December 2017

Do as I Say…Not as I Do

CIDMIconNewsletter Dawn Stevens, CIDM

Do as I Say…Not as I Do

It’s December! While some hold their heads in their hands and ask where the year has gone, and others cringe at the thought of the holiday stress soon to be upon them, I am in my element. I love the Christmas and everything about it—from the basic and simple meaning behind it to the hustle and bustle of traditions it has become! In my opinion, no other season brings such joy and excitement, and at the same time, no other season presents such a direct contrast to one of the guiding principles of my career: that of minimalism.

Confession: When it comes to the holidays, I am not a poster child for minimalism practices.

Many of you know that my love of the Christmas holiday manifests itself in my decorating and baking. Over the years I have amassed quite a collection of ornaments—approaching about 3500 individually boxed pieces. To effectively display them all requires that I put up 30 or more trees of varying sizes, ranging from 9 feet to 6 inches (see Figure 1). Five of my large trees rotate so that even when in a corner, I can decorate all sides and each ornament can still be seen. Decorating is an effort that takes weeks of manpower; friends and family are actively involved starting at Thanksgiving until we are done—typically two to three weeks.

Over 20 years ago, back when I only had five trees or so, I decided that if I was going to go the effort of all that decorating, my friends and acquaintances should have the opportunity of seeing it, so I started hosting a holiday open house. Clearly for such an enormity of trees, I should have an equally impressive array of goodies and so the season is filled with smells and flavors of at least three dozen different types of candies, cookies, and tartlets. If only half of the people who come through my door want one of each thing, that means I need six dozen or so of each thing and so the number of individual confections in the house rivals the number of ornaments hanging on the trees.

Sadly, in recent years, I have been forced to curb my enthusiasm. There are some basic reasons for this:

  • My house is out of room. I have no more places to put trees. With no more trees, I am running out of places to put the new ornaments. I’ve removed furniture for the season. I’ve hung ornaments from the curtains and the bannisters. I’ve put up shadow boxes and emptied my curio cabinets of the “everyday” décor. If it’s a flat surface in the house, it has ornaments that will stand all over it (see Figure 3). There just isn’t any other place to put them.
  • My husband won’t let me buy a Christmas house. Under such a plan, all the trees would go up in this holiday house and never come down. I wouldn’t need so much time to decorate and take down; just brief time to add the New Year’s ornaments to the trees. Periodically, we might need to add another in the theme, rearranging the rooms, but it would be so much less work and I’d have the entire square footage for nothing but the trees. With an extra refrigerator and oven, I could do my baking faster and have places to store all the food easier. We wouldn’t live there, but I could go visit any time and get the pick-me-up I need. Ideally, it would be the house next door and I might even dig a tunnel between the houses so I could easily go over whenever I wanted, without having to worry about dressing for the weather. Despite this rock solid case, my husband remains Scrooge-like and refuses to see the plethora of benefits.
  • I am not home as often as I used to be. As I have taken over the reigns of Comtech, I find myself on the road at least 50% of the time. Such a travel schedule presents challenges in getting all the decorations up before the holiday has come and gone, and even more challenges to get them down before another holiday…say Easter…has arrived.

As a result, I’m faced with the difficult decisions of what do I cut. I’m attached to all of the pieces. Some have been around for over 30 years, since I got married. What criteria do I use to guide my decisions?

  • Is it sentimental?
  • Is it pretty?
  • Does it fit with a specific theme?
  • Does it make me smile?
  • How big is it?
  • Is it old? Is it new?

As I’ve gone through this decision making process, I’ve thought about the fact that it parallels the decisions technical writers need to make on a regular basis. How do we as technical writers decide what to cut from our documentation when working toward a minimalism approach? Just like my attachment to my ornaments, we are attached to individual topics: many have been around for a long time; some we are particularly proud of; others took a significant effort to finish. What criteria do we use?

In between pulling out my decorations, I’ve taught several sessions of Minimalism, a course that remains one of our most popular even after 20 years of teaching it. Based on the research of John M. Carroll, the course is designed to help technical writers “trim the fat” from their documentation and instead focus on writing information that end users actually need and can use.

Although Carroll’s four minimalism principles (Figure 4) for documentation provide no solution for my decorating dilemma, they did inspire me to research other forms of minimalism, and I found that many guidelines for a minimal lifestyle apply equally well to both my decorating strategies and our documentation strategies:

  • Set priorities.
  • Be quick and ruthless as you eliminate the unnecessary.
  • Let go of that which is no longer serving you.
  • Make sure everything that remains has a place.
  • Ensure that clutter does not return.
  • Enjoy the benefits.

As a minimalism instructor, I firmly believe that the most important thing you can do is remove the unnecessary based on the priorities and needs of your users. I urge and cajole writers to develop user personas and perform a critical skills analysis each and every time the information is updated to eliminate content that does not or no longer serves those users. At the same time, that which remains must be fully accessible. Practicing these minimalism techniques is not only beneficial to the user, but the writer as well, freeing up time to conduct user research and perfect important and necessary content.

Nevertheless, despite my strong stance professionally, there are now 25 trees up in my house and I mourn each ornament that has remained in its box. The party menu is inching toward that three dozen options mark (in my defense, the last time I decided to eliminate the lemon meringue tartlets, there were disappointed guests). Clearly, this is a situation where those who can do, and those who can’t teach. And so, I encourage you to do what I say, not what I do, or at the very least, to remember during the over-indulgent season, that it may not be possible to over decorate, but it is possible to over document.

Join me as I explore further the parallel philosophies of a minimalism lifestyle with minimalist documentation strategies at TC Camp in Santa Clara, California on January 27, 2018. For more information, see <>.


Go to Top