Use of "Please" and the Like in Documentation?

Subject: Use of "Please" and the Like in Documentation?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: techwr-l List <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Barbara Vega <BarbaraV -at- libertyims -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 05 Jun 2008 13:42:58 -0400

Barbara Vega wondered: <<A poll (of sorts: How many of you use words
like "Please" etc. in your documentation. Example: "For additional
information on underwater basket weaving in the third world, please
refer to the topic...">>

I don't do much documentation anymore, but I always used to use
please and similar courtesies -- though sparingly. Steven King notes
that "said" is one of those invisible words used in writing dialogue,
yet still communicates its meaning effectively and almost
subliminally, unlike more dramatic alternatives such as "exclaimed".
I find that "please" functions similarly.

But because documentation isn't a novel, and because any form of
repetition draws attention to itself and away from the real content,
I compromised by using "please" only the first time I made such a
request in a topic -- or perhaps a couple times in long topics. I
also tried to avoid the need for such interjections and aimed for a
more minimalist style by using structures such as the following (to
build on your original example):

<h2>Additional information</h2>
<link*>Weaving underwater baskets</link>
<link>Sending overstuffed cotton to Brazil.</link>

* Here, I've assumed online help or the equivalent, and task-oriented
structure. In print, these would be bulleted (or indented) list items
or the section titles plus the corresponding page numbers.

The use of a heading chops up to a dozen words per reference by
eliminating most of the introductory clause, and makes it easier to
parse the meaning of whatever follows the heading. It also eliminates
the need for the "please" and changes the context from a command
("see the following information") to an offer ("if you're interested,
here's where you can learn more"). Using a single standardized
heading (note the use of "information" instead of "topic(s)") lets
you turn the heading into boilerplate text that never changes, and
facilitates machine-assisted translation. If you choose your link
titles to reflect the action rather than the title of the section,
the result also relates more directly to what the reader is thinking:
"how do I...?", not "what is the title of the section?".

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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Use of "Please" and the Like in Documentation: From: Barbara Vega

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