Many an author of instruction manuals and how-to guides write as if you know “how to” before reading the first word of their expertise. To make matters worse (for you), if these experts followed their own instructions, they wouldn’t be able to operate a doorknob. From gardening and parenting to dieting and updating your computer, experts tell you how smart they are without making you any smarter.
While it isn’t necessary for a how-to writer to start at the beginning (how to read), it is necessary that they start at the beginning of their topic. A glossary or list of terms is dry reading, but not when it’s incorporated into the text of a subject that interests you – nor is it difficult to do so:
A perennial plant lives three or more years. An annual plant lives only one year or season.
I am the author of these two sentences – and I’m not even an expert. In 17 words I defined two basic terms the beginner gardener needs to know. I didn’t make my reader turn to the back of a book, open their dictionary, or click on a link that goes to a different site to understand what I said or the context in which I said it. Compare this to a 429-word article with six links and numerous terms the beginner would not know, called “The Difference Between Annual Plants and Perennial Plants in the Garden” by The Garden Helper.
I’d hoped to get a surefire, year-round garden going. I researched the holy crap out of the subject online and in the library and would have benefited from any number of diagrams, layouts, and detailed instructions if they hadn’t left out two crucial pieces of information: The names of the plants and what they look like.
Not even my beloved (and quintessential gardening authority) Capper’s Weekly could resist the temptation to indulge in its own brand of self-serving rhetoric. Of 828 words, C’s W doled out a whopping 19 words that could be loosely translated into a shopping list. The rest of the article was made up of information you could only use if you already knew what you were doing (so why would you be reading the article?) and an unholy amount of “here’s how smart I am.”
My initial how-to goal was to consolidate the most pertinent pieces of information from a myriad of sources into one ready-to-use article on a given subject – not just gardening. On no one topic, however, could I do for the reader what I’d hoped to do for myself: a beginning-to-end, step-by-step guide that incorporates the meanings of the terms. Every article, book, and guide managed to leave out something, and several contradicted another.
Is it really too much to ask that experts gather all the information in one place to be presented at one time to the reader or student? “Yes,” the how-to world seems to say.
I recall from a single psychology class the practice of leaving out one or two key pieces of information during instruction for the (conscious or subconscious) purpose of making the student feel stupid, thus artificially inflating the importance of the instructor and promising the student’s return for more instruction. In the publishing world, this translates into more books being sold on a given topic when, in reality, one would do.
The irony is that the only effective how-to in all of this is how to write a how-to book in such a way so as to guarantee sale of the next book on the subject. When it is by the same author, the title is likely to include the word “revised.” In how-to language, “revised” means “more, but still not all of the information.” Students and teachers are painfully familiar with this book-selling Modus operandi (mode of operating or working).
Since money and author esteem — not knowledge — are the priorities when publishing how-to books, I’m sure to fail in my meager attempt to change the way things are, but you can be sure that if I am able to find enough information to effectively take you, dear reader, from beginning to end, I’ll do it.
I wish the “experts” would do this now.