Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Workflow Charting for Textbook Authors

Whether drafting a first edition or revising a textbook, it's a big, complex undertaking. 

It's not easy to keep track of all the many tasks, most repeated in a particular sequence for each chapter and section. These steps of the writing-revising process can add up to hundreds of individual tasks that could be easily overlooked without efficient tracking.

The video below briefly outlines the method that has worked well for me. 

Making check marks on a workflow progress chart make me happy. I hope you'll find happiness the same way!

Please download the handout before watching the video.

Click here for the video (if you don't see the player below).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lion Tamers Guide to Writing Textbooks

This summer, I'll be presenting A Lion Tamers Guide to Writing Textbooks: High Performance with Minimal Injury at the Textbook & Academic Authoring Conference in Providence RI.

In the brief video below, I give my loyal readers a preview of that presentation, as well as a "bonus" preview of a second offering that I'm co-presenting at the conference.

Lion Tamers Guide to Textbook Authoring PREVIEW from Kevin Patton on Vimeo.

Click here if the video player isn't visible above. 

Want to know more?

  • June 9-10, 2017
  • Providence RI
  • Note: Be sure to get there in time for the informal reception on the evening of June 8!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Utilize Clear Language

If I never again see the word "utilize" in a textbook, I'll be a happier man.

A recent article, Don't 'Problematize' Anything, had me shouting "Yes!" Which really startled the cat dozing in front of my monitor. The article discusses various issues that came up in a panel discussion, including this one:
I could see folks in the audience squirming in their seats when someone said, "Don’t problematize anything. Avoid words like historicity, materiality, hegemony, paradigmatic, judicialize, conceptualize, experientialize." The panelists agreed: Words that end in "ize" are bad. Looking through the titles on the program, it’s clear they’re also endemic in academic writing. —Rachel Toor 

Which brings to mind the word "utilize." I've come to abhor that word. Why? Because those extra two syllables are not needed in most cases. In my opinion. Unless your goal is to sound smarter or "more scholarly." But in my mind, that's exactly what makes it sound a bit pretentious when used in a textbook.

As Joshua Rothman suggested a few years ago in The New Yorker article Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?, using the less "ordinary" language of academic writing may be what's needed to publish in certain journals or gain tenure. Okay. But when trying to help students—perhaps undergraduate students who have challenges of many sorts—why not use "ordinary" language?

Why not simply use the word "use" instead?

In fact, a while back I did a search of the entire draft of my largest textbook (over 1200 pages) and got rid of every "utilize," save one that was in a quote from American Medical Association. That's how much that word bothers me.

In fact, it's a constant struggle for me to watch that my vocabulary remains "ordinary" and my sentence structure avoids unnecessary complexity. However, I think my constant vigilance has slowly improved the quality of my textbooks and, at the same time, honed my skills in writing for students.

Again, I know that academic vocabulary and complex sentence structure are part of how educated folk are supposed to write. Perhaps even using unnecessary jargon. But that doesn't make it right for textbooks. Or, at least, it doesn't make it clear. And writing with clarity is essential in textbooks, if not in all scholarly writing.

I'll end with a quote from Russel Jacoby that I had taped up in my writing studio for many years:
As intellectuals became academics, they had no need to write in a public prose; they did not, and finally they could not.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Nuzzel for Textbook Authors:10 Things I Learned

Whether you already have an email newsletter or a social media stream (or two) that relate to your discipline or your textbook(s), you may want to consider starting a Nuzzel newsletter.

I have a few blogs going. Some address either students or teachers  in my field (or in any field). Others provide updates and insights about specific textbooks I author. And each of them has a related Twitter account, Facebook page, and email newsletter that sends each new blog post by email.

This sounds like a lot more work than it is. I have systems that automatically post to my social media streams and email the newsletters out once a blog post is published. So nearly all the work is posting each blog article. Not that this isn't work--it is--but all that other stuff is mostly automatic once it's set up.

I never thought that any other layers of social media posting would be useful to me as a textbook author trying to stay connected with--or at least visible to--my present and potential users.

But then a former editor started a Nuzzel newsletter, to which I subscribe. It's a daily newsletter. It turns out that his interests--digital education resources--overlap mine. And he's got a good eye for what's new and what's relevant.  So I looked into what Nuzzel is and how it works.

Nuzzel is a free tool that piggybacks on your Twitter account. So you need a Twitter account before you can use Nuzzel. Each day, at a time you specify, Nuzzel sends out a list of headlines that are gleaned from your Twitter connections' feeds. Each headline includes each original article's title, first few lines, image, and a link to the whole article in the original location.

Nuzzel will find the articles for you, based on the how many of your connections have shared the same article. You can let it run all by itself, but you have the option of "curating" the content. You can do this be looking at Nuzzel's suggestions and deleting those not relevant to your purpose. You can add other articles by browsing "Friends" feeds or "Friends of Friends" and other aggregations provided in the Nuzzel dashboard. You can even upload a URL of a news item not found in those lists.

