"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Web Page & Blog," Paul McFedries

Pros: Basic, clear, straightforward; includes major info on blogs; plenty of social and technical information
Cons: A few bad jokes (and that’s a matter of personal taste); a few sentences that trail into nothingness–no big deal
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 4/29/2005
Review book courtesy of Alpha Books
Visit Paul McFedries’ website

Through the first part of Paul McFedries’ “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Web Page & Blog” I thought I’d be giving it 4 out of 5, not 5 out of 5. This just goes to show that you really do need to read a whole book in order to properly evaluate it. But as I so often do, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The point of this book, as is true in general of the Complete Idiot’s Guide series, is to give a gentle, non-intimidating, and often humorous introduction to its topic. It’s meant to help people who really know nothing about the web and about blogging create something that looks nice and accomplishes whatever purpose they have in mind for it. And in this, I believe this book succeeds beautifully.

Topics Covered

Part 1 covers the very basics of creating your first web page and blog. It truly is meant for the beginner, starting out with what you can do with HTML, including format text, create lists, set up links, insert images, and so on. It also discusses the various types of pages out there, from personal home pages and blogs to corporate sites. It gets into the basic structure of a page (including the very simple stuff like what programs you can use to write your HTML and how to save the file in the right format). It discusses sprucing up your page with text styles, special characters, colors, and so on. The chapter on working with images does a good job of covering image formats, uploading images, specifying attributes, using the ALT tag, the various ways in which an image can be used, and so on. There’s even a chapter on choosing a web hosting provider and one on actually putting your page out there for people to see.

Part 2 is called “A grab bag of web page and blog wonders,” and that’s a good way to describe it. It’s a random bunch of what you might call “second-level” items–things that you don’t need to know if you’re just learning the basics of how to make the simplest web page, but that you probably will want to use before long if not right away. This includes such material as turning images into links, adding tables to pages, adding sounds to pages, creating feedback forms, using frames, and–something I’ll come back to in the next section–a chapter on “web page style.” In all of these cases McFedries provides good information on how to go about creating or finding the tools you’ll need to do these things for your pages. He even created a program for mailing the results of a form, and made it available to those readers who register on his web site.

Part 3 is about blogs, and I found it absolutely fascinating. None of the other HTML books I’ve read have discussed the issue (probably because this is the most recent of them, put out in 2004). Not only does McFedries get into the how of blogging, but he also gets deeply into the social and historical details. There’s plenty of information on formatting, programs, services, etc., but there’s also great stuff in here about finding and building your audience, focusing on a topic or two, deciding on your posting frequency, writing interesting entries, getting along with other bloggers, and so on. I read this section with rapt attention.

Part 4 covers style sheets. It briefly gets into the sorts of things you can do with style sheets, how you can use them, and so on. It isn’t an exhaustive treatise, but it’s definitely enough to get you up and running without overwhelming you.

The CD included with the book contains a bunch of software and files; some of the software is for Macs and some for Windows, which is nice. There are a couple of bonus chapters on JavaScript on it, a handful of references (HTML tags, style sheets, web-safe colors, the X11 color set), the HTML examples from the book, a web graphics sampler, demo versions of some HTML editors (Dreamweaver, GoLive, HomeSite, HotDog Professional, HTML Assistant, NetObjects Fusion) and graphics editors (ACDSee, GIF Animator, Mapedit, Paint Shop Pro), as well as FTP programs and some random tools.

High Points

Many of the For Dummies books make the mistake of providing what I call “perishable resources.” That is, they tell you about a couple of specific hosting providers or whatever. I refer to these as perishable because by the time you read the book those companies have probably shut down, been bought, or changed enough that everything is different. For the most part McFedries doesn’t make that mistake; instead he tries to tell you how to find this sort of information on the web yourself, so you’ll be able to figure out who is most currently a good choice. (This is one reason why I tend to prefer the Complete Idiot’s Guides to the For Dummies books.)

There’s a chapter in here on “the elements of web page style.” Before I got to this chapter I was a little worried (this is where that intro line about the review score comes in). There are a lot of sites out there on the web that go crazy with wild fonts, bold and italics all over the place, frobbies that only work on one browser type or another, lots of huge images that take forever to load, horrid noises that play without asking first and scare your cats off of your lap (okay, I have some personal pet peeves here), and so on, and it seemed to me like all of McFedries’ enthusiasm for the web tools at one’s disposal could contribute to that. But then he wrote this wonderful chapter in which he explains things to help you make your web page appeal to visitors, and he covers a lot of these things in there.

A Couple of Small Notes

A bunch of those little sidebar boxes that the CIG books employ so well trail off in the middle of a sentence. Whoops!

In general I like the style of this book. The humorous style employed in the CIG books can go one of two ways, I find–it can be a lot of fun, or it can get tiresome and strained. For the most part this book falls into the former category, although some of the poking at geeks gets a bit old (but then I’m a quasi-geek who writes my own HTML and at least knows some basics of PHP, so your mileage may vary).

I think this is a fantastic introduction to web site and blog creation–in particular the wide world of blogging, since there are so few other resources on that subject. I hope McFedries continues to revise this book as the need arises, because this is a valuable resource.

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