Power Excel and Word
Posted: 19-Dec-2004

Mac Guild Grade

Publisher: Sybex


Reviewer: Diane Love $24.99

Power Excel and Word
By Dan Gookin
September 2004
ISBN: 0-7821-4379-2
List Price: US $24.99

What the Book is About
Dan Gookin is a popular author of many books on computing, the Windows operating system, Office and Word. In particular, he is the author of several Dummies books. In this book, he intends to get away from the basics and lead the way into power user territory via tips and tricks.

There are two contrasting approaches to software manuals. Unfortunately, all too many stop at just explaining all the features and don't lead their readers to any new level of understanding. The alternative is to work from the reader's goals as a user, build concepts that explain how the software works, and then explain how to use the features to meet your goals. This author leans toward the goals-and-concepts camp.

He also believes that humor is a necessary part of manual writing. His writing style is extremely informal - you won't be printing "your letter", but "the stinking thing"; if you do the wrong thing, he'll let you know whether "you're not completely screwed" or "you're screwed". The Excel date functions are explained with an example date that he describes as the date his "first divorce became final". Given that it's a date in this still-young century, the reader may be left wondering whether he has had time to get remarried and redivorced already.

Somewhat uniquely, this book covers Word and Excel but not other Office programs such as Powerpoint. The balance is slightly tipped towards Word which claims 9 of the 15 chapters and 55 percent of the pages.

Target Audience
This book is aimed at Word and Excel users who are not beginners. Additionally, it takes the refreshing approach of being version independent. It confidently covers Word and Excel 2000, 2002 (a.k.a XP) and 2003 and claims to also offer value for Word and Excel 97 users. Unfortunately no mention is made of Macintosh versions or the Mac as a platform. The going assumption is that the reader is a Windows user.

Word: What to Expect
Word is a jack-of-all-trades application used for many different purposes from writing thousand page life-critical engineering documents full of tables and figures to life-critical divorce agreements to books about Word and Excel. Those are just the professional applications. Whether or not we use Word at work, we may use it at home for many more imaginative and free-form purposes.

The Word section of the book contains 9 chapters, many of which contain content that is not easily summarized, such as "Life beyond the basic Word" and "Alas there is no such thing as a simple document". There are more specific chapters on drawing, styles, long documents including novels and screenplays, tables, collaboration and customization. As well as the long chapter headings, the subheadings in the table of contents are all long and frequently posed as "how do I" questions, making it easy to look for answers to specific issues.

I found the Word section to be interesting but ultimately frustrating. It starts well (with an exhortation to save your document now, early and often) but does not go the whole distance.

Many issues with Word derive first from Word's out of the box default configurations, and second from lack of understanding of principles of best practice concerning styles, such as always using styles and never using direct formatting. I found that while these topics were mentioned, neither got the early prominence it deserved. Disappointingly while character styles are mentioned, the potential confusion due to using character styles in combination with paragraph styles is not. Table and list styles are not covered at all.

In the drawing section, the author allows that he can't see the point of pasting drawings inline with text and rarely does it. Following that assertion are several drawings that are clearly inline with the text, and inline is certainly the best option in engineering documents. The problems of using methods other than inline are not recognized or discussed.

The tables chapter builds a table up from tabs whereas I prefer to design the table in the table dialog before filling it with text. The travesties of the latest versions of Word - which fight tooth and nail to wrest control of the table layout from the user - are not described.

The introduction to macros is fine - macros exist, here's how you record one, here's how you edit one, here's how you continue to learn about macros on your own. Unfortunately the example macro is plain wrong-headed - here's how you use a macro to do some of that direct formatting that you should never do.

All the way through there are handy tips and tricks at the tactical level but I found the strategic level lacking from my own perspective as Word user of many years' experience authoring long engineering documents full of tables and figures.

Excel: What to Expect
Chapter 10 starts the Excel half of the book by asking "why would anyone other than an accountant use Excel". Again the first two chapters are a mixture of introductory topics followed by chapters on formatting, "Oh no! The horrible math chapter", charts and "templates, samples and web mischief". I was surprised to find the advanced topic of the Pivot table function explained at the end of the second Excel chapter before the more mundane formatting and charts. The web mischief section covers pulling information into Excel from the web.

Again I didn't find a lot of strategic advice but did learn more tricks and tips in the Excel part of the book than I did in the Word part. All the same there were some areas where I was surprised that the author didn't seem to know the whole story.

One example was the ROW() function which reports the value of the current row. This was illustrated in an example where you want to number the rows of a worksheet but you have some header rows that are not numbered. In the example you count the number of rows to be ignored - let's say there are 3 - and then use "ROW() - 3" as the formula to calculate the row number for each row. Obviously this is prone to breaking if you insert more header rows at the top for any reason. The advice in the book was just to remember not to insert more header rows, and I felt there had to be a better answer.

Although the ROW function was one I hadn't used before I found that if I tried it with a cell address as a parameter it would return the row number of that cell rather than the current cell. So the less breakable version of the formula is "ROW() - ROW(start_cell)" - now you just have to remember not to lose that named starting cell. I would not have reached this point without the book but I still had to figure out half of it on my own.

Another example was the description of filling a column with a series that incremented by a number bigger than 1. Two methods were given, neither of which was the easiest - simply enter the first two members of the series, select them both and then drag from the bottom right corner of the selection.

The "horrible math" chapter assumes everyone is a math dummy, which may be fine and encouraging for people who see themselves that way, but it's tiresome for the rest of us.

The most immediate attraction of this book is its version independence. Word and Excel have reached a point in their development where new versions make relatively little impact on the established functions. For people who like to have a reference manual handy, it's also tiresome to have to keep buying a new, expensive and large book every year or so to keep up to date. This book breaks the mould by focusing on the tasks that are common to modern versions of the products and only giving detail about different versions when necessary.

Along with the personality and sense of ironic humor that informs every sentence of the book, this author takes a lateral thinker's approach to the subject. He presents topics first in terms of what a user would want to do, then builds concepts about how to achieve the results and finally explains how to use Word or Excel to do what is required. This is in stark contrast to traditional manual approach of working through a product's menus in order.

I also found many unexpected tricks and tips throughout the text which I was able to use immediately at work.

Mac Guild Grade
C+ (Good)

Final Words
It's refreshing to find an author who turns his back on convention and attempts to do something new and different with an established medium. The Word section of the book could be interesting and useful for people working with Word in an amateur context. I personally don't find it rigorous enough for users in a professional engineering environment. The Excel section of the book was informative but seemed to have some glaring omissions.

It was disappointing that the Mac versions of the applications were not discussed at all. However, their similarity to their Windows counterparts gives this book similar value for Mac and Windows users.