You also have the option of adding a comment by any (or all) of the articles that appear in your curated newsletter. You can also add a custom headline each day if it suits you.

You can distribute a link to your Nuzzle newsletter to any contact list (Nuzzel will help you automatically load them from your email contacts or LinkedIn, for example).

So I started my own Nuzzel newsletter. For my Twitter feed @theAPprofessor, which targets users and potential users of my textbooks. Then I set Nuzzel to post to Facebook and LinkedIn in addition to my Nuzzell subscribers.

Here's what I learned:
  1. Nuzzel is super easy to set up and use.

  2. My Nuzzel newsletter has been subscribed to by people outside my subscribers in any other channel. That is, it has gained me a wider readership than I had before.

  3. I get a lot more re-posting of content than in any other channel. This has helped me grow my Nuzzel readership beyon "the usual suspects" by its wider, organic distribution of individual issues.

  4. I often include one "headline" from a past posting from one of my blogs. This allows me to recycle content that is still useful but is easily overlooked by my regular blog subsribers.

  5. My recycled blog posts frequently appear in Nuzzel's list of my most frequently read articles for the week. So I know that folks are digging into my blogs, reinforcing my reader ship there.

  6. It's easy. Did I mention that? It's not perfect, though. Read on.

  7. It's daily--no skipping days. Not even on weekends. you can always just let Nuzzel pick the news to share, based on popularity among your Twitter friends.

  8. I found that I prefer to actively "curate" each day's issue before it goes out, because the automatic listing nearly always has stuff that doesn't relate to my purpose. Some folks just have to post something related to politics or celebrities or other stuff that is not relevant to my readers--and if a few of them post the same thing, it may show up in my newsletter.

  9. Some news items I find on my own cannot be added to my Nuzzel newsletter. I'm not sure why, but I'm advised that "this is not a valid news item." And nothing will allow me to add it.

  10. Some articles get posted in Nuzzel as "Article Not Found" or something similar. Probably an artifact of differing ways that metadata is formatted. But the link still takes you to the article you want. I've found that adding a comment that outlines the title and/or content of the seemingly broken news item is helpful when that happens.

Check out past issues of my Nuzzel newsletter here:  Click on archive, then look through several. Looking at just one won't give a very complete picture of the potential of Nuzzel. You can subscribe at the same link. It's all about anatomy and physiology and college teaching--but you may find the news items interesting no matter what your discipline is.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

4 Books for Textbook Authors to Read on National Author's Day

Greetings on National Author's Day!

What better way to celebrate than to begin a journey through a fellow author's work, eh?

Here are four books I recommend for textbook authors that have helped form my perspective on writing educational material.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

Besides the fact that I love Lamott's informal and humorous storytelling, this book is one of the best books by a successful writer on on authoring that I've read.  And I've read a few.

The title is based on advice given by Lamott's father to her overwhelmed brother when he realized that the report on birds that he had months to write was due the next day. Dad advised, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." What textbook author can't relate to that as we start a new project or revision?

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.

Written for students and teachers in an engaging, nontechnical style, this book identifies some key concepts in how we best learn for the long term. It turns out that there are some surprises revealed by recent learning research that turn some of the long-held ideas about learning upside down. Many of the techniques we have used help us learn for the next test, but do little if anything to help us "make it stick" in the long term.

When I was a new teacher, I was SO frustrated that my students seemed to remember nothing from their prior courses. Then I realized that no matter who their teacher or which school they attended before, this was just the way it is. I learned that my energy is better spent getting my students up to speed than to complain about their prior learning. And on changing my techniques to bolster long-term learning. After reading this book, I realized that it's the common methods of teaching and learning, not the failures of prior schools or teachers, that make my students underprepared. It confirmed some of the techniques I'd begun using in my courses and introduced me to others.

When we write textbooks, we teach. So I've been trying to adapt the emerging principles of learning science in my writing. This book has been a useful guidebook for that journey.

The last two (of four) books I'm recommending today have already been reviewed by me in recent posts, so I'll just list them here and link them to those previous posts.

Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide by Mary Ellen Lepionka, Sean Wakely, and Steve Gillen.

This new edition is available for pre-order for a December 2016 release.

Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts by Steve Gillen

Short, well-illustrated book that every textbook author should use when reading, negotiating, or re-negotiating a publishing contract.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide

The title of this book says it all, it truly is as comprehensive a guide to getting a textbook project off the ground (and keeping it going) as one could imagine.

Honestly, I had some reservations about the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA) jumping with both feet into publishing books themselves. But this is the second book I’ve seen come out of that effort and both are outstanding in their usefulness and their instructional design. I’m a believer now, TAA!

(See my previous review of Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts.)

As a book of 320 pages, one is always concerned about whether it’s just too big to be very useful for a busy academic. Nothing to worry about, there!

First, the book is thoughtfully “chunked” into parts, chapter, sections, and subsections—making both reading and “raiding” the book easily accomplished. You can learn more about “the art of chunking” on p. 164.

