Recommended books

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General reference

Pocket Oxford Dictionary of English

Every writer needs a good dictionary for checking meanings and confirming spelling. This is a mid-sized dictionary covering 65,000 words, and is more than adequate for everyday writing. It also includes comments on usage for some words, which is a nice addition.

A more complete reference would be the industrial-strength two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary but as a desk reference, the Pocket Oxford Dictionary is a good size. Note that authors in America, or authors working for American companies would be advised to obtain an American-English dictionary (such as Webster's) instead.

Roget's International Thesaurus

Most technical writing does not typically call for a thesaurus. Unambiguousness and preciseness are more the order of the day. However, there are occasions when it is useful to find an alternative word for something, so a good Thesaurus is a useful thing to have. The 'international' in the title indicates that it covers English and American words.


Style and writing

Chicago Manual of Style

It is often useful to have a heavyweight Style Guide on your bookshelf, and this is a good one to choose. It covers a lot of ground, but is probably most useful for defining date and number formats, reference formats, and so on - things that may not be directly covered in an in-house style guide.

Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications

This book focuses mainly on recommended terminology (such as "file name" not "filename"), and also provides some standard documentation conventions. It doesn't provide any physical guidelines, so is useful for any size of publication, or for on-line documentation. This is a great reference if you don't have in-house (or industry) standards to follow. It's also useful as a guide when developing your own standards.

Of particular use are the sections on screen (and especially Windows) terminology useful (that is, what to call various elements of the screen).

As a lot of the terminology is truly industry-standard, this book covers a lot of things that you'd also normally want to put in an in-house style guide. In these cases, it is often convenient to develop an in-house guide that covers all project-specific (or client-specific) matters of style, and then refer readers (of that style guide) to this book for everything not explicitly covered in the project guide.

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

This book should be (and probably is) on the bookshelf of every Technical Writer. It contains a number of golden rules for writing, and provides both examples adhering to these rules, and examples breaking these rules (which makes them very easy to understand). It is straightforward, practical, and immediately applicable. Essential.

Science and Technical Writing - A Manual of Style. Philip Rubens

This is a good alternative to the Chicago Manual of Style, if you tend to work solely as a technical writer. It is much more directed to the needs of the Technical Writer, covering all of the main questions of style. It is also generally easier to locate answers to specific technical writing questions than than the Chicago Manual of Style. It also has a nice section on page design and layout, which is useful when designing brochures and flyers. Some sections could be replaced by better books (such as using Harris's Information Graphics in place of the chapters on tables and charts), but as an all-in-one reference, it's hard to fault.

The Complete Plain Words, Sir Ernest Gowers

The Complete Plain Words is a classic book. It was originally written to guide authors in the British Home Office (the source of all governmental publications) in correct English usage. Over the years it has come to be relied upon by writers in all professions. In short, it explains how to use English correctly, concisely, and effectively. The book is split into a number of distinct chapters, each of which deals with a specific topic: word choice, verbs, punctuation, and so on. Although the small paperback size and close type (without much in the way of white space) make it a difficult book to browse, it is thoroughly authoritative, and a great reference.

Usage and Abusage, Eric Partridge

This, like Gower's Complete Plain Words, is a great reference book on English usage. Unlike The Complete Plain Words, this book provides an aplhabetized list of explanations or advice. This makes it an easier book to quickly dip into to find the answer to a particular question of grammar. Like The Complete Plain Words, this book is also a recognized authority, used by all types of writers. Any writer would do well to have both books on their bookshelf.


Document design

Dynamics in Document Design, Karen A Schriver

This is more of a theoretical work rather than a day-to-day reference. Writers looking for practical advice on how to design documents may be disappointed. However, communicators looking for more background information, or students of technical communication, may find the book interesting.

The Non-Designer's Design Book, Robin Williams

This slight book is essential for any writer who has to apply a degree of visual design to their documents. It teaches the basics of visual design in a fresh and easy-to-understand manner. If you are designing newsletters, leaflets, or even just standard page layouts, this book will help you to make a better job of it.


