Subject: Elegance
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998 09:56:55 -0400

Did anybody else see the article in the current Computerworld about
elegance? It's perhaps a strange topic in a computer publication, but it was
pointing out that programmers have respected elegance for decades, elegance
being "simplicity that confers power". Examples in the article were the
Golden Gate Bridge and the Internet, both of them extraordinarily durable
and powerful, yet based on simple principles and unencumbered with clumsy
add-ons. If you're of a technogeek bent, another elegance example was the
binary search algorithm. Inelegant items included Microsoft Word, because
it's developed into bloatware.

It started me thinking about manuals, which can also display elegance or
inelegance. In my mind, you can spot elegance even if you can't identify the
elements of it. On my part, I look for simple, straightforward language that
conveys the point in the fewest words. And I'll refrain from the tired old
Mark Twain quote about lightning, thank you very much. I detest writing that
doesn't work in its stripped-down form, so the writer just keeps adding
words until supposedly the whole tottering thing moves the meaning along.

What elements would you look for in an elegant manual? Is there such a beast
among the shrink-wraps? How about third-party books? Or are they bloatware
too? Is brevity a hallmark of elegance?

One of my nominees, albeit a bit reluctantly, is the Word book _The Hacker's
Guide to Word for Windows_ by Leonhard, Chen, and Krueger. Simple language,
with barrels of really useful stuff. Declarative sentences. The book is a
lengthy one, though, and it makes me wonder if it couldn't be done more
elegantly. Perhaps not; the subject is Microsoft Word, after all.

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Creators of the Clustar Method for task-based documentation

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