Second, the internal design features many lists, tables, samples, graphics, and sidebars that organize the information visually. We all know that this helps any user find information and build a conceptual framework for how it all fits together.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that the text narrative is written in a direct, conversational style that tells the story of what’s involved in developing your own textbook. It’s like having a team of mentors sitting on your shelf, ready to give advice whenever you need it.

When I hear about a new guide or manual, I want to know who created it. Is it someone who can reliably be a virtual mentor to me? For this guide, we have three main authors who exceed usual expectations in that regard:

  • Mary Ellen Lepionka has done it all: professor, author, editor, publisher. 
  • Sean Wakely brings his wide and deep editorial and textbook development expertise. 
  • Steve Gillen is a former publishing attorney who has been in private practice representing textbook authors for decades. 
I’ve experienced and benefited from the work of all three for a long time, so I’m not surprised that their collaboration has produced such a useful guide.

Besides the main authors, the guide is sprinkled with brief “Author to Author” essays written by textbook authors whose long experience ranges widely in discipline, publishers, types of textbooks, and personal style of authorship. They tell stories that clarify how textbook authorship isn’t simply something “on the side” of your main career, but is a profession unto itself—one that has all the intricacies, jargon, customs, and pitfalls of any professional endeavor.  In short, they tell you why you need this guide!

Of course, no guide like this can tell you everything, but I can’t find any important topic that isn’t considered (at some level) in its pages. And I really tried to find one!

I wish I’d had such a helpful and thorough guide when I started working on textbooks thirty years ago. But I’m glad to have it now. It will help me keep up to date on current trends in my profession—and get advice on specific topics from trusted colleagues.

I looked at a pre-publication copy for this review, but you can download a free 17-page sample by visiting this page at TAA's website:

Fill out the form in the pop-up window, or click the circular "download" button on the page.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts

One of the first experiences a textbook author will have is dealing with a publishing contract. Very few of us are attorneys ourselves and very few of us will have had any prior experience negotiating a publishing contract. Our expertise is in our teaching discipline—not in contract law.

I have learned—the hard way—that I should NOT be the only one looking at contracts and amendments presented to me by my publisher.  I've therefore made it a habit to have an attorney specializing in textbook publishing contracts to review, suggest, and debate the points in anything I sign.  Now I have a much better idea of the potential risks and rewards involved in each new professional writing project.

And a handy new resource has just dropped into my inbox! The Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA) has just announced the publication of their new Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts by attorney Stephen E. Gillen. 

I've already learned a lot about publishing contracts from TAA in general, and Mr. Gillen's presentations at the TAA conferences in particular.  So when I saw this announcement, I was intrigued to see what—if any—new things I could learn from it. I was happy to discover that Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts exceeds my already high expectations. Gillen uses his extensive experience working with textbook authors to present a clear and concise introduction to the murky and mysterious world of publishing contracts.  

He begins with an introductory section that gives authors some important concepts from which to start the contract process.  These include what leverage an author might have with the publisher, what homework needs to be done, and determining what's important to you.

The main section of the guide goes through each of the key provisions of a typical textbook contract. For example, the Grant of Rights, Royalties, Copyright, Manuscript Submission, and Choice of Legal Venue.  I counted 23 different provisions that we usually see in a publishing contract—some of which have always seemed impenetrable to me. And I'm a pretty competent reader!

For each contract provision, Gillen gives a sample in a sidebar so that you can see exactly what he is referring to. Then he explains the idea behind it—what the section intended to provide for. But he also gives astute advice on how to make it better—for you.  Besides giving specific negotiating advice, he also includes samples of "better" versions of key provisions.  Sometimes, he even gives "better still" versions!

After reading Gillen's guide, one comes away with an appreciation for the complexity of publisher contracts and—perhaps more importantly—an acute awareness of the many hazards and pitfalls that exist for authors in a typical publisher's boilerplate contract. And there is comfort in knowing you have a book on your shelf (or e-reader) that tells you where to find the traps, giving specific advice for rendering them harmless.

There is also a "bonus section" of 20 questions you should ask your editor, a list of resources, and a helpful glossary of terms.

Gillen's straightforward writing is easy to read and understand—perhaps from decades of explaining convoluted legalese to us ordinary folks who write textbooks. Also helpful is an attractive internal design that helps readers navigate Gillen's engaging narrative and examples easily.  It's not a huge book, so one can read it in one sitting.  And easily find sections later when you need them.

I've never recommended a law book to my friends (or anyone, for that matter). However, I strongly advise anyone interested in textbook authorship, whether looking forward to a first contract or having recently signed your umpteenth contract, to read the Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts.  Then remember where you put it when you are finished because you'll want to go back and use it each time you are offered a new contract or amendment.

