Re: Humor in technical writing

Subject: Re: Humor in technical writing
From: Sandy Harris <sandy -at- storm -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2000 22:28:22 -0400

Wally Glassett wrote:
> Along with all the other comments about humor in technical documents, I
> think the biggest danger and difficulty is that unless you can carry it
> consistently from beginning to end it will fall on it's face.

Yes, poorly done or ill-chosen humour is worse than none. Still, if you
can do it well, methinks it is extremely valuable.

> ... perhaps the best technical manual
> ever written was the famous one about fixing your Volkswagen. It was
> humorous, accurate, complete and very very good. I used to have it and use
> it back in the old days.

"How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: a Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for
The Compleat Idiot". My mechanical abilities are only marginally above those
of the average turnip, but using that book and I got an elderly VW van from
Amsterdam to India and most of the way back. I think it might have made it
all the way if I hadn't let a VW dealer tune it.

Probably the funniest technical book ever written was Padlipsky's
"Elements of Networking Style". It came out in the mid-80s, when
various people were taking the ISO 7-layer "Reference Model" for
networking as gospel. Padlipsky's summarised it as "Oversold,
Underdesigned and Years From Here".

The book was a spectacularly vicious and extremely accurate critique
of the ISO sacred seven stuff. I'd say anyone working in telecomm,
(where that stuff is still sometimes taken seriously and where, for
all I know, some of it may even be applicable) should read it.

He used chapter titles like "Low standards: a critque of X.25" and
"Gateways, Architecture and Heffalumps".

In the back of the book were a bunch of posters, suitable for being
photocopied and stuck on office walls. The two I had up in my cubical
(at a telecomm company) were: "If you know what you're doing, three
layers are enough. If not, even 17 won't save you." and "The 3 and
17 one also applies to management hierarchies, of course."

It's at least 12 years since I read that book, and a couple since
I last re-read it, but I can still quote parts of it. And I still
remember parts of the VW book, too (the description of the "expensive
noises" to listen for in your engine, and a couple of other bits).
It's nearly 25 years since I last used it.

That's the power of humour when used well.

Several chapters of Padlipsky are available as RFCs 871 to 875.


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