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David Pogue on Missing Manuals as Performance Art

by Jennifer Buckendorff
01/16/2003

In the first part of this interview, David discussed how a nice, normal theater guy found himself providing technical support to the masses. In part two, he dishes on what makes a poorly written guidebook, how it could be that Apple doesn't know what its own "letters" feature is, and why it's so important to him to get a book to press in a dizzying two weeks.

Buckendorff: You are an editor and a writer for the Missing Manuals, but you also have a stable of writers for the series: what's your role?

Pogue: I write about half the books and the rest are written by hand-picked authors. Readers will get the same "voice" in all the books--and they get the humor. And, of course, we always, always, always bring it back to the real world. Examples, examples, examples!

This is the common denominator in our books. In other technical books you'll read a description of some element in a dialog box. It'll say, "Frame module discombobulator. Use this control to discombobulate your frame modules." Well, thanks a lot! Instead, ours will read: "A frame module is a form that you might fill in on a Web page, such as when Amazon.com asks for your email address. When you are discombobulated, that means you've changed your address." Something like that. Examples, examples, examples. And always bring it back to reality.

Buckendorff: Why don't other computer authors do this?

I think the reasons most computer writers don't take the same approach is either they aren't sensitive enough to the reader, or they realize that it's a rough road to go down because it means it's their job to explain what everything is for in a piece of software. Sooner or later you're going to come up against things you don't know how to explain, and then what are you going to do?

We have that problem all the time. For example, we'll be working in Windows, where there are a million features. We might ask what possible reason would readers ever have to use a particular feature? So we spend a lot of our time finding out; either we chase it down on the Web, or we hire gurus to tell us: "Well, this is a legacy feature left over from Windows 95. Nobody uses it anymore, but Microsoft worries that there will be one print shop out there that is still using it."

Or we may come to the conclusion that there's no reason for it. Once, when I was writing Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual, I came across a search program called Sherlock. It searches for files not just by their names, but by their sizes, their creation dates, and their file types. The pop-up menu choices are: Find all programs; Find all documents; Find all pictures; Find all music files; Find all folders; and Find all letters. Letters? What did that mean? I had to explain it because I was explaining all of these other features. So I created a document that said, "Dear Mom, How's things at home? Love, Dave." I saved it and tried to see if Sherlock could find it. I clicked on "Find all letters." It didn't find it.

Perhaps they didn't mean "letters." So I created a file with just the letter "a" in it. "Find all letters." It didn't find that. I didn't know what a letter was, and nobody did.

Now, for each book Apple lets me send one email full of desperate, last-minute questions to their engineers. So I emailed my questions for the OS 9 book, including what a letter was, to one of their engineers. The engineer got back to me just as the book was going to press, and he said, "I got your question about 'What's a letter?'; I've done a little research and asked around here, and I have an answer for you: Nobody has any frickin' idea! Whoever wrote that is long gone from Apple, working for some other company now, but we don't dare take it out because somebody somewhere uses that feature and loves it. And we'll just hear from them if we rip it out."

I don't know why other authors don't feel this compulsion to explain the presence of each feature, as we do, but I have a little author's guide that I send as an initiation to each Missing Manuals author, and the first paragraph reads, "Don't you dare write about anything without explaining what it's for." And I just think that makes a huge difference. I mean, if I've purchased a computer book, I don't want to read, "Drag this slider to make the asymmetry greater." I want to know what the asymmetry is, and when I would use it.

Related Reading

Mac OS X: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue

I very much liken Missing Manuals to performance art. I've always said this. Especially with the intense production timeline for the series, where I finish a book and it's on bookstore shelves or available at Amazon.com ten business days later. Ten business days later!

Buckendorff: Let's talk about that. How on earth do you do pull that off?

Pogue: How does anyone else not? I mean, that's how long it takes for a book to be printed and shipped. That's how long it takes.

Buckendorff: What's the hold-up, then, with other publishers?

Pogue: I'd give anything to know. I used to write books for another publisher. I'd finish it in May and it would be available in October. It's the computer industry. That's unacceptable! That's one reason I quit doing that and started my own press. The feedback from readers comes almost immediately. Two weeks later, I'm hearing the first reactions. My email address is in every single book, and I invite this kind of feedback. It's another way that I can keep in touch and know whether I'm hitting, whether I'm missing, and what kinds of things are really frustrating people.

Buckendorff: Is it just the thrill of getting the book out quickly? I mean, what's the advantage, as far as the reader is concerned? Why would anyone care?

Pogue: Mac OS X: The Missing Manual is a good example. It was the first book about this dramatically different operating system. I had pre-release software to work with, and again, we have a very efficient machine set up.

But think if we were one of the big publishers. Even if an author has turned in his or her stuff in a couple of weeks, those books will be coming out months and months later. With our books, the benefit for the reader is that they have the book so much sooner.

The one downside to the whole Missing Manual series is I'm the gating factor. I'm the solo practitioner. That's why we're so nimble, and that's why each title is a handcrafted, consistent book. But it also means that I can't do 30 books at once. But the benefit for me is that I can start in on a project much later, and yet come out with a product at the same time as the big guys, or even sooner. We have all the blessings and all the curses of being a very small shop.

Don't miss the first part of this interview.


Jennifer Buckendorff is a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington.