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Book review: Dreamweaver CS5.5: The Missing Manual

David Sawyer McFarland. 2011. Cambridge, MA: O’Reilly. [ISBN 978-1-449-39797-5. 1186 pages, including index. US$49.99 [softcover].)

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2012. Book review: Dreamweaver CS5.5: the missing manual. Technical Communication 59(4):347–348.

I learned word processing with AtariWriter and WordPerfect, which used coding schemes strikingly similar to HTML. Much though I loved the control (and troubleshooting ease), I eagerly adopted visual tools such as Microsoft Word that automated what used to be complex tasks. When I began designing my own Web sites, writing HTML in a text editor worked well, but Dreamweaver made the details so much easier I quickly adopted it. Unfortunately, Dreamweaver grew in complexity to the point that I couldn’t simply blunder through the interface, learning the details by trial and error. Sawyer McFarland’s “missing manual” for Dreamweaver, weighing in at nearly 1200 pages, does what other books in this series do so well: provides the guidance the software's developer neglected.

The first third of the book reviews the workspace, providing simple yet effective examples of using that workspace to create basic Web pages. This and subsequent sections provide everything you need to know to accomplish the basic tasks that lie at the heart of Web design. Sawyer McFarland clearly distinguishes between content and formatting, a key concept many Web designers seem incapable of grasping. The remainder of the book covers the bells and whistles that go beyond “basic”, such as design for mobile devices, interactivity, generating database-driven pages, and site management. The CSS sections include an effective introduction, supplemented by three chapters that delve into the details, including a crucial chapter on troubleshooting CSS problems. There are many external links, including one to Adobe’s BrowserLab, which lets you test your designs with a range of Web browsers. The 27-page index is both useful and accurate, a formidable challenge for such a large book.

Jaded pros who just want the facts may find the writing chatty, but that verbosity mitigates the “scare” factor many of us experience when we face complex new software. In any event, good technical communication solves that “problem”: key steps are numbered and boldfaced for those who only want the overview, but descriptions, details, and commentary follow for those who need more. The writing is clear and effective both at an overall structural level and at a sentence level. Abundant and helpful sidebars, text boxes, and screenshots support the descriptions. McFarland even explains a few Dreamweaver puzzles, such as glitches in coding database queries and why the Insert panel sometimes malfunctions and stops Dreamweaver from cleaning up messy tags in Design View. Though there’s no chapter on accessibility, the topic merits a sidebar with a link to the Web Accessibility Initiative. There are occasional reminders as well about accessibility issues, such as distinguishing between <bold> and <strong> tags to support screen reader software, a reminder to use Alt tags, and using the Summary property for complex tables.

No one book can cover every detail of Web design, but Sawyer McFarland does a nice job of covering what you need to know about Dreamweaver.

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