Four ways that writing Head First has blown my mind

by michael on August 19, 2009

If you’re at all familiar with Head First books, you probably know that they’re written differently from most books that aspire to help you learn a new skill. Brett McLaughlin, Brian Sawyer, and Andrew Stellman have all recently weighed in on what exactly makes Head First writing different.

As I wrote Head First Data Analysis over the past year, I began to see the craft in a totally different light, and here I’d like to share with you four ways in which Head First has changed my writing forever.

1. Motivation is on every single page

Andrew’s blog entry says a lot of useful stuff about reader motivation, and I’d add this: consciously maintaining reader motivation throughout the book you’re writing is surprisingly difficult.

Head First authors and editors assume that every single page needs to provide an explicit motivation that will keep the reader continuing. And “This material is interesting for its own sake” is not an adequate motivation. Nor is “Trust me, you need to know this.” The motivation has to relate to a clear, specific functional goal (in Brett’s words, something that might actually get you off work early on a Friday). And I’m not kidding when I say that every single page has to have one of these.

You might think, for example, that after you’ve written 300 pages or so, you could “coast” for a few pages. You could take for granted that you have the reader’s attention for the next ten minutes of reading and just give them material, taking up motivation again later on. But that’s not how we do it. We are so meticulous about motivation because really want you to read the Head First books from cover to cover.

Writing with page-level explicit motivations is, speaking for myself, a brutal discipline. But it’s worthwhile if you’re truly committed to creating a great reader experience.

2. The content is broken into spreads

In none of my writing before Head First Data Analysis did I care about how the text was laid out on a page. The basic writing units I used were words, sentences, and paragraphs. How words were distributed across pages was something handled by my word processor, and it was a matter of indifference to me as to how the final text was laid out into columns or pages.

Because we want you to read our books all the way through, and because there are so many visual elements on the pages, we write Head First books to be mindful of what ends up on the specific spreads. Spreads are the left and right pages the reader sees when she has a book open flat, and what happens as her eye travels from the top left of the spread to bottom right is really important. When you write in a one-dimensional, word-after-word manner, you don’t think about this visual component of your reader’s experience.

Any book that uses graphic elements heavily is likely to have been written on a two-dimensional, spread-by-spread basis. I recently read a novel that relies on spreads as a functional writing unit. And one of the most important parts of writing a Head First chapter correctly is having the pacing in your spreads make sense.

Writing on a spread-by-spread basis blew my mind because it forces you to be more mindful about how the reader experiences your work. And even if one is writing something that doesn’t require spread-by-spread thinking, like a novel or long article, one should think about the esthetic effects and cognitive stimulation that well-formed spreads can offer.

3. The visualizations force you to think harder about what you’re trying to communicate

There are lots of diagrams, flowcharts, arrows, text boxes, and pictures in Head First books. As someone who’d previously only used words to communicate, reframing my knowledge into these formats forced me to think hard about what it was I thought I knew. For example, early drafts of Head First Data Analysis‘s first chapter had a big flowchart that ambitiously attempted to be a comprehensive definition of everything that is “data analysis.”

After I wrote it, I didn’t feel great about it. Nor, it turns out, did my tech reviewers. Ultimately I decided to drop the visualization, since it wasn’t quite right and wasn’t even that important for someone learning data analysis (you don’t need a philosophically bulletproof definition of “cooking” in order to cook, either).

When I tried to communicate a grand unified definition of data analysis visually, I discovered that I didn’t actually have one. Whether a necessary, sufficient, grandiose theory of the nature of data analysis is important or useful is an important philosophical question, and my short answer is “No.”

Anyhow, I’d say that visual thinking imposes a rigid formality on your writing that the hedging and caveats of straight text enable you to avoid. I felt like communicating visually sharpened my mind. And that blew my mind.  🙂

If you’d like to learn more about communicating visually, the places to start are Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin and the books of the world’s curator of cognitive art, Edward Tufte. My copy of the Roam book became particularly dog-eared during the writing of Head First Data Analysis.

4. We can simulate failure

In one of the chapters of Head First Data Analysis, you experience a big failure. I won’t reveal which chapter it is, but let’s just say that you learn the correct way to use an analytic tool, overreach with it ever so slightly, and experience disastrous results. Results that involve a lot of angry clients and might make you want to skip town for a little while to let people cool off.

Why take a big risk with the reader’s emotions by creating this sort of experience? Because failures, when we use them correctly, are incredibly effective learning experiences. How many of the biggest lessons you’ve learned are a direct result of mistakes you’ve made? If you’re like me, quite a few. Failure hurts, and it brings your attention into sharp focus.

And in the world of data analysis failure is a big deal. Analysis based on faulty assumptions and tool misuse are two of the biggest causes of analytic failure. Not only should you be aware of this, you should actually experience it in the sandbox of a book before trying out your new tools in the real world.

In the world of Head First, we call these failures “Oh Crap” experiences. They’re loads of fun to write, and they can make even the most boring-looking technical skill exciting.

  • Brian

    Brilliant little piece. I had only picked up one Head First book, love it, but worried others would be too different. This tells me that the entire Head First series has conventional style. I’ll be picking up your book along with anything else in the series that applies to me ASAP. Thanks, Michael!

  • michaelmilton

    Thank you Brian! I hope you enjoy it. Do let me know what you think. –MM

  • Abdi

    I enjoyed reading Head First book on PMP. It was re-energizing and and well-written. I learned more than I could learn from any other book on the subject.


  • aunt joanne

    Hey Mike,
    Didn’t know you two had relocated to Austin – my favorite place in Texas – until a few weeks ago. There was a great article in the NYTimes Sunday on Austin. If you didn’t see it, here’s the link:
    If you haven’t seen Ester’s Follies or eaten at the Pecan Street Cafe or the Boiling Pot – both on 6th Street – I highly recommend them all (tho not included in NYT article). Love to Julia. See you at Christmas!

  • Rohit

    Head First books are absolutely amazing. They are a whole new experience towards effective learning. I hope all books maintain the same methodology as I have just read a couple. You guys are going a long way in educating people!! Thanks and looking forward for the books on Python and Android!!

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