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OLD writers do not have to learn many new tricks when moving into the new electronic media. If you did it right in print, you stand a good chance of performing equally well in the electronic media with minimum learning curves. There are really no new rules to learn, just reinforcement of the old ones. Dr. Johnson's advice to "read your own composition, and when you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out," applies just as much to writers tempted to be pompous and verbose in word-processed e-books as it did when the medium was a quill pen.
The task of self-editing becomes more difficult when you know that you have lots of space left on a disk, with no cost or bulk constraints about adding more words. All writers now working in electronic media without the old space constraints should have pinned over their monitors Mark Twain's admonition that "few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon."
Imposing any rules on writing other than the need to conform to the basic grammatical structures that make the language work can be inhibiting and counterproductive. Communications of all kinds fail, however, if they break any one of a few basic rules. This chapter provides the only basic guidelines about writing that you really must observe if you want your electronic publications to be successful.
Simplicity is of prime importance. The misconception that long and obscure words, and complex sentences and paragraphs, will impress the reader might persist among those with literary pretensions, but it has no place in any form of results-oriented publishing. This is particularly the case in the electronic media, with the monitor screen being even more unforgiving than the printed page to those who write with pomposity or unnecessary complexity.
The results that you seek from your publishing enterprise might be profit from registrations or sales, influence among those to whom your book is targeted, or enhancement of your reputation. Or you might just wish to entertain and inform people with no thought of
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personal gain. If your communication does not get these desired results, however elegantly you might feel it was written, the fault might be in the marketing and distribution, as well as in the writing. Examine each aspect critically. Perhaps even the basic concept is off target, and there just is not sufficient demand for your publication.
Despite hypertext and other features that enable readers to progress through your text any way they wish, it is still advisable to keep your structure simple. Progress logically from one point to another by organizing what you want to say in the simplest, easiest to understand manner. This is important even in sophisticated multimedia presentations.
Novels, movies, and seminars are all familiar examples of sequential, linear media. Despite all the hype about hypertext, many electronic publications that are not random-access works of reference will be approached by their users in the traditional sequential, linear way. Users expect that they must catch your information train at the departing station and stick with it to the destination, with limited flexibility to retrace the route. In theory, of course, you can re-read a section of text or rewind a tape, but this should never be necessary to help comprehension and is less likely to happen in an e-book than one with printed pages. Assume that readers or viewers will not bother to go back if your meaning was unclear on the first pass. It is more likely that they will jump off your information train and catch another that offers a less demanding journey.
Within the logical, linear sequence, pay particular attention to the points at which you introduce information that your readers cannot be expected to know already, but will need for the next steps along their journey. To do this without breaking up the smooth flow of the narrative is one of the most challenging tasks in writingÑwhich is why some writers dodge it by hiding away such information in footnotes. Do not use footnotes in electronic publications; they just don't work. Nor should you assume that your readers will automatically take hypertext jumps to supplementary information that they need for comprehension.
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In a two-way conversation, questions are asked constantly as one person says something, and the other asks more questions to get more information. In the medium of writing, the reader does not have the immediate opportunity to ask questions, so the meaning must be clear all the way through. Facts and background must be presented in the order necessary to anticipate and resolve any questions that the reader might need to understand one thought before moving on to the next.
There are many situations when restructuring--departing from the natural chronological sequence--makes a written document easier to understand and more fun to read. For example, a scientific or technical presentation might become boring if the research and applications stages are described strictly in the sequence in which they happened. Instead, state the benefits of the research up front, and then go back to describe how the research work progressed to lead to the new product or service.
Take care not to advance from one paragraph to the next without providing the technical information that the target audience needs to understand each paragraph. Always keep your target audience in mind, so you will not bore them with too much background explanation of what they already know, nor confuse and lose them because you do not explain things they cannot be expected to know about.
The outlining capabilities now included in sophisticated word processors can help with these tasks. Multimedia authoring programs usually incorporate some kind of timeline or storyboard facility as a way of assembling all the different elements. If you do have visuals, audio clips, and the like, a storyboard becomes essential. Even if your title does not include multimedia features, use an outliner to create the text equivalent of a storyboard. This can be the best way to structure the text.
Devote as much time as you can to revising. Do so on a screen with a display format as similar as possible to the one your readers will use.
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That is contrary advice to using a word processor to prepare text that will be printed as a hardcopy. In that case, you should do your final revisions on an actual print-out.
