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From: Eric Bohlman
Subject: Re: More advice for programmers
Date: 15 Oct 2002 02:19:39 GMT
Organization: OMS Development
NNTP-Posting-Host: 1cust160.tnt1.franklin.il.da.uu.net (188.8.131.52)
Roger Johansson wrote in
> Most programmers do not realize how difficult it is to read a fixed
> pitch font (sans serif) like Courier. So most help files, docs, and
> manuals use such fonts.
> In books and newspapers we use a font like Times New Roman, because it
> is much easier to read.
You've conflated two completely separate issues here: fixed vs. variable
pitch and serif vs. sans serif. For narrative prose, a variable-width font
is generally acknowledged to be more readable under all circumstances. And
for *print*, serif fonts are generally acknowledged to be more readable
than sans-serif for anything longer than a short heading. But for *screen*
display, the issue isn't quite as cut-and-dried; there's a school of
thought that holds that serifs actually detract from readability at the
relatively low dot densities typical of screens.
> Anybody can do a simple test:
> Try to read a long text file on your computer, and change the font
> type and size until you find a font which is really nice to read for
> more than just a few sentences.
> You will probably find that a proportional book-style font like Times
> New Roman is a lot easier to read than any fixed pitch font like
Probably, but beware of optimizing your output for readability on your own
setup at the expense of others, a trap many (some would say most) Web
designers often fall into.
> The formatting of text is another, but related, issue.
> Try not to write more than a few lines in each paragraph.
> Like in this message, which you are reading right now.
> Separate the paragraphs with inserted blank lines.
Yes, these are particularly important for text that's meant to be read on-
screen, and in fact you have to break the usual high-school rules about
minimum paragraph lengths; you usually need both shorter paragraphs and
shorter paragraphs than you'd use in print.
> The logic of the text is another issue. Unfortunately this is not so
> easy to help people with, as it depends on the way people think.
> But it helps if you read through every text several times, thinking
> about how you can make it more logical and easy to understand.
> Make it easier to follow the line of thought.
> This can mean that you have to try different ways of expressing what
> you want to say.
> The ability to imagine how another person would think is an invaluable
If you're documenting a system you've designed, you more or less have to
have other people "coach" you on the documentation practically from the
start, because you've internalized so many little details of how the system
works that a) you're going to take many of them for granted and b) you're
going to have a practically irresistible temptation to structure your
writing around the system's internal structure, which is usually *not* the
structure that the reader needs.
> Use the most known words for things. Avoid special terms which only a
> few people know, if there are better choices.
Here you have to be really mindful of the difference between technical
language and in-group terminology ("geek slang"). It's better to use
technical language (accompanied by a glossary) when the "plain English"
equivalent would be overly wordy and hard to follow, though you have to be
really careful about cases where a technical term sounds like a vernacular
term that means something else (e.g. "complex" means something entirely
different in psychoanalytic literature than it does in everyday usage).
But *never* do something like writing "modulo" when you mean "subject to";
that's really the equivalent of little boys talking in secret codes.
You also need to remember that if you're writing for an international or
otherwise multicultural audience, some figures of speech, references to
myths, etc. that are familiar to you aren't going to be familiar to your
readers. If that's true for prose, it's doubly true for visual symbols:
you cannot make the labelling of a "fast" to "slow" scale language-
independent by replacing the words with icons of a hare and a tortoise, nor
should you use a picture of a piece of metal that fits into a lock to
represent any other concept that we label "key" in English, and you
absolutely should not use a picture of a dog's feet to stand for "pause" (I
think someone actually did that once). And while we're at it, do *not* use
flags to represent languages! Languages are attached to cultures; flags
are attached to nation-states, and the two are not isomorphic.
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