Using Humor Judiciously

Subject: Using Humor Judiciously
From: scot <scot -at- HCI -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Thu, 23 May 1996 11:19:52 +1000

>I'd be interested in hearing comments from anyone
>about judicious use of humor in documentation
>or books. In the projects my wife and I have
>done for IDG Books and for another publisher,
>humor has been a big factor. That's obvious
>for the Dummies books--it's what makes them sell.
>However, even in this other project that's not
>part of a series, the publishers are really
>pushing for heavy loads of humor. Not a problem,
>but it's kind of interesting and makes it
>much more enjoyable to write.

>I know I'd rather have some humor in a book I
>buy, but wouldn't want it in the "documentation"
>for a product. What do the rest of you think?

Personally, I'd NEVER be seen buying a "dummies" guide to ANYTHING - that's
an admission I'm a "dummy" right -- and damn it I'm an Unix expert (my
bookshelf is populated with O'Reilly books and I always recommend these).
Once I bought a dummies guide to unix (the brief one) for my girlfriend so
she could operate the computer at home. I had to purchase the Understanding
Sendmail book at the same time just so I didn't feel like a complete idiot
(and yes that IS behaving in a very "Seinfeld" way) Ghod I was embarrassed.
Even the O'Reilly books have a bit of humour in them, its a practically
inescapable style it seems (but usually O'Reilly humour is fairly obscure
Unix-Geek humour, ie its well-targeted to its market).

I think its ok in an introductory chapter, if its VERY LIGHT ON. Otherwise I
think it makes the book appear condescending. There are better ways to make
the book feel less impersonal, without including jokes. Its a question of
writing style. Jokes don't improve writing style.

I would NEVER allow such humour into a product manual. Usually the "jokes"
are fairly tame, inoffensive and bland anyway, because by nature they can't
be politically incorrect or obscene or any of the things we USUALLY define
as "good" humour - its bound to offend SOMEONE. So the "good" jokes go out
and what's left is pretty groan-inducing stuff. But that might just be my
personal taste -- which is I feel the crux of the point -- humour is so
intensely personal I doubt it has any proper place in technical
documentation. What I find funny most people find sick or weird (I revel in

I feel the same way about "cute" cartoons (or any illustration that's not
directly related to the manual's purpose) too.

ciao, scot.
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