Get someone who will give you an impartial opinion, and whose proficiency at a computer is about the same level as your average targeted reader, to go through your e-book before releasing it. If you have created it on a fast, powerful system, check its performance on a slower computer with less memory.
Even if your subject is serious, work hard to maintain reader interest. Entertain as well as inform as much as possible. Motivate the audience to open your e-book and then stay with your words and pictures. I always organize my material with the strong lead up-front as the creative starting point in the writing process, as well as the first contact with the audience. This applies as much to a business letter or report as to an article for a magazine or newspaper, or to an e-book. Every type of communication must compete for attention with the plethora of other material directed at your target reader, so it had better start strongly, with at least one attention-grabbing point in the first few lines.
In newspapers, which are random-access media, every story must start strongly to attract the reader's attention. The heading and lead sentence must be strong, active, and above all, relevant and important to the target readers. This rule can be applied to almost everything that is published electronically. Technical service bulletins, for example, tend to look boring and usually start off with dull labels as headings before diving into a mire of equally ponderous text. There is some myth among engineers that technical papers will not get taken seriously unless they are dull. What nonsense! And what a shame it will be if these attitudes are carried over into the electronic media that are beginning to play such an important role in conveying technical information.
In addition to using attention-grabbing words in the headings and opening paragraphs, make particularly good use in these opening
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sequences of sound, color, or other enhancing features that you have available. Some purists might sneer at such devices as animated cartoons or sound effects in technical material, but they achieve their business objectives if technicians are alerted to problems and servicing requirements, and are motivated to improve workshop productivity and customer satisfaction. In virtually every field, service personnel are on the receiving end of a flood of routine bulletins and booklets. A simple but high-impact message is needed to cut through the clutter, grab their attention, and communicate a specific course of action for them to take.
I have tried an enormous variety of much-touted tools for computer-based writers. The most useful is still a word-processing program with which you feel comfortably proficient. You might feel that you function very well in an older DOS version, or in any one of many basic text editors, but the new, sophisticated, word processing applications for the Macintosh and Windows can make you far more productive. Their improved screen displays, greater proficiency at checking grammar and spelling, and the ease with which you can edit and manipulate text encourages revision and leads to a higher-quality product.
If you handle a lot of research material, it is very helpful to have a word processor that enables several windows of text from different documents to be open at the same time, so that you can cut and paste from them into your manuscript. I used this technique extensively when handling the vast amount of research material collected for this book.
Using an old portable running askSam database software, I just dumped into a text database the details and comments from all the thousands of bits of paper that contained my original sources. Not bothering to make corrections or tidy up the phrasing (except for factual accuracy), I accumulated very large files of unformatted data that I then compiled into one word processor file.
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I drafted the manuscript with two files open at any one time: one was the file for the current chapter, the other the collections of notes. Using the word processor's keyword search function, I selected and cut from the research file the sections that I needed at the time, and patched them into the manuscript. It was a much faster and more convenient way of working than being knee-deep in paper notes. I found it even better, when working on a more powerful multitasking computer, to have those notes in askSam for Windows and manage them there, while also having open my Windows-based word processor.
Electronic publishing is a particularly appropriate medium for substantial works containing large amounts of information. Managing that information can be a nightmare for authors and researchers swamped in seas of paper, and probably also tangles of information contained in computer files. In this era of multimedia, many writers must also cope with information resources on tape, film, or CD, as well as paper.
There has to be a better way than the traditional methods of organizing research material into hanging files and folders, with cross-references on index cards. Many of the apparent solutions offered by computing technology just do not work because database and personal information manager software neglect the needs of writers. Most writers tend to gather information randomly, without any real idea of how it will be structured until the actual creative process of writing is under way. Computer databases are not sympathetic to such disorganized habits and want you to straight jacket your information into rigid "fields" right from the beginning.
However, askSam is one software program that fits the particular needs of writers like a glove. It is unique in the way that information can be dumped into it in a completely random fashion, then retrieved by whatever way you want to organize. If, for example, you have
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clearly defined chapters on different topics, you can do searches that will bring together into one report all your research information relevant to the chapter on which you are working.
If you are writing a long and complex novel, you can have the entire manuscript in one file and move through it very rapidly to check on some previous aspect of a character or a plot. Cutting, pasting, and making changes during rewrites, become much easier than with most word processors. As well as providing powerful hypertext facilities, askSam lets you embed graphics in your text, and link to other multimedia elements.
