Re: Structure vs Substance?

Subject: Re: Structure vs Substance?
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: Dan Emory <danemory -at- primenet -dot- com>, TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2000 22:31:42 -0700 (PDT)

You're using my words to launch another assault on Microsoft, Dan. And you're
missing the point.

Allow me to explain.

> But Andrew's real target appears to be the vitiating impact
> of imposed rules and structure on the technical
> writing process. Presumably, he means those dictated by
> standards, specifications, SGML DTDs, style guides,
> and policies.

My original arguments were never directed at standards such as XML, SGML, etc.

I am arguing against organizations that value structure (processes,
methodologies, style guides, and rules) over content and plain-old hard work.
This extends into software development, tech writing, hell even food service.
Without content, organization is useless. A building with no occupants is a
waste of space.

I am speaking out against tech writers who languish over processes,
methodologies, and SGML implementations but don't know squat-dick-one about the
software they were supposed to document. I am mad at people who are techinally
illiterate because they are too busy stroking their FrameMaker.

Its like the guys on my block who all own these huge Ford F-350s with 7.2 liter
PowerStroker engines that get about 2 miles to the gallon and use up 3 lanes on
the freeway. They use these trucks to go to Safeway to get milk and pick up
their dry cleaning. I mean, give me a break. Why on earth does any human need a

truck like this? It is revolting.

Likewise, I see these tech writers with their exquiste little processes, style
manuals, and methodologies with cute names who don't even know how a relational
database works. When it comes to processes, I want something fast, versitile,
and cheap - really cheap. Because I may ram it into a tree it at any moment
and need to lease a new one.

If you want to build exquisite information handling systems, go be a programmer
and get out of tech writing. Writers need to WRITE. Which means they need to
LEARN about the stuff they supposed to be documenting. Tools and structure are
completely secondary. You cannot, under any circumstances, write an intelligent
document if you do not understand the topic at a reasonably detailed level.

> Presumably, he means those dictated by
> standards, specifications, SGML DTDs, style guides,
> and policies.
> These, Andrew argues, are the products of anal-retentive
> "pricks" who delight in restraining the undisciplined creative
> (read anarchic) juices of writers like himself. Freedom from
> imposed rules and structure, he says, "is the basis of ingenuity
> and creativity".

The reason things like SGML, Java, and yes Microsoft Windows even existed in
the first place are because somebody DID NOT follow all the rules. Sun wanted
something new - so they built Java. HTML had weaknesses - so some inventive
individuals came up with something better.

Ingenuity comes from intelligent people reordering chaos into new things. You
can't do this if "rules" are always tell you what to do. Somebody has to break
the mold and try something new.

Listen to yourself. You hammer people to give up Word an accept FrameMaker.
How is this any different from me saying "let go of your structure and try new
things." You seem more hung up on your answer to all problems and not the
larger issue of what is best at a given moment.

> Yet the rules of grammar and spelling, stifling as they may be
> to unbridled creativity, are fundamental to successful
> communication. And grammar is just the beginning of the
> rules that are essential to successful technical writing.

Grammar is useful only when it can communicate, not the other way around. If
your audience preferred that document be written in the past tense, then you
better write in past tense, despite the fact that most grammar books discourage
such writing.

Rules are only valuable when they actually help accomplish some greater good.
At some point all rules become impediments to success. It just depends on your
perspective and the circumstance.

> Next, Andrew cites the "Information Revolution" that's driving
> the internet, which he says has power and value because
> it is not tightly regulated and managed. But the web is also a
> place where well over 50% of the sites lack any substance at
> all, broken links are the norm, even on large corporate sites,
> and the failure to adhere to standards is creating increasing
> chaos and incompatibility problems

You're missing the point, Dan. Your argument is the same as "well, because
there is some crime in the US, we should have a police state." or "Because a
few web sites have bad content (like porn) we should clamp down and stop

I'm sorry, Dan, the universe and the western, capitalist society is not wired
that way.

One of the most poignant concepts that defines the New Economy is that quality
is not synonymous with success. Just because something is good does not mean
it will be successful.

Windows, Word, VHS, DVD, SCSI...I could sit here all night and name off
standards that are arguably worse or better than others and there is no
connection with their success. BeOS ( is arguably a better and more
versatile OS than Windows - but most people don't want BeOS. They want Windows.
Sucks to be Be. They better find a way to compete or they'll die.

And it doesn't matter that you, a single individual, doesn't like this. When
it comes to standards, the majority rules and the minority can go die in a
corner. The New Economy embraces the power of the market and networking.

