The book idea that didn't happen

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/09/30 03:01 -04:00, original URI:

In my post About [not] writing books I said the following:

And there was one great idea I had for a book and I even pitched it to my former acquisitions editor Sharon when she started working for Hungry Minds (when it was its own company). But it was a slightly radical idea and her boss said no, and none of the editors I have talked to since then have been interested either. So perhaps it was a little too radical (or maybe just a bad idea). Perhaps I'll blog about it some day and readers here can tell me if I was on track or on crack.

The book idea was a simple one. It started one day when I realized that MSDN was several gigabytes in size, and that is even allowing for the fact that most (all?) releases trim information out to kep the size down. Telling someone to "read the manual" is unrealistic hopefulness at best and ignorant optimism at worst. There is simply way too much information out there!

Further to that, the indexing system(s) of the data, both the internal indexes and the external ones built by search engines, all work in different ways. And it is hard to know which ones to use and how best to use them. Even those internal indexes have their content built by many different people, with all of the info folded together like shuffled cards.

Clearly, the indexes have not been keeping up with the indexed.

So how can one find the information one needs?

This is where the book idea came from.

The idea was a book entitled:

How to make sure Microsoft's help actually helps

The main title of course stands for READ THE FREAKING MANUAL (that is the PG-rated version!). The subtitle speaks for itself....

The book would work to give all the tricks to getting the information you need from the gigabytes of information in MSDN, from the smaller files that ship with VS and SQL Server and Windows and Office, down to the smallest files that are not adequaetely indexed at all. From the ones that are on the web to the ones that never have been and probably never will be.

It would have had assistance from several UE/UA writers/leads/managers who I had talked to, all of whom were interested in being involved with the project. We are talking about a very motivated group of people who truly want the words produced by User Education to assist and the words produced by User Assistance to educate.

There would even be info on building indexes for your own help files, and the mistakes that people make doing this....

Some of the strategies described could even perhaps be automated and used by future versions of the help compiler products!

This is the kind of book that I imagined could be like a smaller-scale version of tomes like Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, where people would buy it whether they were going to read it or not. Even if they did not really work on MS platforms they might buy it, just to have on their shelves -- especially since I seem to hear the term RTFM used more often in relation to UNIX and Linux than to Windows!

It just struck me as a book that might really have helped people who did read it and might really have done whatever it was supposed to for the people who bought it and never bothered to open it.

Anyway, the folks at Hungry Minds felt it was too risky of an endeavor, and others were against it because they thought it would be an MS-bashing book despite my proven track record for being very pro-Microsoft even when I am posting about flaws in MS technologies and products.

So in the end, it did not happen.

Well, what do you think? Worthwhile concept or worthless tripe? Was I on track, or on crack?

# CornedBee on 30 Sep 2005 3:44 AM:

Definitely worth it. MSDN makes me go slightly insane sometimes.

# Gert Van Gool on 30 Sep 2005 4:24 AM:

Indeed I must agree. I'd be a must read/have :)

# Jens on 30 Sep 2005 4:34 AM:

As I never seem to be able to find anything in MSDN or the Knowledge Base, I would find i a usefull book.

# Luke on 30 Sep 2005 6:57 AM:

Sounds great, sOooo many times i accidently find the information i wanted in MSDN and KB. There is so much good stuff you just can't find it.

# Michael Kohne on 30 Sep 2005 7:03 AM:

Yes, it should be done. I've NEVER been able to adequately find anything in MSDN. So far the best way I've found to deal with it is to google with

Frankly, a simple way to figure out what the heck everything is called would be nice. Some sort of thesaurus, perhaps? I'm thinking of some way to work from whatever concept is in my head to whatever the heck MS calls that concept.

Anyway, good luck.

# Serge Wautier on 30 Sep 2005 7:25 AM:


[I just write this so that your poll doesn't end with 100% Yes, which always looks suspicious :-D ]

Yes, of course, I would buy it.

Would it be interesting ? I'll tell you when I read it ;-)

A problem you might encounter is that people would expect the book to show them The Light and would then be disappointed wince you can't catch up light, how ever fast you run. You may want no to raise the expectation level too high.

So... When do you start ? :-)

# Stephane on 30 Sep 2005 8:05 AM:

May be you would be better off if the MSDN help guys improved the Search engine. I found myself using google when I need something. And most of the time to my amazement Google finds it.

Other than this, the MSDN help guys seem to revamp their URIs every now and then making it highly probable to get a 404 whenever you click a link from somewhere. How lame is that.

# Daniel on 30 Sep 2005 8:37 AM:

Yes, this would be wonderful. I'm always looking for books on various subjects such as SQL Server, VS, etc. This would be much better! Go for it!

# David on 30 Sep 2005 11:49 AM:

A) I like the idea!
B) I'd buy some copies for certain of my acquaintances, for whom I'm always having to find things *they* couldn't find :).

# Fox Cutter on 30 Sep 2005 12:33 PM:

Just like everyone else I think this would be a great idea. In fact it would almost be worth doing even without a publisher, then you can show them that you aren't bashing MS. The other option is to put a simpler on line in some form so people can at least get a good idea what they need to do.

# Teresa on 1 Oct 2005 12:08 AM:

Gee Michael, maybe you should visit our developer group ;~} We frequently talk about the need to make it easier to find the RIGHT article/file. So I'll go out on a limb and say, on behalf of the group, that this is a great idea. Of course, a really good and well documented cross reference index of Microsoft articles and files would go a long way. That would really leverage the efforts of the UE/UA folks.

# jonnosan on 1 Oct 2005 4:59 AM:

This would be a great idea if it was effective. But what sort of things would you put in there?
Would it be like ?

# Michael S. Kaplan on 1 Oct 2005 8:42 AM:

Hi Jonnosan -- interesting link, but the link is much more of an "asking people" question (when those people are hackers, no less!) rather than getting the answer from help.

Maybe if you look at it as the equivalent sort of thing in terms of the keywords to use or how to look at the index/TOC, or which search to use and where each works best, it may capture the idea.

I did envision having a chapter that talks about asking for help in the various places -- newsgroups, forums, meetings, or calling PSS. That one chapter would be much closer in spirit to this document, though it would link to the info about how MS names things and hiw that affects questions, as well as info on how to get the question to the right person in some cases.....

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2015/04/23 Maybe they should *write* the freaking manual!

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