Ten rules for evaluating book creation software. 1: Does the tool support effortless writing?

I tell people how they should fix their information products. When I do, I follow some obvious rules, and them some less obvious one. These tips are to enable customers (readers, clients, whatever) to more easily use one’s information product (book, web site, whatever). For example, this farm (where we’re celebrating a family member’s birthday; it’s his big 3.0.!) uses a clunky, slow and inaccessible Flash animation as a banner. That’s one of the biggest no-nos among web developers! But they’re not paying me to tell them that.

How do you decide which of these is the most readable? Go look up “kerning”. 

The tips and tricks that I’ve taught software developers over the years are as just as relevant to people who create publications such as print or digital books. Today, I’m writing specifically for writers.

Writing is complicated, and good writing is hard. When I write, I use dictionaries, thesauruses, search engines and all kinds of tools unrelated to me physically typing or scribbling. Assuming that tools such as these are part of the process of writing, then software should make it natural and effortless to use those tools, too.

Also, we need different tools — mental, physical or digital — for different kinds of writing. Educational consultant Eveline M. Bailey  uses this chart to demonstrate levels of critical writing.  There’s software available for all of this, but is any of it good? We’ll see. 

So how do I decide what software to recommend to writers? My desire to work naturally and effortlessly when writing, is the basis of my list of rules for writing software. My list of ten heuristics will help me evaluate the usability of the software you can use to make books.

So, here’s the first heuristic:

  1. Does the tool support effortless writing*?

More to follow once I actually try out PubCoder. The Windows installer is 168 MB, so we’ll see how this goes on my mobile connection.


Here I go.

* I chose the term effortless instead of the word natural because that leaves space for innovation in writing, such as speech-to-text technology, which might enable me to write while I’m moving around. Dictation-to-text, really. Such novel, unnatural ways of writing are welcome, but their utility shouldn’t make writing an effort.


Online tools for English language teaching: teaching vocabulary with collocations

 What do you think most likely goes with these words?

  1. noodles (n, plural form)
  2. agonizing (adj.)

Turns out, the words that most often go with them are:

  1. pot noodle
  2. agonize over (32), agonizing death (14)

So it’d make more sense to teach “pot noodle” and “agonize over something” than “boiled noodle” and “agonizing itch”, because students are more likely to encounter those expressions.

Just-the-word finds these so-called collocations.We learn language through fixed expressions more often than through individual words. Use this tool to decide which collocations to teach.


How to use collocations to teach higher-level vocabulary

I used JTW to pre-teach vocabulary to my highest-level students, who were preparing for a Korean University entrance exam’s English section. Collocation was only one strategy I used, and it’s very effective.

Try it; your students will sound extra further more natural.


The numbers in brackets show how often words appear together.


Google’s autocomplete often does the job, too!


The collocation finder also shows in-context examples.


Clearly, you should teach “perch on”, rather than “perch above”, when teaching phrasal verbs.

I’m back from South Korea


So I flew to Seoul, Korea two years ago. I then took a bus to 대전시 (Daejeon-si) for a week-long orientation with other prospective English teachers in South Korean public schools. I had no idea where I’d teach, exactly. I just knew I’d be in the Chungcheongam-do province. Our so-called co-teachers would pick us up soon after we learned exactly which city or town we’d be placed in.

First, I bade my colleagues at the University of Pretoria farewell. My old and fond colleague, WJ, drew this picture

I met this man, who was to be my co-teacher, babysitter, translator and general life support system for the next year, at the same time that I would cut myself off from the native speakers and fluent locals with whom I’d spent the last week.

As we made our introductions, his first words included: “I don’t speak English very well.”

Later, as we drove the two-hour route to my rural city, he also asked me to “not touch the children”.

Not a single one of the six or so books I’d read, the hours of YouTube videos I’d watched, the many dozens of Korean language lessons I’d studied had prepared me for this moment. Wasn’t I supposed to have an English teacher as my co-teacher? Isn’t this rule perhaps a bit extreme? My second question, about the kids, seemed the best to actually voice out. So, I diplomatically asked about situations such as emergencies. Would it be alright to touch the children then?

Turns out, he meant to say that I shouldn’t hit the children.

This, and the countless amusing or alarming misunderstandings that followed over the next 24 months, is why nothing can really ever prepare you for living abroad.

Slide from a phonics and symbol recognition course for 1st and 2nd graders.

Slide from a phonics and symbol recognition course for 1st and 2nd grade elementary students. The Korean means “well done.”

