The Battle of the Books: For Dummies vs. Step by Step

There’s an old saying, "When all else fails, read the directions." Unfortunately, software and hardware don’t come with much in the way of "directions" these days. Help files are often not helpful, and if you have to read the manual on your computer, what happens when the computer doesn’t work? There are several series of self-help books that claim to fill the void left by the disappearance of printed manuals. Are they worth reading? Are some better than others? Let’s see in this battle of the books, which series is better: For Dummies from Wiley or Step by Step from Microsoft Press?

Help, we need help!

People have thought computers and software are hopelessly complex and confusing for as long as home computers have been around. And as the manufacturers have added more features and computers have become more popular, even more people have been convinced they just can’t understand this stuff.

Unfortunately, manufacturers have pretty much abandoned the printed manuals they used to supply. Authors and publishers have stepped in to fill the void, so the confused consumer who wants more explanation than a "help file" can provide now has a library full of books that claim to explain it all.

There are several series of books that explain things in simple terms, and among those are the For Dummies series from Wiley and the Step by Step series from Microsoft Press. We’ve reviewed several books from each series this year, and I’d like to discuss the merits and shortcomings, if any, of both.

Dummies, or Steps?

The highly popular For Dummies series of books got its start by marketing its simple, cheerful explanations to people who felt, well, like dummies when confronted with computers. Nowadays it seems there’s a For Dummies book for just about everything under the sun—but they started out explaining software and computers, and their authors have honed their skills over decades. The authors go into a reasonable amount of detail and some books cover fairly advanced topics as well as the basics. Some books come with CDs containing sample files, code and so forth. Some are "all in one" collections of several smaller books under one cover.

The Step by Step series is newer, and the books live up to their name by taking everything one step at a time. It’s clear that the authors have spent a lot of time during the book-writing process making sure they get right to the point. The focus is on giving people confidence in the basics so they’ll be able to use their computers without being afraid they’ll mess something up. Step by Step guides are published in full color and, unlike For Dummies, have an online edition to accompany the printed material, so people who buy the printed book get a digital version included in the price, accessible from Safari Books.

How they do it

The For Dummies series books follow a standard format. They’re divided into chapters that explain their subject from the beginning, and they’re illustrated with cartoons and black-and-white screenshots and line drawings. For the most part, they assume that the book is being read by a newcomer who may or may not have basic skills. The authors take a lighthearted approach and there is an element of humor in all the books. They want to reassure their readers that while they (the readers) may feel like dummies, they’re really not.

When the books cover a single topic, like networking home computers, they have plenty of space to explain both the basics and some more advanced topics. The "all in one" books, which are much longer, can give complex software like Microsoft Office 2010 a reasonable overview as well. It’s only when the For Dummies books try to cram a big subject into a regular size book that they fall flat. Their narrative style takes a certain amount of space.

The Step by Step series books also follow a standard format and are divided into chapters that explain their subject from the beginning, and they have full-color screenshots and illustrations. They also assume that the book is being read by a newcomer who may or may not have basic skills, and they get right to the point with an overview of basic terms. The authors focus on clear and simple explanations that give the reader confidence in the basics of the topic, so that they will then be able to move on to more advanced subjects which may or may not be fully included in the book.

The Step by Step books also do well when they cover a single topic, but with more complex topics (like Microsoft Office 2010, for which multiple separate programs need explanations) they too fall flat. There is only so much that can be adequately explained in a finite book space.

While the For Dummies books are more like having someone beside you explaining how things work, the Step by Step books are more like a friendly, highly educated classroom teacher making sure you know what you’re doing before you move on. Both series do well when they focus on one thing, and have problems when they try to cram too much information into too small a book. The books themselves are not exactly small, but sometimes the standard length of the book just isn’t enough to get the job done.

