sep 07, 09:34:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Books like this do a great disservice to programing community by dragging into the business morons who don't belong there

I've only one word for you Mikito:

wow

nuff' said.

Wed Sep 07, 10:13:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Mladen Gogala said....

Mikito, what book are you talking about?
Hopefully not Cary's?

Wed Sep 07, 10:20:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Jer Smith said....

Mikito's comments are very funny--because that's actually one of the points Kathy makes--that the best things out there have people who HATE them. Hate is a sign that you're doing something different--that you're standing out from the crowd.

Probably the most "out there" author I've read is "why the lucky stiff" who I don't believe has a book, but is basically a punk kid with a love for the "Ruby" programming language.

Other authors to recommend for explaining complicated concepts well:
Damian Conway
Richard Feynman (of course!)
Leon Lederman (Hilarious!)
Steven Pinker (Language and Psychology author)
Bill Bryson
Kenneth C Davis (Don't know much about...)
P.J. O'Rourke (Lots of humor, but lots of good information, too)
Cecil Adams (Straight Dope)

Wed Sep 07, 11:46:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Noons said....

I'm not much of a person for "conversational" books, I'm afraid: I like them thick with technical stuff! If I wanted a novel, I wouldn't be getting it from a techo book! :)

Seriously:
There is a very fine line between conversational and technically irrelevant. Books that have impressed me over the years on managing to successfully negotiate this fine line:

Jon Bentley's series on the art of programming, most of the stuff on Perl from O'Reilly (although I don't like Perl!), Cary's book, one of the Niemic books (8i features for dbas, IIRC?), the "funny" stuff from Oaktable (not Connor's and Lex's, those were *techo* books!), your first book, some of the books on space/time from the Pirsig/Hawkins stables, etc. So many!

On the other hand even with "conversational writing" thrown in, I still find the whole of the Java world utterly cryptic, irrelevant and unusable on a day-to-day base...

Wed Sep 07, 11:52:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Andrew said....

There is, IMNSHO, the rule of the Four Cs that apply to all technical writing -- to all business writing in fact: Clear, Complete, Concise, and Correct. If your writing meets this rule and is friendly and easy to read, then you have succeeded.

Turning a noun into verb by adding 'ize' to the end of it does not cut it. Neither does stringing lots of stilted words together so that your reader has to practically sit there with a pencil trying to diagram your sentence to make any sense of it.

Clear, concise, correct, complete, and written in a friendly voioce makes for the best business writing.

In fact, most business people I know do not have the time to read long wordy documents and will sooner ignore what you have to say than fight their way through excessive verboseness.

Some time ago I wrote ago a number of shirt pocket tech notes for various business communities in my company. They became very popular and I was asked to write a number of them because they were very concise, easy to read, and friendly (written at the reader's level). Try distilling a discussion of "snapshot too old" along with diagrams and how to avoid it into four or five columns of one sheet of landscaped letter size paper. Do that for a few subjects like "Key Preservation and Table-to-Table Update", NAS Vs. SAN, N-Tier architecture, Automatic inventory replenishment, and so forth. You will learn very quickly how to be Clear, concise, complete, and correct.

Thu Sep 08, 12:49:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Martin said....

Well, when I read that artical one author came to mind immediatelly...
I do not own a book of him yet but his Q&A and Blog sure are good reads...

Thu Sep 08, 04:16:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Justin Rowles said....

Can't comment on the books, but I have had a team read a tech doc I gave them, then listen as I talked them through it and say "why didn't you write down what you just said"? I had thought I had!

'Write like you talk' is good advice, and harder than you think.

J.

Thu Sep 08, 05:11:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous mario cariggi said....

I think that Joel Spolsky has
something to say about tech writings:

Thu Sep 08, 05:21:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

And of course the Dragon in my garage by Carl Sagan. I like that people like him can be brilliant as their field and yet be able to entertain in the appropriate way.

Thu Sep 08, 06:36:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Tim... said....

I guess a lot of this comes down to confidence when you're writing. The more you do the more relaxed and confident your writing style becomes.

Cheers

Tim...

Thu Sep 08, 08:47:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Joel Garry said....

written in a friendly voioce
And don't ferget the shpiel cheeker!

Thu Sep 08, 09:50:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Nicola Farina said....

I like Steven Feuerstein
I learned PL/SQL with his book
Fine humour with also a pinch
of political, which I don't dislike too.
Have you see the tax example (in pl/sql book) ?
"hey and they are still rich.."
Nice
CJ Date is another nice reading, in my
taste

Thu Sep 08, 10:00:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Scot said....

Andrew,

Try distilling a discussion of "snapshot too old" along with diagrams and how to avoid it into four or five columns of one sheet of landscaped letter size paper. Do that for a few subjects like "Key Preservation and Table-to-Table Update", NAS Vs. SAN, N-Tier architecture, Automatic inventory replenishment, and so forth.

If you have a link to those writings I'd love to see them. I still don't understand NAS vs SAN, and can't seem to get beyond the thought that the only difference between them is marketing. I mean, you have storage, you have a network. Many people / machines / programs can access that storage over the network, rather than having it local to their pc. What am I missing?

Thu Sep 08, 10:21:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

I rate Jonathan Lewis, Howard Rogers and Jeffrey Friedl (Mastering Regular Expressions .. an excellent book on a relatively boring subject) at the top for their excellent writing style and technical content with a bit of humor thrown in.

Then I find Tom Christiansen and some guy named Tom Kyte good for the excellent technical content explained clearly.

Anurag

Thu Sep 08, 10:25:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Mikito, that book (Head First Design Patterns) won the Jolt. Don't judge a book by it's cover. I thought the same and then just couldn't put it down. Give it a try.

Thu Sep 08, 12:06:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Robert Morgan said....

I enjoy the Java books by Bruce Eckel and Ivor Horton. They've always been very easy to follow. The examples were well-constructed and helped a lot. Also, Evi Nemeth's "Unix System Administration Handbook" is a pleasure.

Thu Sep 08, 04:55:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Tony said....

This is strang thread for me. All through college I got nailed for writing like I talk. Aparently economist and technologist don't agree.

Thu Sep 08, 06:21:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

This is strang thread for me.

I was math/econ in college, and graduated with a BA from a liberal arts college, plenty of 'creative writing classes' which I fairly well did not do well in.

In fact, I clearly remember a prof telling me I wasn't going anywhere fast if I couldn't express myself in writing.

It actually turned me off of writing entirely.

Then the usenet came along and I rediscovered writing again ;)

Thu Sep 08, 06:42:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Tales from the Oak Table!

Enough said.

Thu Sep 08, 10:51:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Books by Peter van Der Linden

Deep C secrets and Just Java

Fri Sep 09, 02:22:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Daniel Fink said....

Tim Gorman has a great style of writing and is able to relate some serious concepts (like Snapshot Too Old) in very 'every day' terms. You can find some of his examples at www.evdbt.com.

Fri Sep 09, 10:18:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Jer Smith said....

Oh, a big second to the Nemeth, et al. for their classic UNIX Systems Administration and Linux System Administration. Particularly the illustrations.

Fri Sep 09, 12:53:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous MartinW said....

I'll put in a vote for Steve Feuerstein too, I like his style. I also like his presenting style, and I think that is true of most books. If the author also does presentations and presents well, the books tend to be good. Jonathan Lewis, Morgans, Connor McDonald. Can't say about this Tom Kyte chap as I've never seen him present :-)

Different people accept information in different ways though so there is space for many styles.

If you want bad writing try scientific articles - Many of them seem to be an exercise in how to bludgeon a topic to death.

Fri Sep 09, 02:02:00 PM EDT  

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