One last point.  After you read this book, you'll realize that it will not substitute for hiring a textbook attorney to help you with publishing contracts. Instead, you'll learn enough to realize that professional advice is needed.  But the guide will help you become an educated client who can communicate clearly with your attorney. And that, my friends, will save you a bundle in billable hours—because there will be less time spent explaining the basic principles to you.

For more information, go to Guide to Textbook Publishing Contracts at the TAA website.

Disclosure: I'm an active member of TAA (publisher of this guide) and have been a client of Mr. Gillen.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Bulk Rename Utility Saves Time and Improves Work Flow

In this digital age, all those skills we learned about organizing paper files are now being used to manage digital files. And textbook authors have a LOT of digital files to organize, including

  • Chapter drafts (previous edition, first draft, revised draft, copyedited draft, etc.)
  • Page proofs (first round, first round with author comments, second round, etc.)
  • Reviews
  • Research articles and other resources
  • Correspondence

I find that besides organizing such files into disk folders with descriptive names and nested in a logical manner that makes them easy to find, the filename of each file is critically important. When I have such files open on my desktop screen or attached to an email or located in a publisher's file management platform, I'm not always clear on what file version I'm really looking at. However, if I'm careful to use filenames that tell me this information, I have less of a concern.

At the beginning of a new revision process, I usually get files from the previous edition to use as the starting point. The individual chapter files often have some esoteric name that means something to the folks that created these files—but not necessarily very meaningful to me. For example, there may be as many as four extra leading zeroes. I guess that's to allow for books that have hundreds or thousands of chapters. Sometimes these filenames include the ISBN number of the previous edition of the book. Like that's going to help me.

I usually go in and change the names of all those chapter files to something more helpful to me as I progress through the revision process. For example, I'll include the chapter number. But I only need one leading zero before the single-digit chapter numbers. That goes first, to make the file list in the folder easy to navigate.

By the way, if you forget to use leading zeroes, then chapter 2 will be listed after chapter 19 and chapter 3 will be listed after chapter 29. Leading zeroes put them where they belong.

I also add in a shorthand telling me the title and edition number I'm working on. So Structure & Function of the Body 15th edition becomes SF15e and Anatomy & Physiology 9th edition becomes AP9e.

Then I append something that tells me what version I'm dealing with. For example, draft1 or copyedit or pages1. If these are versions that contain my responses to copyediting, then I'll also append my initials or name, such as kp or kpatton

I usually separate each of these shorthand units with a hyphen to make them easier to read at a glance. For example, 03-AP9e-copyedit-kpatton is the version that has my responses to the copyedited version of chapter three for Anatomy & Physiology 9th edition.

This seems like an awful lot of drone work, doesn't it? I agree that it would be if I typed in these filename changes in the usual way. But I don't. It literally takes me a few seconds to change the filenames of all 48 chapter files—plus several files for the glossary, front/back matter, appendices, etc. How can that be, you ask? I use a handy, cost-free tool called Bulk Rename Utility.

Whenever you open Bulk Rename Utility, you'll see this screen:

As the online tutorial advises, "The first thing to do is DO NOT PANIC!" It goes on to advise the user who has just picked themselves up off the floor that you don't really have to use all the controls available in the dashboard. Basic functionality—even advanced functionality—is really much simpler than it may seem with this complex screen that to me resembles the dashboard of one of those huge airliners.

You don't believe me. You think this is way over your head—something only your 11-year-old computer-gaming nephew will be able to handle. Because I know this, I've provided this video that proves how unbelievably simple it is for even we of The Beverly Hillbillies generation can handle.

If you want a video that also walks you through the installation process (and shows you how to rename image files) then click here Renaming Files Using Bulk Rename Utility.

For more tips like this one, come to my workshop Strategies to Make Your Textbook Workflow More Efficient at the 2016 TAA Conference.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Occupational Hazard for Authors: Sitting

Over the last decade, there has been growing wave of scientific reports that shows us that what we've always feared to be true is now a proven fact—being an author can kill you!  Or at least can increase your risk of death.

There are probably many such risks associated with the writer's life, such as paper cuts that get infected, the stress of deadlines that adversely affect blood pressure, a set of Oxford English Dictionaries (OEDs) falling on our heads, and glare from our monitors that give us the insomnia that raises our risk of heart attacks. But the issue I want to address today is probably the worst of them all: prolonged sitting.

Most of us sit at a desk when we are doing our secretive and lonely job of writing and revising.  For hours and hours, for days and days, month after month.  And any time we are sitting, we are not doing any significant physical activity.  We know by experience it can cause neck and back pain and loss of muscle mass and bone density. Researchers also find that such sedentary behavior can increase our risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other life-threatening chronic conditions. In fact, just prolonged sitting—regardless of other physical activity level—can increase these health risks.

So what, if anything, can we do to save ourselves?  Besides giving up our passion of writing?

I'm sure that more studies are coming soon that will help us choose the very best strategies for our predicament.  In the mean time, I have some suggestions:

  • Don't sit so much. Duh-uh. But how can we do what we do without sitting?  A lot? I suggest doing some of those tasks while standing up! Stand-up desks, and stand-up extenders for sitting desks, are becoming popular and easy to find. I've not found a good stand-up desk setup for my writing studio yet, but I have found that using an extender on a work table allows me to many of my writing tasks standing up.  The more of tasks I can find that could be done standing up, the less the risks to my health will be.

  • Get up and move around more. Okay, this is just a corollary to "don't sit so much."  But I've made a conscious effort to get up out of my chair more often to get things (like a volume of that deadly OED I mentioned), take a short walk over to the aquarium to watch the fish (or maybe even scrape a bit of algae off the glass), or just step outside for a moment to catch a breath of fresh air (and perhaps refill the bird feeder).

  • Add some activity to the daily routine.  Yeah, it's just a corollary to the other corollary to "don't sit so much."  But really, intentionally adding more physical activity to your day can counteract at least a bit of that deadly sitting effect.  Here are some ways I've found to add such activity without having to <groan> take up jogging—and without taking away much time from my writing.

    • Walk up the stairs and back down every once in a while, just to get some steps in.

    • Get a Fitbit or other type of pedometer, so you can see if you really are adding activity to your day.

    • Build a daily walk or two into your routine.  I've begun taking my dog for a loop around the block after lunch and after dinner most days.

    • Make "moving" choices.  When running errands, I now park in the back corner of the lot, so I have to walk more to get where I'm going. I take the stairs instead of the elevator.  Unless my appointment is on the 19th floor.

  • Practice Tai Chi.  Yes, it's a corollary to the corollary "add some activity."  But this one deserves its own special mention. That's because I just finished reading some studies on the health benefits of Tai Chi and found out that it's phenomenal for reducing the same health risks caused by too much sitting—and provides additional wellness benefits.

    Although I enjoy hiking, biking, and even a few short resistance (weight) workouts each week, I really don't find anything enjoyable about other "exercise for the sake of exercise" activities such as treadmills, stationary bikes, ski contraptions, or rowing machines.  But Tai Chi?  I look forward to my daily half-hour of Tai Chi practice.  I find it way more relaxing, easy, and fun than yoga, exercise videos or classes, or anything else I've tried.

    Tai Chi is something I can do in smaller bits
    when I want to.  I can get up and do a quick 5 minutes of Tai Chi and then sit back down to that dreaded glossary I've been working on.  Not only does it add activity (and get me out of the chair), it also clears my mind and reduces stress so that I can "embrace" the glossary.  Well, maybe not that last thing.

Enough said.  You get the point.  If we want to reduce the serious occupational hazards of being an author (not the silly ones I mentioned before) by sitting too much, there are some steps we can take that don't require huge changes to our days—or to our productivity.

Want to know more?  Check out The health hazards of sitting.

Top photo: Dora Mitsonia
Bottom photo: Diana

Monday, March 16, 2015

Let's Avoid Using Unnecessary Jargon in our Textbooks!

One of my pet peeves is textbook narrative that uses undefined or overused jargon in a way that make the text murkier, rather than making communication clearer—which is how jargon is best used.

Even terms like "utilize" when "use" will work just as well makes a textbook less accessible.  And I think it gives students the impression that obtuse language is what is expected of them in their own communications—not a desired outcome.

Here's a great article on the subject.

A call to arms: let's get rid of all the jargon!

By Baden Eunson, Monash University

In this high-tech, gee-whiz world, more and more people seem to speak in jargon or, as I like to call it, gibberish. Whether it’s exclusive terms understandable by only a certain few, buzz-words intended to impress in meetings, or euphemisms to make something seem better than it is, the use of jargon really does little more than confuse the listener.

Jargon tends to go through three stages:
  1. Jargon starts out as a simple technical sublanguage: users devise abbreviations and acronyms that help speed up processes. It also helps reinforce group solidarity in that it becomes a semi-private language, but with clarity its main aim.

  2. Jargon can go over to the dark side when it is so dense that “outsiders” have difficulty understanding it. Euphemisms and deception may creep into the discourse of the in-crowd’s private language. Organisations may become less transparent, crisis-prone and unable to communicate with external people.

  3. Jargon becomes an object of ridicule in some quarters, with counter-jargon springing up as a defence mechanism used by the out-group (i.e. the majority). Jargon may prevail, however, as a means of maintaining organisational and social control.

Do people understand jargon?

George Orwell realised that one of the best ways to tackle jargon is via humour: this, for example, is from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:

Table with bible verse and jargony parody
Author provided

Unfortunately, anti-language like Orwell’s parody is heard in offices and boardrooms every day almost 70 years after he put typewriter to paper. The numbers in the table refer to readability.
Readability scores have been around for almost a century, but they are still a work in progress. Rudolph Flesch developed his Flesch reading ease score in the 1940s. Peter Kincaid modified it for the US Navy in the 1970s to produce what is probably the most widely used readability score, the Flesch-Kincaid score.