There are DOS versions of askSam that run on very modest hardware with minimum RAM and without hard disks, although they require considerably more effort to learn than the new Windows version. Either a DOS or Windows version will process data that can be captured and output in the simplest of ASCII text files, the lingua franca of electronic publishing.
Of particular interest to electronic publishers is that you can create and distribute publications that incorporate askSam's sophisticated search software, so this program is also an authoring system. You can license the search module and obtain permission to distribute it with your own electronic publication. If you want to go that route, talk to the askSam people for licensing rates, which vary considerably according to the application. The askSam people are very helpful and can be reached at
P.O. Box 1428
Perry, Florida 32347
Robert Lissauer is a good example of a writer with a very heavy research load who used askSam to manage his information so that it could be compiled into a massive book. Robert's passion is music, and he spent six years gathering music trivia, with the help of askSam, into the six-pound Encyclopedia of Popular Music in America, containing details of nearly 20,000 popular songs.
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"I foresaw that if I were to use index cards to register the information garnered through my research, it might take 25 years to complete the task," says Robert. Instead, he got his book completed in a quarter of the time.
Another askSam enthusiast is Fred B. Eiseman Jr., who lives an idyllic writer's life, spending six months each year in Bali. He has six books in print about this Indonesian paradise.
"All of my field notes for all of these books are stored in askSam files," says Fred. He normally takes a laptop into the field and enters data directly into askSam files, or transcribes handwritten notes into askSam when he returns. "Whenever I go into the field, I make sketches of significant items that I am studying. When I get back to my base, I scan the sketches with my Logitech ScanMan hand scanner, convert them to GIF files with HiJaak, and store them with the askSam file on the same subject so that the sketches become part of the field notes."
Fred also uses askSam for his Balinese-English dictionary, for cataloguing slides, indexing maps, helping to manage his finances, and for his "to-do" list. His Bali askSam files contain sixteen million bytes of information!
When handling a book-length manuscript and lots of research notes, an author can go mad trying to find files identified only by the cryptic DOS filenames. Your basic equipment should include a good file finder. Some are built into word processing applications or included in collections of utilities such as Norton Utilities.
If you are working in Windows, I recommend Eclipse FIND (800-452-0120). It builds an index of every word in every one of your files, and then, given the minimum of information, finds the file you seek with amazing speed. It even finds things you forgot that you had.
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Another program tailor-made for writers is IdeaFisher, now available in a Windows version as well as for DOS. It negates any excuses that "writer's block" is getting in the way of finishing a project.
I was amazed to find, at my first experience attending a California writers' conference, that the session on how to deal with the emotional stress of writer's block was standing-room-only. You owe it to yourself to get past this myth of the writing craft, so that you can focus your intellectual energies more on enjoying the process and doing it as well as you can. I have met hundreds of professional writers over a long career, and can't recall any who seriously concerned themselves with the writer's block issue. When their creativity, like their digestions, occasionally stiffened up, they would exercise their intellects with a good book or conversation, or take a brisk walk to get the juices flowing again.
However, writing does tend to be a lonely, isolated occupation, which can become stressful. When you are self-publishing, that sense of isolation can become considerably worse, particularly if you are used to a conventional work environment in which your creativity is stimulated by contacts with others. The need for creative stimulation from others could be as important in evolving your marketing plans as it is in actually creating the works that you are trying to market.
Going on-line to the writers' and publishers groups on GEnie, CompuServe, the Digital Publishing Association, and other bulletin boards is one possibility, but can be slow, expensive, and frustrating. Easier and better in many respects is a software program that could have been custom-built for self-publishing authors. IdeaFisher is the nearest thing to an electronic collective mind for authors that I have ever encountered.
The program was conceived--and its enormous development costs financed--by Marsh D. Fisher, co-founder of the Century 21 Real Estate Corporation. Marsh was yet another frustrated writer who had tried with little success to learn comedy writing techniques. When he retired in 1977, he began a project which could do more good for
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creative writing (and marketing) than any number of Nobel literary laureates in recent years.
Marsh employed over 250 researchers and funded hundreds of thousands of hours of investigation, compiling, and computer programming to put together a unique database of information and questions designed to get creative juices flowing, however they might be blocked.
"We really now have a unique thesaurus of ideas," Marsh says. "You can use it for almost any kind of creative process or problem-solving need." Marsh has launched Windows and Macintosh versions of IdeaFisher, with nearly 800,000 idea associations, and the price has become very affordable. For details, call 800-289-4332.
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