Structure, Documentation, and Poetry

At work I've introduced a new method for storing the content for procedural documents (i.e. tutorials/how-to guides/etc,) that is more structured. Rather than just writing a tutorial in a conventional way, we capture the steps in a specific structure that we use to generate the content in a specific way. The structure lets us do cool things with the presentation that would be hard to do well otherwise and help us focus theses kinds of documents on the core procedural or sequence-based nature of these documents.

Doing documentation well is really hard, but probably not for the reasons you think: Writing clear text about complex ideas isn't easy, but it is straight forward. Figuring out what needs to be documented is harder, but it boils down to a business problem and if you talk to the right people it's not a significant challenge. Ensuring that the documentation remains correct over time as the product develops, particularly with regards to duplicated content: really hard. Managing complexity of large texts that are always growing and changing, particularly with regards to correctness and content duplication: really fucking hard.

The problem is that the solutions to the hard problems are at odds with each other: you help address the complexity problems by decoupling the organization of the source material from the presentation, which never works well enough. You solve the duplication problem using a "single sourcing strategy" where you store common bits of information in one place and then inject that text as needed, which increases complexity.

There is no winning.

The new structured approach to procedures may not be winning, exactly, but it works pretty well. Essentially we put a huge core of our content into a YAML document and then render it out, but we get some nice benefits:

  • For each step in a sequence we can inherit from any other step in the project and override any component of that step. This facilitates reuse, and forces us to think about potential reuse throughout the process.
  • The compiler and parsers tell us when we get something wrong.
  • The output is very regular, so we can be confident that all of the tutorials look the same and have the same structure.
  • Minimal loss of editing clarity: YAML is great to edit, the structure is like a JSON document, but commentsare allowed and the syntax does smart things with newlines and requires less escaping.

Basically, at its core, we're restricting the available structural possibles for some documents and using (simple) software to enforce those requirements. The results are quite good, but in some ways it makes the writing part a bit more difficult. There's less room for imprecision, and there are some weak rhetorical formulations that become more important to avoid. For example: complex conditional structures don't always work well and positional references (i.e. "as above") are almost always unhelpful.

In some ways the effect is kind of like writing in a specific poetic form. Less metric, but the same kind of toying with squeezing an idea into a very specific form. The coolest side effect is that given the constraints that the new system imposes, the quality of everyone's output has improved.

I can live with that!

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