Flesch’s score could be applied to any text, with texts with perfect clarity scoring 100 and impenetrable gobbledegook scoring zero. Kincaid saw some difficulties with people understanding this, and took some of Flesch’s stats and turned them into school grade levels of understandability, based upon vocabulary awareness tests of students at different levels.

Thus the prophet in the desert scores 78.3 Flesch and 8.4 on Flesch-Kincaid (someone with 8.4 years of post-kindergarten English should be able to understand this). The parody would require 27.1 years of schooling to understand (that’s several PhDs beyond year 12).

Jargon in every day use

How often do we hear jargon like this parody? Try this one from former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd:
What you saw even prior to the end of the Cold War here, of course, was the evolution of a series of confidence and security-building measures coming off the back of CSCE, OSCE and the Helsinki accords. There has to be a greater synergy between, let’s call it our policy leadership in this, which has been focused so much, legitimately, on targets and global architecture, almost reverse-engineered back to the means by which you can quickly deliver outcomes, and on the demand side in our economy we’re looking at potential advances in terms of 20 to 25% range if you do this across the board. It all takes cost, but let me tell you it’s probably the quickest lever you can pull given the challenges we face.
Using the same readability checker, Rudd scores 15.9 on Flesch-Kincaid readability. Given that 46% of Australians aged 15 and over have a skill level for prose literacy less than what is seen as required to meet the demands of everyday life, most of the people who elected this prime minister would not have a clue what he was talking about.

Some jargon is invented to cover up an unpleasant truth, like getting the sack (coerced transition, decruitment, work force imbalance correction) or making your job sound more prestigious. Take these jargonistic euphemisms:
  • Automotive internists (car mechanics)

  • Vertical transportation corps (elevator operators)

  • Initiate a career enhancement program (lay off workers)

  • Negative patient care outcome (the patient died)

  • Rapid oxidation (fire in a nuclear power plant)

  • Pre-emptive counter attack (home forces attacked first)

  • Engaged the enemy on all sides (troops were ambushed)

  • Backloading of augmentation personnel (retreat by troops)

  • Pre-dawn vertical insertion (invasion)

How to avoid jargon

Orwell realised that word choice was often the source of jargon, or anti-plain English:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.
We in the Anglosphere are fortunate in having had England invaded by French soldiers and Latin scholars, because it has dramatically enhanced our vocabulary (English has about one million words, while French and German only have about 200-300,000). So how do we stop falling prey to, or becoming perpetrators of, jargon?

  • Install a readability checker on your word processor and use it to see how your text is going (bearing in mind that they are rough-and-ready figures)

  • Use shorter words where longer words can be replaced

  • Use shorter sentences

  • Remember your audience: will they be able to understand your communication?

  • If you must use complex words or acronyms, provide a glossary

  • Stay in Phase One of jargon development - don’t let insecurity, contempt for others or a need for control get in the way of good communication

  • Use humour to ridicule jargon junkies: look at Dack’s Bullshit Generator - a table that allows you to combine verb, adjective and noun to form completely meaningless jargon like “facilitating holistic mindshare”!

  • Learn and practise Plain English.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo credit: Will Taylor

Friday, January 23, 2015

Membership in TAA at No Cost to You!

Control-click (Mac) Rightl-click (PC) to download this image
I recently got a call from a long-time friend and colleague who was searching for advice on a serious issue that had developed with his publisher.  Even though he's been a successful textbook author for decades, he was in a pickle that he'd never had to deal with before.  My advice to him? Get into the Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA) as soon as you can!

His situation clearly called for professional advice.  Having networked within TAA for many years, I was able to immediately give him the contact information for two attorneys who specialize in author issues, plus a consultant who would have important insights to share with him. All were folks I'd met in TAA.  Folks I'd already gotten invaluable advice from myself.

He'd heard tell of the famous TAA listserv, where he hoped to share his story and perhaps get some tips from fellow authors. So he was eager to sign up.

I called the TAA office within minutes of ending the call with my friend.  I found out about this great deal—TA is offering a free 60-day trial membership.

If you sign up before March 1, 2015, you can get all the valuable services of TAA—and all kinds of helpful contacts—for FREE!

I've learned more than I can tell you from TAA's

  • Webinars with tips from world-class experts in writing and publishing

  • Live workshops on contract negotiations, digital publishing, time/task management

  • Social events where I meet people who have helped me greatly in my textbook writing as consultants, legal advisors, negotiators, reviewers, and trusted advisors—or just share a drink and swap stories about the textbook-writing life.

  • Digital networking platforms where I can learn from other textbook authors

  • Updates on copyright law, contract law, publishing trends, and other news that affects my work

  • Articles and presentations from editors and publishers about topics that I want to know about—or never heard about, but need to know

Want to know more?  Feel free to contact me and I'll be happy to tell you about my experience in TAA. Or click here and tell them Kevin sent you

Thursday, July 19, 2012

New grant for textbook authors seeking contract advice

The Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA) has announced a new grant program to cover the cost of hiring an intellectual property attorney to provide assistance in negotiating a textbook contract. Members can apply for grants of up to $1,000 and non-members can apply for grants of up to $250.