Graphics and illustration

Information Graphics - A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference, Robert L Harris

This is a great book, and one that I wouldn't be without. It is essentially an alphabetic index of all of the different types of graphs, diagrams, tables, charts and maps that can be used to represent information. For writers who think that pie charts, bar charts and graphs are the only options, this book will be a revelation. It is 455 large-format pages, with copious examples, plus verbal explanations. I use this more as a source book (to generate ideas) rather than a true reference, but it is just an extremely interesting book to browse through anyway.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Robert E. Tufte

It is difficult to say anything negative about Tufte's books. They are well-written, lavishly presented, and fascinating to read. However, I do find them to be of limited day-to-day use. I would certainly recommend this book, but you may find that you don't really refer to it that often. It does contain many interesting examples of how to communicate quantitative information (I particularly admire the French railway timetable, which looks incredibly complicated until you realize what it is showing - at which point it becomes the clearest timetable you've ever seen!), but is more of an interesting read than an essential reference. Of more practical use is Harris's Information Graphics.


Web development and on-line documentation

HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide, Chuck Musciano and Bill Kennedy

If you do any Website development (even if you're 'shielded' from the coded by using FrontPage, Dreamweaver, etc.) then you need a good reference. This one is as good as any, although the navigation could be improved - finding what you're looking for is sometimes not as easy as it could be. I'd also recommend that any writer working on Websites learn to code HTML the hard way, using a simple text editor (such as Notepad). Once you can do that, 'debugging' code generated by other editors (or 'conversion' programs) is much, much easier.

Rather than provide an alphabetic list of HTML tags (as some books do) this book groups tags by topic (text, tables, lists, etc.). This makes it easier to read around a subject, and to find out all you need to know without jumping backwards and forwards through the book. The book also includes a cardboard pull-out quick reference of all HTML tags and their attributes (again, organized by topic), which is useful if you don't have the companion Quick Reference.

Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide, Eric A Meyer

This is a great, comprehensive reference. The book starts off with an introduction to CSS - explaining what it is and how to develop CSS stylesheets. This is useful for beginners, but experienced users aren't likely to learn much. Following the introductory section, CSS tags are grouped by function (as opposed to a straight alphabetic list). This is a sensible approach, as it allows you to identify similar tags, and multiple ways of achieving what you want to do. For each tag, the book identifies the possible values, and also indicates which browsers the tags are supported by. This is useful if you are developing for the Internet, and therefore can't guarantee which browser people will be using.

There are many books on Cascading Style Sheets. If you only buy one, you can do worse than making it this one.


Project management

Managing Your Documentation Projects, JoAnn Hackos

This book is highly recommended for Publications Managers and Senior Technical Writers, or anyone who finds themselves managing a documentation project. It covers a lot of standard 'project management' topics (planning, budgeting, tracking, etc.) but from a publications perspective. Whilst 'management is management' there are definitely peculiarities that apply specifically to documentation projects, and this book does a good job of highlighting these. The book is also peppered with 'guidelines' (one-sentence tips) which are great for identifying the critical steps or decisions that need to be made. The only real criticism I have of the book is that the graphics used throughout are very primary-school-ish and rarely add any informational value.

The Project Manager's Desk Reference, James P Lewis

This is a 'true' Project Management textbook, and can be applied to the management of any kind of project (not just documentation ones). It won't quite prepare you for PMI certification, but it comes close. It covers all of the main Project Management topics in a reasonably-accessible style. I used it to flesh out a course I took on Project Management, and it did an extremely good job of filling in the blanks and providing more depth where necessary.

Any Senior Technical Writer or Publications (or Documentation) Manager would do well to get a copy of this book, and read through it before starting their project. In fact, any one who is involved in project work would benefit from familiarizing themselves with the basics of Project Management. I found it useful to go through this book as the larger project on which I was working was progressing. It was interesting to see why certain activities I previously thought were fluff were being carried out (building a WBS to the nth level), and also to see where our Management veered completely off the beaten path of Project Management, and into trouble.

There are many, many books on Project Management. Lewis is apparently a bit of a guru in PM circles, and it is easy to see why. He sticks to established practices, and explains them in a way that those new to Project Management can understand.

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