Minimalism vs. Terse Writing

A minimalist style does not need to mean terse text. Research has shown that effective e-Learning, for instance, has a conversational style.

In the 1980s, John Carroll and others at IBM developed an instructional design approach called Minimalism. Their design was based on observation of people learning to use computers (remember, the personal computer was introduced to the office environment in the 1980s).

The name, Minimalism, was a descriptive one, especially compared to the instructional design approaches of the time, which offered the user pages and pages of reading material before introducing any practical exercises. The basics of the minimalist approach are learning by doing, guided practice and heuristic learning from mistakes. That is to say, as a user jumps in and learns by doing, he is going to make mistakes, so a good minimalist manual should provide plenty of error recovery guidance.

Over the years, and with the widespread adoption of DITA, it seems to me that minimalism has come to mean terse writing. This has been the hallmark of good help topic design for many years as well, since help has to share the screen with the application and the less space required the better. However, a minimalist style does not need to mean terse text. Research has shown that effective e-Learning, for instance, has a conversational style. Casual styles of writing are also the hallmarks of the “… for Dummies” books, because it is friendly, relaxing and reduces the intimidation factor inherent in self-guided learning of complex and technical subjects.

More important than terse text is proper use of DITA semantic elements, and separating generic from unique content. A generic command (<cmd>) can be reused whether it is written as “Press OK,” or “When you are ready Press OK.” However, if you blend the command with unique information or specific results, it becomes difficult or impossible to reuse. For example:

<cmd>When you are ready, Press OK and X happens.</cmd>

is very difficult to reuse as a component. Similarly,

<cmd>Type your social security number in the field and press Enter.</cmd>

 is nearly impossible to reuse. Splitting the command into two commands, one unique and one generic, allows the generic command (the second command in this example) to be reused in numerous places:

<step><cmd>Type your social security number in the field.</cmd></step>
<step><cmd>Press Enter.</cmd></step>

Some will argue that it’s much ado about nothing, after all, how much do you save reusing two words? That’s a separate question, but in typical software documentation there are many such generic commands, and reused in enough places, the savings can be substantial.

More to the point, a generic element need not be terse, after all, Minimalism is about supporting learning by doing, not just writing less text. Furthermore, reuse is not the only reason to use proper semantics. Publishing options are greatly enhanced when content is marked up precisely.

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2 Responses to “Minimalism vs. Terse Writing”

  1. Marie-Louise Flacke says:

    IMHO, it’s not a matter of reducing production costs by “re-using two words” … for major international companies, it’s re-using two words in NINETY LANGUAGES (mobile phone companies selling worldwide).

    • Glenn says:

      Marie-Louise, we’re in complete agreement. The savings of reusing small, but generic elements can be very great, and as you emphasize, this savings multiplies with each additional language used.

      However, each situation is different, and not everyone is publishing to multiple languages. Those who publish to a few or one language can still benefit from a strategy that segments generic and unique information into separate elements.

      The original post was about the use of minimalism, which is an instructional design method, with a conversational writing style (which is increasingly common for marketing reasons) in such a way that still allows reuse of generic components.

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