Microsoft Press @ 30: Van Wolverton on becoming the author of Running MS-DOS

This is the second in a series of guest posts by authors and staff, past and present, reflecting on the 30th anniversary of Microsoft Press. We’re celebrating this milestone from fall 2013 through summer 2014, so keep checking back for more anniversary-related content.

Today’s post is by Van Wolverton, the author of Running MS-DOS.

Rickey’s Hyatt House was a Palo Alto landmark until it was closed in June of 2005 and razed to make way for a housing development. Most of its rooms were in bungalows scattered about 16 acres along El Camino Real, the main street of Silicon Valley. The main building, a sort of kitschy Palo Also version of Caesar’s Palace—complete with cocktail waitresses in brief off-the-shoulder togas—housed the lobby, restaurant, bar, and conference rooms. Rickey’s was no Chateau Marmont, but a lot of Silicon Valley history was made there. In one of those banquet rooms in 1956, William Shockley celebrated his Nobel prize in physics for co-inventing the transistor.

Nineteen years later, in June of 1975, a company called Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) of Albuquerque conducted a seminar pitching its revolutionary Altair 8800 computer kit at Rickey’s. One of the attendees, a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, took home a memorable souvenir of that seminar: a punched paper tape that contained an unreleased copy of Altair BASIC. You know, that program written by a couple of guys originally from Seattle—Bill Gates and Paul Allen. The following month they formed a company they called Micro-Soft.

clip_image002I didn’t know any of that history when Nahum Stiskin, the first publisher of Microsoft Press, sat down with me in the bar at Rickey’s to discuss a contract (the conversation was far too friendly to be called a negotiation, and went on quite a while after the brief time it took us to agree on terms). But I’m getting ahead of the story.

When Microsoft created Microsoft Press in 1983, I was a freelance technical writer and Microsoft was one of my clients; I documented the system calls for the first few editions of the MS-DOS Programmer’s Reference. My contact was Andrea Lewis—she’s next to Bill Gates in that iconic photograph of the 11 founders. Andrea swore me to secrecy about the plans for Microsoft Press and asked if I would be interested in writing a book—not a manual, a trade book—about DOS. Without giving it much thought I said sure; I figured it might bring in a few extra bucks (freelancers can always use those). I had no notion of how much work it was going to be.

Writing Running MS-DOS turned out to be a great deal of work, because Press was determined to raise the bar for quality in the then-infant computer book market. At the time, most computer books looked like they were self-published; reading one was like reading a book written by a robot for other robots. Press didn’t just raise the bar, they set quality standards for writing, editing, and design that have yet to be exceeded.

I learned about their standards the hard way: a few months after I signed the contract that Nahum and I had agreed on, I submitted the first four chapters. Printed on paper, of course, plus a copy of the files on a floppy disk because I had no email account at the time. I started getting anxious when I received no response for a couple of weeks, and with good reason: when it came, the response was a terse letter from editing chief Sally Oberlin telling me that the work was unacceptable because it didn’t offer any guidance to someone who wanted to use MS-DOS, and the contract should be terminated.

I was thunderstruck. No, I was devastated. I re-read what I had sent and the problem was obvious: I hadn’t written with the goal of showing someone how to use MS-DOS, I had written with the goal of showing what a knowledgeable and clever and witty writer I was. I didn’t work at writing, I played at it. If anything, Sally was generous in her evaluation. After a couple of days of stewing about it I finally called and, after apologizing for wasting so much time, asked a simple question I shouldn’t have had to ask: “Did you want a step-by-step tutorial?” To which she replied “Yes” instead of “Of course, you idiot,” which she certainly was entitled to do.

I asked for another chance and she generously agreed. I’d like to say that I then hunkered down and wrote a best-seller, but what really happened was I joined a team that produced a book called Running MS-DOS that sold several million copies. I can’t remember all the members of the team; it included a technical reviewer and a proofreader and a designer and an illustrator and production staff and…but I’ll never forget the two members without whom the book simply wouldn’t have happened.

JoAnne Woodcock was the Microsoft Press editor who became a collaborator, not only massaging my prose but also gently guiding reorganization, presentation, emphasis, and all those other non-literary qualities that let a technical book be accurate, useful, and interesting. She is, in my estimation, the best editor on the face of the earth.

But even before JoAnne saw the manuscript it underwent the scrutiny and commentary of Jeanne, my first reader, editor, and wife of these 52 years. I can’t remember how many times she would say, after working through one of the examples, “Umm, this really doesn’t work the way you say it should,” or, more ominously, “You might think this is clear, but it isn’t unless the reader already knows how to do it.” Oops. That’s why good writing—or at least good technical writing—can’t be a solitary endeavor.

imageA review in the New York Times confirmed that we succeeded in producing that step-by-step tutorial that Press wanted in the first place:

Van Wolverton has written about DOS from close to its birth. The first edition of his classic "Running MS-DOS" appeared some eight years ago and, with it, he patented a style of leading the reader through a series of exercises: creating directories on disk, filling them with sample files and then manipulating them.

Microsoft Press taught me the proper role of ego in writing, the value of editing, and the reality that no book is the product of one person but of a team. And for those of us who were lucky enough to be published by Press when they set out to redefine what a computer book should be, the team was made up of talented, engaged, and supportive folks who lived up to their own standards.

Comments (4)
  1. Jeanne Wolverton says:

    Even if I were not his wife, I would continue my life-long pride of Van Wolverton, who has always been a  brilliant author,  an excellent teacher, and… oh yes, a wonderful husband, too.  

  2. Tim Duke says:

    Congratulations! I remember this book and probably still have it in my bookcase. It was very well written and became my OS bible. I was always very fond of DOS and resistant (if not a little suspicious of Windows) when it was first introduced to me.  Maybe I'm being nostalgic but those were some good times.

  3. Dan Spanel says:

    This was the book that launched my career.  I remember searching for some answers on how to accomplish certain tasks on MS-DOS and finding no useful texts at the libraries.  I found Wolverton's book in a book store, thumbed through it, and knew I had found all the answers I sought and more.  It was detailed yet approachable.  Then, when other people began asking me about things they had become frustrated with on their own computers I found that I was better able to answer their questions based upon what I had learned from this tome.  That led directly to me finding my path to becoming a computer consultant and systems engineer.  After over two decades of carrying on in that role professionally, I still have my original copy of "Running MS-DOS" sitting in my personal library.  It's no longer the once-pristine volume that I found at a book store (torn cover, pages falling out, dog-eared page markers, various coffee/beverage stains…) but it holds the distinguishing features of a much-loved and well-used book.  Thank you, Mr. Wolverton, for your classic!

  4. t. jacobson says:

    after university, my first 'real' job was programming on various systems, pc's among others both in assembler and qbasic.

    those books where really a great help back then

    thank to mr van wolverton and colleagues

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