Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Writing a book: the Title

This is going to be the first part in a small series of posts about how to write a good wikibook. What I would like to talk about first is the title of a book, because it's the first decision that the author of a Wikibook needs to make, and it is the first thing that the reader is going to see when they read the book.

It's very tempting for people to try and emulate what they see in the real world. People are almost universally familiar with dead-tree books, and some very popular books have a noticable impact on our work at Wikibooks. Several books, and many requests at [[Wikibooks:Requested books]] will attempt to use naming schemes from existing book series, such as "In a Nutshell", or "For Dummies".

If we look through the list of requested books, we can see a number of instances where people suggest titles that are lousy. The same types of people who are suggesting the book ideas are the people who are creating new books, so this makes a good case study. I'll give some examples of titles that were actually suggested on our site, so that you can see what I mean:

"Drawing Politically Incorrect Cartoons" How to draw a politically correct cartoon is likely the same type of process as drawing a politically incorrect one. This title is also a good example of a particular type of book that we see too often, the "How to do something bad" type of books. Some of them, such as "how to build a bomb", or "how to build a Bong" (both titles of actual books that we've had to deal with) are deleted swiftly, although others are left to linger in a VfD grey zone forever.

"How to Take Photos of Children and Infants without Getting Blurry Pictures" This title is entirely too specific. It should be assumed that any book about "how to photograph children" would include at least a side note about avoiding blurry pictures. For that matter, a book on "how to photograph people" would probably have the same information, but would be much more useful. And could you actually write an entire book about taking non-blurry photos of children?

"Nude Basketball" It's hard to tell which is more ridiculous: the fact that people attempt to write books like this, or the fact that there are people out there putting in requests for us to write it. The supply/demand curve here is mind-boggling.

"Who Really Cares about Philosophy?" Good question, who does care? What is the appeal of this type of title that a more simple and elegant "Philosophy", or even "Basics of Philosophy" couldn't handle? This is another good example where people try to write Wikibooks to mirror existing books. The author probably found a book with this same title, or a similar variant, and wants us to duplicate it free of charge.

"Flying Spaghetti Monsterism" Perhaps the wrong subject to be writing a book about. It seems the much more poignant book would be one about the effects of the First Amendment on public school curricula, or even the debate over Evolution v. Intellegent Design in America. After all, we want to teach things that people actually want to learn.

"How the Electricity in Your Wall Creates Your Computing Experience" Another title that is far too long winded. A much more simple book would be titled "How Computers Work". This is also an example of a potential book that is far too broad: there are too many subjects that you need to talk about between AC current and Windows XP.

"Microchips: Design, Production, and Business" Or, simply "Microchips".

"Widows Communication Foundation Unleashed" (sic) Another example of people trying to use real-world book titles as a model for a Wikibooks title. The danger is that "...Unleashed!" is probably copyrighted or something.

"The Illustrated Wikibook of Automotive Basics, Maintenance, Subsystems, and Problems" At this stage of internet development, I think we all need to be a little less excited about illustrations. If illustrations are that big a deal, go check out Commons.

"Urology (or Pee Studied)" It's either supposed to be funny, or some kind of shock advertising. Either way, not a good title.

"Yoda in Theory and Practice" What makes this title so funny is that it was suggested on the "Life Sciences" bookshelf.

"Robert's Rules of Order" Who is Robert and what, exactly, does he know about order?

Unlike on Wikipedia where there is a policy about using common names, Wikibooks leaves the title of the book up to the author. However, many authors just don't know what it takes to write a good title. Some of the best books we have are the most simply named, such as [[Calculus]] or [[Spanish]].


  1. en:User:Scott5114June 27, 2007 at 2:05 PM

    "Robert's Rules of Order" is a very widely used book detailing parliamentary procedure. The person requesting the wikibook probably either wants a duplication of the work (in which case send them to Wikisource) or a book that boils the rules down so that they're simpler.

    Or are you making a joke that "Robert's Rules of Order" is fundamentally a bad title for anything? ;)

  2. I wasnt aware that it was a real book, and that only changes my criticism of it slightly. The title is still vague and doesnt describe what, if anything, that the book is supposed to discuss. Also, since this is a wiki and the book doesnt have a single author, we can't be expected to know who "Robert" is. Even some wonderfully famous dead-tree books have terrible titles, and yes, i do tend to make jokes like that!