The grants are limited to first-time textbook authors who have been offered a publishing contract. TAA recommends hiring an intellectual property attorney specializing in the negotiation of textbook contracts.

What a great opportunity!

“Textbook authors often enter into the contract process ill prepared, especially for the first few contracts,” comments my friend Robert Christopherson, author of the leading physical geography textbook, Geosystems. “TAA’s textbook publication grant offers first-time authors the opportunity to negotiate the most favorable agreement.”

Once a contract is signed, except in very few instances, it cannot be altered for the life of the book. That is why it is critical for first-time authors especially to learn how to negotiate a favorable contract so as to protect their intellectual property and their investment of time and resources in developing the book.

Want to know more?
To learn more about this grant or to apply, visit

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Join my webinar on blogging!

Join me on February 12 at noon Eastern Time for my webinar:

Sponsored by the TAA, my webinar will look at reasons why it's in a textbook author's best interest to blog.  And we'll touch on some of the practical issues of creating and maintaining a blog.

Hope to "see" you there!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reading a copyedited manuscript

I just ran a across a recent article about how how to decipher the "redline" copy an author receives from a copy editor.  If you're not used to the process, it can be quite confusing at first glance.

The article by Carol Saller does a great job of introducing the basics.  Although I've been dealing with such redlines for many years, the article a few tips that I found useful.  So whether you're new at the game or a seasoned author, I recommend:
Deciphering a Redlined Manuscript
Carol Saller
Lingua Franca (The Chronicle of Higher Education). 16 Jan 2012.  Accessed 17 Jan 2012.
Tip: You can follow Lingua Franca, a blog about language and writing in academe, by clicking the "subscribe" link at the bottom of the right column next to any article in the blog.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Children and authoring

(c) Kevin Patton
With four major textbooks in regular need of revision, plus countless ancillary materials, I spend a lot of time working in my home office.  And I have a 7-year-old.

Like many work-at-home parents, I struggle with the tug-of-war that happens when my boy and I want to play at a moment when I really need to be working.  Of course, 7-year-old boys are not very good at understanding deadlines . . . or the concept of "just let me finish this one task and I'll be with you."

One idea that helps give me a few extra minutes to finish up an urgent task before playtime has been to invite my boy to engage in his own writing project!

I have a spot in my office designated as "Luke's desk" . . . it's just one end of a work table where I often sketch out art concepts for my textbooks and manuals.  He's always been attracted to the piles of blank paper just screaming to be drawn upon with all the colorful pencils overflowing the "pencil basket."  And who can resist all the funky rulers and stencils that are piled next to the colored pencils?

When Luke asks me to play with him, and I can't do it right away, I ask him if he wants to "work on a book, too."  Sometimes he just draws some things on a few pieces of paper and I finish my task and off we go to play.  However, when my task takes a little longer, he's managed to produce a "book." 

In the photo, he's showing off one of his books, titled "All the Planits in the solr stem!" . . . his version of "All the Planets in the Solar System!"  It's just a few pages of circles of various sizes and colors, each labeled with a planet's name.  I helped him staple the edges and his book was complete.

Of course, I try to stop and play with my boy when he asks.  But sometimes, I really need just a few more minutes of work time, so I don't lose track of the threads I'm weaving together.  And this method lets me do it in a way that still satisfies his (and my) desire to do something "together" . . . until we get to some full-throttle Lego time.

By giving him his own workspace in my office, I think he feels less like it's a Daddy-only space. So the office becomes a less "separating" space.  And he loves the satisfaction of creating drawings and lists  . . . and entire books!

Have you found other ways to balance kid activities and home-office tasks?  Let's hear about them!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Are E-Textbooks at a tipping point?

A week or so ago, I passed along an article looking at the shift from traditional print textbooks to digital e-books.  Here's yet another take on the issue . . .

Tablets make digital textbooks cool on campus
By Bertha Coombs, (accessed 18 June 11)
"While students in college today are very attached to their mobile devices, they have not been enamored of e-books. In 2010, digital books accounted for just 3 percent of textbooks sales according to the National Association of College Stores.

Analysts say it's because until now e-textbooks have been little more little more than PDF copies of physical books, impractical for students who are accustomed to highlighting their paper copies as they study.

Researchers at online education firm Xplana say the shift toward tablets in the year ahead will jumpstart demand for e-texbooks in the $8 billion U.S. education book market."
Read the full article at

Thursday, June 9, 2011

More on E-Textbooks

Have you seen this article from the New York Times?

Digital Textbooks Slow to Catch On
The New York Times Published: June 8, 2011

"NEW YORK — While autobiographies and murder mysteries, romance novels and self-help books have enjoyed a smooth transition from print to pixels, the college textbook has met resistance in its digital form . . . "

Read the whole article here:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Early Finding of E-Textbook Study

Kindle 3G Wireless Reading Device, Free 3G + Wi-Fi, 3G Works Globally, Graphite, 6" Display with New E Ink Pearl TechnologySurprise, surprise! Early findings in a big study about student attitudes toward using e-textbooks is mixed.

Well, duh-uh. The platforms are all different and vary in usability. Straight reading works OK in an e-format, but not so much with texts heavily illustrated with detailed images. Not all e-textbooks work well on e-readers, which themselves often have a lot of issues with material other than literature (novels, for example). Yada, yada, yada.

But, as the article points out . . . this is the direction we're all heading in, nonetheless.

Check it out:

Early Finding of Cal State U. E-Textbook Study: Terms Matter - Wired Campus - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Expand your view!

No matter if your writing project is bit or small, you'll benefit by having more than one monitor.

After hearing about another textbook author who had a two-monitor setup several years ago, I couldn't believe that such a setup would have any benefits . . . other than taking up too much desktop space.  But the image of such a setup lingered in my imagination for many months, and I began thinking of all kinds of reasons how a 2-monitor spread could my life a lot easier.

For example, I could actually SEE the various windows that I often keep open while writing or revising a set of chapters:
  • Chapter file window - main text I am working
  • Glossary file window (to update as I add new terms or change old terms)
  • End of chapter window (to update as I revise the main text)
  • Browser window (for research)
Imagining that such a setup would be prohibitively expensive and overly complicated to install, I decided to actually investigate the possibilities.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was CHEAP and EASY!

Because most computers have built-in graphics cards that already have connectors for two monitors, I found that all I needed was another monitor. And these days good quality monitors are relatively inexpensive. So all I had to do was get another monitor and plug it in!

The hardest part — and it wasn't very hard – was tweaking the settings for the display in the control panel of my computer. But guess what? Windows (and I assume the Mac OS) already anticipates the use of multiple monitors, so it's a matter of selecting from choices that are already programmed into the system.  It was a snap.

It really only takes a few minutes — believe it or not!

After a couple of years of using two monitors, I decided to add a third monitor. This took a little more effort — but not much. I purchased a second graphics card, selecting a relatively inexpensive one from an online vendor. That gave me two additional connectors for monitors. I did have to open up my computer case and install a graphics card, but that's a lot simpler than it sounds. Then I simply plugged in my third monitor, reset the display settings in the control panel, and I was good to go.
Click here to see my original 3-monitor setup, with standard 19" LCD monitors set up in landscape orientation.

I've considered using a fourth monitor but I think I would be overwhelmed. Research in this area backs up my own experience, which says that two or three monitors provides just the right amount of  space  for efficient work.

Right now I'm using three widescreen LED monitors that are tilted 90° into portrait mode. You can see in the photos that this provides a nice layout for writing. (Click any photo to enlarge it)

You can guess that I'm glad I went in this direction. Or I wouldn't have continued to expand and improve my set up. And if I didn't like it, this whole article would have a much different tone!

In fact I strongly recommend that you get at least two monitors!

Having multiple monitors really does increase your efficiency and reduce the frustration that you might feel when you're working in several windows at the same time but can't see all of them. The time saved in being able to simply drag-and-drop or copy and paste without opening and closing windows is itself worth adding a monitor.

Once you have tried a multiple monitor setup, you'll never go back!

When getting a monitor, you may want to consider an LED backlit monitor because this type of monitor is VERY energy/cost efficient and is far less bulky than other types of monitors.  Also, be sure that you get a monitor that can swivel if you want to use them in portrait orientation.  Another option is to use a special stand to support multiple monitors.

For additional commentary on this topic, see my article Why you need more than one monitor in The Electronic Professor.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blogs are simple!

A couple of years ago, I decided to start two blogs to facilitate connecting with the two different groups who constitute the "users" of my textbooks: professors and students.

I had thought about doing this for some time before actually doing it . . . but I was certain that setting up a blog was complicated and time consuming.  Oh, and expensive.

Well, it turns out that it is none of those.  OK, setting up a blog COULD be all of those.  But a great, professional-looking blog can be easy, fast, and free.

I've had a few of my colleagues ask about how it's done and they don't believe how quick and easy it is.  So I decided to SHOW you all!

Check out my video Start a Blog!

In upcoming articles, I'll talk about why having a blog is useful . . . and what kinds of blogs you could consider.

In the meantime, you may want to brush up on the basics of social media (like blogging) by scanning The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success

Friday, August 6, 2010


Welcome my new blog about the process of writing textbooks.

I've been writing textbooks for over 20 years, but would never pretend to be an expert.  However, I can claim to be a diligent student of the art and science of textbook writing.  So I thought I'd start a blog to keep track of what I've learned and what I continue to learn.

Blogging the learning process not only helps me but I hope that other textbook authors, or those considering taking that road, might get some ideas.  Even if the idea you get is, "THAT would never work for me," I hope you get something you can take away with you.

I don't plan on blogging here often.  But regularly.