Re: Elegance

Subject: Re: Elegance
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998 11:57:44 -0400

>> Did anybody else see the article in the current Computerworld about
>> elegance?
> I just read it. It printed out to 5 full pages of text expounding
>on the virtue of brevity
> :^0.

If you check closely you'll probably find that neither the article nor my
remarks equate brevity with elegance, although brevity may be a major factor
in elegance. If it takes 3,000 words to make a point, that's how many it
takes. Shortening it may not improve it, but presumably neither would
lengthening it.
>> Inelegant items included Microsoft Word, because it's developed into
>> bloatware.
> Huh? The only mention of MicroSoft was a metaphor of Window's 98
>and a Swiss army knife. Trust me. I did a word search of the article.
>Also the word "word" does not appear in the article. Methinks that you
>want to vent (again) your dislike for MS Word in public ;^)

Actually the article used _Office 98_, not Windows 98, and although I
probably erred by citing Word itself rather than its larger container, it
certainly shares in Office's problems. And yes, Word IS a rickety swiss army
knife with far too many blades. In doing everything it does very little
>> 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.
> One Webster's definition for elegance is "scientific precision,
>neatness, and simplicity." Isn't this the old "concise, complete, and
>correct" principle that most every Technical Writer has heard about since
>day 1 on the job and already strives to uphold? I fail to see where this
>article introduces a new concept to Technical Writing field. The article
>talked about software design. For many computer program designs, this
>concept may be a new way of thinking.

Strictly speaking there's nothing new, only reminders from the past. And as
Jane Bergen pointed out in another post unrelated to this one, many of our
"colleagues" carrying the title "technical writer" are actually incapable of
communicating well. It might be well to remind them of what scientists have
known for a long time; prefer the elegant solution.
>> What elements would you look for in an elegant manual?
> Seeming that I associate the word "elegant" with things like
>expensive decor, clothing, and jewelry, I would probably look for a high
>price tag for the manual ;^)
>> Is there such a beast among the shrink-wraps? How about third-party
>> Or are they bloatware too? Is brevity a hallmark of elegance?
> I don't associate the word elegance with manuals. Instead, I
>associate the words functional and informative. IMO, save the word
>"elegant" for describing the attire of celebrities and the furnishings of
> As for third part books, I find them quite bloated (probably
>if your going to shell out extra for another manual, you should get more
>pages per dollar). I also find the third part books too campy. I recoil
>every time an instruction manual says things like, "Now wasn't that easy",
>"I'll tell you a little secret", or uses cartoon characters to take me
>through the steps.
>> 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, ....
> ...Kinda defeats the association between brevity and elegance,
>doesn't it?

It might if the two were synonymous. But they aren't. Brevity and elegance
assume that you say what you need to say in the simplest manner, then shut

>> though, and it makes me wonder if it couldn't be done more
>> elegantly. Perhaps not; the subject is Microsoft Word, after all.

What I noted, Mike, is that you didn't disagree with the premise itself
about elegance. I think the article was thoughtful. In a decade where we're
forcing technology into degrees of complexity that even our parents would
have thought impossible, it may be that we need to remind ourselves that
elegant solutions are immortal. Some things are so powerfully simple that
they endure despite all attempts to improve them: the light bulb; key rings;
spiral note books; ballpoint pens; bound books; open gas burners.

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

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