In December 2016, I left Seoul for the last time. Teaching and living in South Korea was tough at times, but it was worth the investment. Looking through the lens of TESOL, I learned a lot about my existing subject domains, especially relating to educational book publishing and technology-assisted language learning. I also learned that kids are quite different to young adults when it comes to classroom management!

Most of all, I studied a brand spanking new language — the most challenging one of all so far.

I taught writing, too, up to advanced academic writing that is also taught at universities.

I taught writing, too, up to the kind of advanced academic writing that is also taught at universities.

So, in addition to my other interests, I’ve added a TESOL category. TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) can include various sub-domains, such as TEFL, TESL, EAP and a flurry of further terms, where the focus shifts between things such as English as a foreign or second language, or English for academic or business purposes.

Never, ever, tease a language learner when they make a mistake. But do share funny translations on the interwebz.

Never, ever, tease a language learner when they make a mistake. But do share mistakes made by bad copy editors.

I created a Tumblr for my journal. Here’s the second post I made, with the title: “Becoming an EPIK teacher: why I want to teach English.”:

The English Programme in Korea places teachers from English-speaking countries in the Korean public school system. I became interested in teaching English after learning from Jay Walker about (in his own words), the World’s English Mania. At the time of his talk, an estimated two billion people were attempting to learn English globally.

I’m also a trained information scientist. Since language is our method of transferring information, I think it’s a splendid idea for everyone to have a shared language. So, morally, I feel obligated to help out in this regard.

Should English become the only language spoken in the world? No. As mister Walker wisely ends his talk:

Is English a tsunami, washing away other languages? Not likely. English is the world’s second language.Your native language is your life. But with English you can become part of a wider conversation: a global conversation about global problems,like climate change or poverty, or hunger or disease.

The world has other universal languages. Mathematics is the language of science. Music is the language of emotions. And now English is becoming the language of problem-solving. Not because America is pushing it, but because the world is pulling it.
I got accepted into the programme in April 2014. I’ll hear about where I’m placed soon. Right now, I’m sorting out my life here in South Africa to prepare for the journey. Wish me luck.


Semester 1, 2013: Wikipedians, e-production and timetable schedulers

Human-computer interaction

Students still have problems with the requirements part of the project. That is, about a third of the groups still want to make a timetable scheduler or an interactive campus map. I think that I should give them a selection of project choices in future. Limiting the scope of the project helped in postgrad HCI, so it will help here too.

Digital publishing

There are still students that don’t know how to denote HTML entities! I think it’s time to introduce extra, tutor-lead tutorials  — specifically for theme three (markup languages). Tutors can decide on the topic, but the focus will be on technical skills.

The course web site / textbook remains useful (thanks, PressBooks). It’s indexed by Google now, so looking up a reference in the textbook can be as simple as an in-site Google search (like this one, which points out the terribly inconsistent spelling of the word “ebook” throughout — yikes!).

Hypermedia and markup languages 

This year I had students improve a Wikipedia article of their choice. Wikipedia is a fantastic, living example of a complex hypermedia system, and getting my class to improve the behemoth ever so slightly makes the world a better place. Having students present on topics from Hypertext 2012 worked… to some extent. Some articles were too complicated to explain in a presentation format.

Wikipedia Improvement Initiative 2013


As part of their subject in hypermedia and markup languages, students chose a Wikipedia article as a pet project. The overall idea was to improve Wikipedia (for instance, expanding on stubs) or to create an article from scratch. As editors, they were responsible for improving the quality (reliability/readability/usability) of their chosen article.

Since their project pages will likely change over time, I won’t link to the actual articles (though they should be easy to find). Instead, here are some quotes from their reflections on being a Wikipedian and on Wikipedia as a system (emphasis mine).

1. On becoming Wikipedia editors

I learned that as an editor you must be careful not to infringe copyright. It is important for an editor to keep by the rules of Wikipedia in order to maintain the integrity of Wikipedia. One of the first things I learned (the hard way) about creating pages is that Wikipedia is NOT the place to write about commercial topics (i.e. advertisements). I also learned that other Wikipedians will criticize, change and possibly delete your work if it does not conform to Wikipedia standards.

Being a Wikipedia editor is hard. As strange and broad a statement that is to make, it’s the truth. Around the end of April, when The Pop Underground was being released, I remember rushing to source all the things I needed to add to my article just to make sure I was the first editor to put up the new information. There is also always a balance between giving all the information possible on a topic and making it condense and concise.

Sad to say however I learned that it is not easy to expand “stubs”, as sometimes there is just not enough information about the subject available, or information about a topic is not easy to find, or worse yet that there is so much disambiguation, that you end up finding a lot of information about things that are not relevant to your article topic.

