Take a few minutes to read a wonderful authoring tip on Kathy Sierra’s blog. For better or worse, I’ve been in this business long enough to remember when a stiff, formal style was the only way to write a computer book. In fact, a senior executive at a former employer once ridiculed me because I had the nerve to bring what he called “a joke book” into an editorial board for review. This was before …For Dummies, Kathy’s Head First and any other informal series hit the scene. The thinking back then was “if the formal style works for Using Lotus 1-2-3, Special Edition, why change the formula with a conversational style?”
As Kathy correctly states, a pure reference book (such as an A-to-Z syntax reference) is probably better off in the old, formal style…sort of. When I was a programmer many years ago, I appreciated the type of programmer’s reference that offered concise entries. Easy in and easy out. I just want to know the syntax, what each parameter represents, etc. However, there’s plenty of room to be conversational when talking about practical implementations. What shortcuts or workarounds has the author discovered? Those are the gems that make a reference work so valuable. They also lend themselves to a more conversational style.
Some authors think “conversational” means “forced humor.” Nothing makes a book harder to read than a bunch of bad jokes. Fight the temptation. A former colleague once described the conversational style this way: It’s as if the author is telling you a story while the two of you are enjoying a beer. With or without the beer, I think this is a good description of the relaxed, informal style that works best.