Read Kevin Kelley's "Rules for the New Economy". Here's the link:

This article changed my entire attitude about tech writing and the high-tech
industry. I won't recite the entire article, but it shows how the new economy
is not about rigid standards and control - but fluid, open, dynamic
environments that are allowed to gravitate to centers of structure and order.
Windows has value not because of some meaningless objective measure of its
capability, but because it has the largest install base. And there is no reason
to change this, because more money can be made from leveraging such standards
and building the next standard.

> Instead of an international standard for the Web,
> we have the de facto standard represented by whatever
> is the latest version of Internet Explorer.
> And of course, once a Microsoft product like IE becomes
> dominant, Billyboy proceeds to preempt and corrupt
> whatever standards that may have existed,
> replacing them with a moving target designed to foil
> and confound present and future competitors. Thus, web designers,
> because of a lack of standardization, must accept the
> lowest common denominator of whatever IE lets them do.

A) "Corruption of standards" depends on your point of view. It is just as easy
to argue that the standard was lacking, and Microsoft improved it. You just
don't like the outcome. Technically, JavaScript is a corruption of HTML.

B) I think your emotional reaction to Microsoft renders you incapable of
rending a rational evaluation of these products.

C) There are numerous examples of powerful products and technologies that are
lorded over and "corrupted" by other companies. Solaris is technically a
"corruption" of UNIX. Red Hat Linux is a "corruption" of Linux. It is the
nature of the New Economy to build upon existing standards to create new ones.
Microsoft dominates a few - but not all.

D) A "standard" in the New Economy is not always some "internationally
recognized" entity. Standards grow out of many areas. Java is a standard,
wholly owned and lorded over by Sun Microsystems. Why can Sun start a standard
but Microsoft can't? (No, Sun has NOT turned over Java to a international

E) Why is it that companies are honorable when they are struggling to make a
difference, but once they do they are evil and need to be crushed? And why is
it that we respect people who bend the rules to make a difference, except if
they profit from that?

> Lack of standardization throughout the technical
> communications industry is a plague that erodes
> productivity, and severely limits the ability to exchange, access, reuse
> and repurpose information for both human and non-human
> consumption. The dominant DTP application, Word, is
> unable to successfully import or export complex information from/to
> other DTPs. The whole concept of "single-sourcing"
> will remain a mirage until the industry standardizes on a
> single format for information exchange.

You're out of your mind to think the industry will standardize to any one tool
or technology. Correct me if I am wrong but don't you hate Microsoft, Dan,
because they have monoploy. Didn't you just say we need a monopoly standard.
You're faulty logic is begin to show here.

We need more competition, more ingenuity, and more flexible standards.

What is killing decent communication is the lack of openess, understanding, and
flexibility. People who must control always feel like the other people around
them are trying to stifle them. In reality. NOBODY is stifling you except
yourself. Communication is not a formula that you just plug in the details and
print out the results.

Consider this little example:

The sky is blue.
The sky is blue.
The sky is blue.

These sentences are wonderfully standardized - BUT THEY DON'T MEAN ANYTHING.
Standardization without meaning is useless. Moreover, standards change. The
rational, brilliant process of today is the worthless pile of crap of tomorrow.

Case in point: guy applied for a job at my company as a programmer. He had a
lot of skills, but it was all using Delphi (a virtually unused programming
language). We sent him out on a few interviews. All the clients turned him
down. Why? His answer to everything was "USE DELPHI!!!!" Since nobody uses
Delphi any more (except some government shops), all our clients turned this guy

> Which brings us back to Andrew's bugaboo--imposed structure.
> XML necessarily imposes structure, and, as one of the byproducts of
> structure, metadata about data. Andrew is stuck in the past.
> He's not part of the Information Revolution he so loudly touts.
> Anyone who embraces the Information Revolution must also
> embrace imposed structure, because it is the path that will
> lead us from chaos to the promised land.

Dan, you are very turned around about how the New Economy works. I don't
really have the time or the skill to give everybody a lesson on free economics,
communication, and the Internet all have some common threads.

What I can say is that the new world is not about limitations, rules, and
regulation. Frictionless economies need freedom and flexibility. Imposed
structure is inherently inflexible.

Inside the smallness of one document, one group of people, or one mind the
beauty of rigid, universal structure seems logical and can provide some short
term benefits. But it is ultimately counterproductive. In the larger sense, the
individual must have the power and flexibility to evolve and adopt new
structures and new methods, to suit the needs of new designs, technologies, and

This is why governments with few restrictions on business have flourishing
economies. This is why corporations that nurture and reward creativity and
ingenuity are industry titans. This is why individuals with vision and
intelligence can see beyond their seething hatred for Bill Gates to make a real
difference. This is why an open mind ALWAYS triumphs over a closed one.

As for you Dan - I hear where you are coming from but you're seeing a postage
stamp sized problem inside a galaxy sized issue. Yeah, disorder sucks, but
ignorance is worse.

Andrew Plato

In Tyler we trust:

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