Plus and Minus

Both series of books do very well at explaining complex topics in simple terms that most people can easily understand. They include helpful hints and tips, technical explanations for people who want more information, and warnings about potential problem areas. The For Dummies series includes more links to outside sources and may or may not include a CD with files and code (sometimes at extra cost). There are For Dummies e-versions available, but you have to buy them separately and they are distributed with DRM (copy protection). The Step by Step series provides online access to an electronic edition of each book, which is included in the original purchase price. Also, when purchasing a digital edition from the O’Reilly Store, you get it in all e-book formats, with free updates when the book is revised.

Whether the black-and-white or color illustrations are more useful is up to the reader to decide. The color illustrations give the reader a better idea of how things look on the screen, but both color and black-and-white pictures show every necessary detail. The Step by Step books are printed on heavier paper to accommodate the color printing, but with the e-version available, the extra weight of the printed book should not be an issue.

The relaxed and chatty tone of the For Dummies series can make people feel more at ease, but the humor does take up space. The straightforward approach of the Step by Step series gets right to the point without extra chit-chat, but it may feel more "clinical" to the reader. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses and it all boils down to individual preferences. That’s why we sometimes recommend that you check books out of the library first, to see if they explain things in a way that makes sense to you.

Size does matter

It seems clear that both series of books give their authors a set number of pages to fill, because the books in each series are consistent in size. It’s clear that each publisher has worked out the ideal number of pages for its books and the guidelines their authors have for filling those pages. In most cases the size of the book fits the material well. But, as I mentioned, cramming even the basics of a big topic into a standard size book works about as well as trying to cram your toes into a shoe three sizes too small.

It’s also clear that the editors at Microsoft Press and Wiley have put a good deal of effort into establishing guidelines for content. You can buy one of these books with confidence that it will be like the others in the series. While this means the reader who prefers one series or the other won’t get any unpleasant surprises, it also means that the writers have to follow the same formula as all the other writers and cannot take their own approach to the material.

The consistent size of the books also means that once the writers cover the basics there may not be much space left for more advanced topics. These books exist to explain the basics and to give the reader confidence that he or she can indeed understand what’s going on and be confident to move on beyond the book. Both book series accomplish this goal.

Quick Look at What 7 Tutorials has Said

Here’s an overview of what we’ve had to say about these books in our reviews. Since they are for beginners, our "Buy for Geeks" verdict didn’t apply to any book.

Here’s what our reviewers looked for in the books, and what we found.

Although we didn’t mention the prices, here’s what we found on Amazon USA.

We have reviewed quite a few books from both series this year. As you can see, most of the reviews have been mostly positive, and where there are flaws we’ve pointed them out. We’ve recommended these books for beginners, because that is the focus of both series. They both do a reasonable job of explaining things in simple terms and they both start with the assumption that the reader is a newcomer who will need even the most basic concepts explained.

When we haven’t been wholly enthusiastic about the books, we have recommended checking them out of the library, because they all contain useful information even if they are not worth buying. Even the only book whose verdict was "Don’t bother!" had at least some good information in it for the absolute beginner.

So, which series is better?

The strong points of the For Dummies series are the cheerful, chatty tone of the writing and the more extensive space given to written information. The series has been around for a long time and the Wiley editorial staff has had an equally long time to work out the formula and the format. Many of the authors have written multiple books over a span of several years and are clearly at ease with the way these books work, which in turn makes things easy for the reader.

The strong points of the Step by Step series are the straightforward explanations, the color illustrations and the inclusion of the e-book in the price of the printed version. The authors obviously know how to get right to the point and explain everything one step at a time, so that even the complete beginner can build up confidence quickly. These books are a product of Microsoft Press, so the careful attention paid to explaining Microsoft products had to be second to none.

Do I prefer one series to the other? Not really. Each has its place. I have praised books from both series for the way they handle complex topics and I’ve downgraded them for missing the boat here and there. As a visual learner I appreciate plenty of illustrations and I like authors who understand how to explain things for beginners without being condescending or assuming that everyone already knows everything. Even though I am not a beginner I learned something new in every book I reviewed.

Talk to us!

Do you prefer For Dummies books or Step by Step books? Does one approach work better for you than the other? Do you wish either series of books did things differently? We would really like to hear your opinions, so please leave us a comment and tell us what you think!