I'm at the halfway point updating a book that has sold the best for me, The Illustrated AutoCAD Quick Reference for AutoCAD 2010. This weekend, it's commands that begin with the letter "M."
A reader wrote recently:
I should mention that I bought a copy of your AutoCAD 2008 Quick Reference. The concise and compact format was exactly what I was looking for in an updated book. I am curious what the secret for writing such guides is; the hours invested in content seems staggering. Well done.
- D.B., Australia
I learned to write concisely during my five years at CADalyst magazine, where we forever were trying to cram too much text into too few pages.
I wrote the original Quick Ref in early 1991 for AutoCAD Release 12, still running primarily on DOS. The first edition of the book was a slim 265 pages, and I wrote it with the DOS version of WordPerfect, using its macro capabilities to automatically (1) prompt me for the text for each command; and then (2) format the text with styles.
This semi-automation saved me much time; not such a time saver, however, was the frequent flipping between text and graphics modes, to see what the page layout was looking like. (It was the equivalent of entering commands only in AutoCAD's text window, and then pressing F2 every so often to see the result in the drawing window. When you don't know about cars, traveling by donkey seems pretty good.)
Generating the table of contents took WordPerfect a half-hour, with the floppy discs grinding away on my Victor 9000 desktop computer. Each correction to the TOC meant waiting another half-hour; today, PageMager generates TOCs of 1000-page books in under a minute.
(I not only write the book, but also typeset it. In fact, I write in typeset mode. When I finish writing a book, it is ready for the printers; this really speeds things up.)
Sometimes technology leapfrogs. For the first decade, I submitted laser printouts to the publisher, Delmar Publishing (dba Autodesk Press), by overnight courier. The printing house would photograph each page, and then etch steel plates with the images -- 8 or 16 pages per plate. In those days, the quality of the laser printer was crucial, but not great; nowadays, laser printers have fabulous print quality, but it no longer matters: I simply ftp a 15MB 2400dpi PDF file to Delmar in ten minutes.
I don't recall exactly how long the first edition took to write; it was probably 2-3 months. Since then, I tend to generate the annual updates in 3-4 weeks, typically working overtime 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week.
Battling the Page Count
The biggest problem is the page count. With each new release of AutoCAD, the book grows by 64 pages, and the book becomes less "quick." Every year, I have to be ever more creative in figuring out how to keep down the page count.
One year, I combined related commands, such as DxfIn/DxfOut, onto one page. Another year, I reduced the screen grabs from 48% of their original size to 42%.
This year, the publisher and I decided to increase the page dimensions (called the "trim size") to keep the page count at 1,008. But what will we do next year?
In the meantime, I am busy learning how new commands operate and figure out subtle changes made to existing commands. Autodesk Press and I have set in place plans to ship the book the same day that Autodesk ships AutoCAD 2010 in late March.