A feature that I enjoyed as an editor was how easy it is to use templates. One on the templates I used was the feedback template ([[Category:Article Feedback 5 Additional Articles]]) that allows users to give feedback to Wikipedia articles. It is very easy to add references since Wikipedia has built in tools that allows you to fill in a form with the relevant information necessary to create a citation automatically.

I was lucky enough in my article to not experience any editing wars. I think this is something that should be avoided but it is not always possible. If two authors reason differently about the same set of facts, there is no proven way to determine who is right.

Citation is very important, and understandably so, I struggled sometimes to keep myself from making unsupported statements. It is important to carefully consider your changes, someone else worked hard on the article that you’re editing, and approaching it with this understanding makes you more likely to make more helpful changes, and act with sensitivity when writing update summaries, and deleting paragraphs. This sensitivity is essential in my opinion for the community to stay collaborative, if people keep treating each other with respect, the community as a whole will benefit.

During my discourse with the school I learned that they believe that the creator of an article is the owner of that article and is responsible for the maintenance of the article. I had to explain to them that it is an open platform for anyone to create and alter pages and that there is no one owner. As a Wikipedia editor, I think it is important to educate the general public where we can about the nature and goals of Wikipedia. I learned that the Wikipedia community is very helpful and passionate about the quality of articles. Community members made multiple small edits to improve the quality of the article.

I learned that being a Wikipedia editor, a great sense of responsibility and purpose is placed upon the editor. Being a completely open platform, driven only by users, a contributor always has some sense of attachment to work done. It may be emotional, educational, expressive or even just the sense of purpose to contribute knowledge. The attachment to a certain object or subject drives the community to aim to contribute meaningful information. This has lead to most editors using personal time to contribute to something they regards as important or valuable to a greater community, and causing others then to contribute in the same manner. This to me is a wonderful phenomenon, resulting in more than just an encyclopedia , but a community within the system, being users themselves, and the work they contribute.
At first I was a little intimidated by the idea of creating a wiki article, but once I got started I realized that it doesn’t have to feel intimidating at all. I learned that as a Wikipedia editor there was a lot of help and support to help a new editor to do their thing. I did, however, also learn that it is important to write about subjects you are familiar with, especially if you are starting out. But with enough research I could even write an article about “Native American Weaponry”. I also learned that I still have a lot to learn.
I found it very easy to learn how to use the Wikipedia editor and especially to create inter-wiki links. Templates impressed me as I was never aware of them as a Wikipedia user. I was also very impressed with how many resources there are on Wikipedia to help you get started, learn the policies and help you become a successful Wikipedia editor. I was not aware of the Wikipedia Commons where all the media objects are stored and found it very accessible to add existing images into your article with automated “add this image” buttons.
Being a Wikipedia editor is more than just knowing what you are talking about. You need to make sure that you do not make any mistakes when altering someone else’s work. Some editors are vastly competitive, and seem to take ownership of an article very seriously.

I edited an article about gardens in Nepal where I tried to add more links and changed some text; there was also more work that needed to be done with the article like adding citations. The article was originally written appallingly with a lot of ambiguity and bias. My edit attempted to eliminate the bias and I believe I successfully eliminated ambiguity. However, the edit was not accepted. The lesson learned here was that the editor is not always right and in my case almost never.

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Exam topics: mini-dissertation in human-computer interaction 2012

These are the topics students chose for their 2012 exam papers, which took the form of a research proposal. I can’t give out too much detail, but wanted to share this with the class.

If you’re interested in connecting with one of these students based on their proposal, contact me.

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F in Exams by Richard Benson

Ah, exam papers. Puddles of inked theory committed permanently to paper. Paragraphs that, reconsidered, transform into whirlpools of negated swirls. Desperate arrows point to second-guessed answers – every effort made to satisfy my assessing eyes.

Some answers – especially the formulaic ones – can be a joy to evaluate. You get into a rhythm of ticks, crosses and dashes; the only sound in your office the swishing of papers and the scratching of your pen. You can sense the argument quickly, agree, and move on.

Then there are some answers that make you pause, reread … and burst out laughing. Ones that you just have to share with your colleagues – or the greater world. Richard Benson published a collection of these jewels in a book I just discovered. For instance:

F in Exams by Richard Benson

F in Exams by Richard Benson

The book is available via Amazon, both in paperback and for Kindle. The Kindle version costs US$10 (80 ZAR) and the sample I downloaded looks fine on Kindle for Android.

Check some more examples at F in Exams by Richard Benson.