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Zen And The Art Of Software Documentation

Topic: programming


(Translated from the P'-u-t'ung hua dialect by W.C.Carlson)

Editor's Note: The following are excerpts from the only known treatise on Zen Software Documentation. Called "H'ring-chu-tsu", which literally translates to "Ink of Several Insignificant Matters", this treatise was written in 12th Century Japan by the scholarly monk E'm-ie-T'. That it discusses Software documentation -- predating the advent of software by 850 years -- is but another of the mysteries of those who walk the true path.)

This article should be read twice.

On Preparing to Write of Software

To prepare for the writing of Software, the writer must first become one with it, sometimes two. Software is untasteable, opalescent, transparent; the user sees not the software, so the writer must see through it. Spend long, quiet mornings in meditation. Do not sharpen the mind, but rather blunt it by doing Zen crosswords. (Ed. note: Zen crosswords are done by consulting only the "Down" clues; and always in the mind, never on paper.)

The mind should be rooted but flexible, as a long stemmed flower faces the Sun yet bends with the Wind. Think not of compound adjectives because they tend to wire the mind in two directions. Rather, consider the snowflake, which radiates in beauty in any and all directions. Partake of strong drink.

Do not study the Software; let it study you. Allow the Software admission to your mind, but keep it in the cheap seats. Let it flow around you at its own pace. Do not disturb or dismay it, but keep it from your private parts because it tends to coalesce there.

When the Software is with you, you will know it. It will lead your mind where it should be, and prepare you for the narcolepsy that is certain to follow. You will know when the Software is with you, and so will others. You will smile with an inner smile. Typewriters will frighten you. You will fall down a lot.

The first exercise in writing Software documentation is the Haiku. Haiku are 17 syllable poem forms in which many ideas of a single concept are reduced -- nay, distilled -- into a short, impressionistic poem. For example, the Haiku for preparing to write of Software goes:

Emptiness on paper; Fleeting thought.

Red Sox play at Fenway's Green Park.

By concentrating on the Softwares form and function in a concise, subliminal, truly meaningless Haiku verse, you have transcended the Software, and you can then write the true manual.

The following Haiku is from a Zen manual on Data Transmission:

How swiftly whirls the disk; Data leaps to the floating head And is known.

And this is on Hardware Maintenance:

The smell of hot P.C. card, Blank screen, no bell, New parts will be needed.

And another Haiku, this one on Debugging:

All the lights are frozen; The cursor blinks blandly. Soon, I shall see the dump.

Let the Haiku thoughts free your mind from your fingers. Your fingers will write what must be written. Soon you will be in Doc. Prep.

On the Review Cycle

This is the murkiest path. Storms gather and disperse around you in many directions, none of which are in English. The path becomes unclear as many an idea compete for attention. Some of them are fatal.

But the writer of Zen Software documentation fears not the turbulence of review cycles. Let it storm around you and be dry, warm, and safe in the knowledge that you have written the pure manual. Anyway, you know the printer. You shall in the end have it your way.

ALPHA v0.3