Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Myth of "Self-Explanatory" (Part II)

Yesterday's blog featured a minor rant on the non-existence of a user's manual for a new MP3 gizmo I bought recently. The saga continues. I spent some time online on Monday looking for the aforementioned manual.

On the manufacturer's site, they promised that I could download one, but the .pdf file I received only contained a tantalizing cover with a picture of the Device that called attention to the many varied things it can do -- if you know how to use it.

Regardless of how simple things may appear, if you are unfamiliar with them, they are not self-explanatory.

This is especially true when writing how-to nonfiction of any kind. "Familiarity breeds contempt," the sages tell us. This is a constant danger when writing about a subject with which you are intimately familiar. It is all too easy to forget that not everyone has the same vast experience in the subject field as you do.

A recent illustration on the "self-explanatory" myth:

When working with Dr. Warson on the rough draft of "The Rider's Back Book," I wanted to take some of the stretching and strengthening exercises he recommended and explain them in detailed, step-by-step format.

One of the exercises he calls "Foot on the Ceiling. Here is a transcription of the original dictation explaining the exercise:

So let’s take an exercise like Foot on the Ceiling. What you want to do is raise that foot slowly to the ceiling. Hold it, counting to 5 or so, for starters. And then let it down. And then you can hold it for 10 or 15, gradually progressing up to that point.

What I made of it:

Strengthening Exercise A: Foot On the Ceiling

1. Lie on your back on the floor or on an exercise mat, with your legs straight out in front of you. Relax your arms at your sides. Breathe deeply and normally.

2. Keeping the knee straight, slowly raise the right foot as far toward the ceiling as possible.

3. Hold the foot in position while counting slowly to “5.”

4. Slowly lower the foot to the ground. Repeat the exercise with the left foot.

At first, 3 to 5 repetitions will suffice. As your strength improves, you can gradually increase the time you hold each leg up (Step 3) to a count of 10 or 15.

What he really meant:

OOPS! "Foot on the Ceiling" is done with the patient on their hands and knees, not lying on their back. The leg is brought up, trying to touch the flat of the foot to the ceiling.

Ah! Kneeling! Who knew?

The closer you are to a subject, the more important it is to have someone unfamiliar with the field to read and comment on a draft of your work. This person should not be someone who thinks that everything you write is fabulous. There are times when you will want your biggest fan to read your stuff and say it's brilliant. A "how-to" piece is not one of them.

Spell things out. As I said before -- if people already know it, they can skip that part. But if they don't know it, you owe it to them to tell them what they're missing.

There's No Place Like Home...

I worked up an overview of "Things To Do" in July and got myself a little geeked out yesterday. So much to do. So few days. So little time.

If all goes as currently planned, July will go thusly:

Houseguests, Boston, Montreal, Vermont, Boston, Houseguests. (And that's just the first week!)

Then: Orlando, Home, Dallas, Home, Houseguests / book photo shoot.

Gotta love those frequent flier miles! Good thing I love to travel!