programming in the
twenty-first century

It's not about technology for its own sake. It's about being able to implement your ideas.

A Short Story About Verbosity

In the early 2000s I was writing a book. I don't mean in the vague sense of sitting in a coffeeshop with my laptop and pretending to be a writer; I had a contract with a tech book publisher.

I'm in full agreement with the musician's saying of "never turn down a gig," so when the opportunity arose, I said yes. I did that even though there was one big, crazy caveat:

"In order for a book to sell," said my publisher, "it's got to be thick. 600 pages thick." "In the worst case we could go as low as 500 pages, but 600+ should be your target."

Wow, 600 pages. If I wrote two pages a day, that's almost a full year of writing, and I had less than a year. But still, never turn down a gig, and so I took a serious attempt at it.

I can't prove or refute the claim that a 600 page tech book sells better than thinner ones, but it explains a lot of the bloated tomes out there. Mix sections of code with the text, then reprint the whole program at the end of the chapter. That can eat four or eight pages. Add a large appendix that reiterates a language's standard library, even though all that info is already in the help system and online. Add some fluff survey chapters that everyone is going to skip.

I try not to wax nostalgic about how the olden days of computing were better. While I might have some fond memories of designing games for 8-bit home computers, there has been a lot of incredibly useful progress since then. But I do find myself wishing that the art of the 250 page technical book hadn't gone completely out of style.

Eventually I did give up on the 600 page monster I was writing. It was a combination of me not having enough time and my publisher taking weeks to give feedback about submitted chapters. In the end I think I had written the introduction and maybe eight full chapters. Do I wish I had finished it? Yes. Even with the 600 page requirement, there was still some clout that went along with writing a book at the time. These days it's much less so, and I think those padded-out-to 600 pages volumes had a lot to do with it.

(If you liked this, you might like Two Stories of Simplicity.)

permalink March 17, 2010



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I'm James Hague, a recovering programmer who has been designing video games since the 1980s. Programming Without Being Obsessed With Programming and Organizational Skills Beat Algorithmic Wizardry are good starting points. For the older stuff, try the 2012 Retrospective.

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