Our Study Guides (available here) have helped many students worldwide with their IB studies. A collaborative effort with teachers and students resulted in the creation of these resources. All the content has to be meticulously managed, adapted and changed for students and teachers using these material. Handling all the work to make our guides look amazing is the head content officer, Elio A. Farina, who took the time to share a few thoughts.
Hi Elio, could you briefly explain your role with IB.Academy?
I’m a “LaTeX programmer”: I’m in charge of the final appearance of the Study Guides using LaTeX as a markup language, collecting the jobs from our authors and teachers and producing the pdf you can download. I’m also involved in the process of converting our Study Guides from LaTeX to other languages and think of new ways to display contents.
We received lots of positive feedback on the Study Guides. Could you briefly explain your work process?
Firstly, we are grateful for all the constructive feedback we received. We put so much effort in every guide and take note of every review to further develop the material.
My job on Study Guides is to wait. Wait. Wait. Then, suddenly, I receive a small comment to fix a typo, a new section, a chapter, or a fully new Study Guides. At that moment, I come back from my hibernation and collect all the material I receive, that is text or images. I then start to convert all the text into LaTeX code, choosing the best commands and environments. My favourite part is to produce vectorial images. Then I send the first draft to the author and, when everything is good, I fine-tune the document. This is the last and most delicate part of my job because the final result depends on this. And the final result is what you will have in your hands while studying. Along with our teachers, Study Guides are the face of our company.
There are various kinds of subjects you work with. What sort of challenges do you face when managing different material?
Don’t get me started! I tell you only one: dealing with authors. Don’t get me wrong, they are wonderful and I have great relationships with all of them. The main challenge is to understand what they want and to find the best solution, whether it is a problem of design, meaning, sectioning, etc.
Every one of us, including me, has their own style and their own ideas on how things should work, and it is not always easy to put everything and everyone together! We are all a little bit stubborn and jealous of our ideas!
Do you have a favourite Study Guide?
I can’t reply to this question, come on! It is like asking, “Who do you love the most: mom or dad?”
I love new challenges and every time new material comes under my hands, I love to work with it. Usually when you ask a songwriter, “Which one is your favourite song?” they always reply “The next one”. To me is not like that. For both my songs and the Study Guides it is “the last one”. I like to see the final result of my job, from when it is a messy text, then a clean code, then something real after printing. I like to touch it. I like to smell the freshly printed paper. And a little bit showing off, because let’s face it: they are gorgeous. I can’t say the same for all my songs!
What prompted you to work in education?
I used to study Astronomy at Padoa University, near Venice. Although I’ve never taken the degree, my dream was to teach physics and math at a “Liceo Scientifico” in Italy. A “Liceo Scientifico” is a particular Italian high school with more focus on science. When IB.Academy asked me to be in charge of the Study Guides I felt young again. In its own way, my dream of teaching is back on track. I’m not the author of any of the Study Guides, but I enjoy reading and working on them as it reminds me of my good university days!
What are common traps for people aspiring to write books this way?
There are many, but I would love to share a few from my experience.
- Focus on contents, not appearance. Many authors split energy between appearance and contents. But authors are not typographers. Word Processors are to blame: you open them and you suddenly feel like Johannes Gutenberg. I’m not suggesting everyone should use LaTeX, use whatever you like and you feel comfortable with. But don’t lose time in adjusting the layout even though everyone will tell you the opposite. Your energy must be placed only on contents.
- Sectioning. Have a general idea in mind and convert it into a good structure in which the same levels share the same importance. I worked on books in which authors started sub-levels as soon as they can without a general structure, and I had to deal with sections down to various subsections. In some cases, a sub-sub-subsection had the same importance of a section a few lines above. This generates confusion for the reader, who must be able to open it and suddenly understand what they are dealing with. I had the chance to work on a book about the grammar of an endangered South American language, in which the structure was so clean and well done. The reader knows that, when a subsection starts, it is not just a level down of the main section, but also shares the same depth and importance of all the other subsection in the same chapter.
- Bullet points. Don’t abuse of bullet points. If everything is a bullet point, nothing is. Also, the reader will count every single point as a different thing to learn, missing the general picture and thinking “Oh, I still have 320921 points to memorize!”
- Synthesis or not? Choose before what you think is best to explain further and what is clear with few words. From an author’s point of view, this risk is called the “curse of knowledge”, whether you write too much or too little. You must try to put yourself in the student position, and it is not always easy: you already know what you are writing, you don’t need your book or Study Guide!
- Pertinent examples. When you decide to use examples, they must be accurate and pertinent. Exemplification is risky, especially when it uses metaphors or hyperbole.
- Internal consistency. This should be self-explanatory, right?
Is there anything in particular you want to share with us about your work?
I love it. Simple as that. I always joke, “If my partner one day asks ‘Choose: me or LaTeX’. I will pack up my stuff and update my TeX distro before leaving the house.” I’m not a maniac, I have other interests in life and LaTeX is just a tool. But it is the most powerful tool I know and I love to use it!