“Why Sam,” said Joe, “that sure is a software artifact.”

There’s a style of writing about software that’s bugged me for a long time. It’s what I call the “Joe burst into the room” style because it often starts with a sentence something like that. It’s a little morality fable in which a point about software development is made largely through a conversation between pairs of people.

I have two problems with the style:

  • Many people who can write perfectly serviceable descriptive prose cannot write dialogue.

  • In such a story, a proxy for the reader is walked through what the reader needs to be told. That violates the writing guideline “show, don’t tell.” It does so doubly: a character tells another character so the author can tell the reader.

This is a cry in the wilderness—I don’t think I’ve ever persuaded anyone to give up that style. I think that’s because Jerry Weinberg uses it. To that, I can only quote this:

The hero of the bebop era was Charlie (Bird) Parker, a ferociously inventive saxophonist and a heroin addict from his late teens until his death at 35. The jazz wisdom once held, “To play like Bird, you got to be like Bird.” Mr. McLean, one of his foremost disciples, remembers just how pervasive - and destructive - the advice was.

“There were young musicians who weren’t addicted who tried to look like they were - eyes half-closed, striking that slouched pose - because all of the people we admired had fallen prey. […] Parker told me early on to try to follow the example of people like Horace Silver, the guys who had it all together. But it was already too late, because I was hopelessly addicted.”

New York Times, November 17, 1985, “How inner torment fuels the creative spirit”

The quotation mark: heroin for the new century.

3 Responses to ““Why Sam,” said Joe, “that sure is a software artifact.””

  1. Michael Bolton Says:

    I agree with you, but there’s catch: Jerry uses the style pretty well, in my view. Maybe the problem is imitation, rather than the particular style. I’ve used the style once or twice; afterwards, I’ve consistently felt like I needed a shower.

    On the other hand, for a long time, I’ve wanted to begin an article with:

    Marty wandered into my office one day, and slumped down in my extra chair. “Gee, Marty,” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

    He looked dejected. “I don’t know. It’s just that some days I feel like people are using me as a cheap literary device.”

    —Michael B.

  2. neves Says:

    I really like Jerry Weinberg, but the guy who started writing dialogues were someone a little more important.

  3. Chris McMahon Says:

    I’d forgotten that I wrote this down: http://chrismcmahonsblog.blogspot.com/2006/04/sentence-from-fictional-software.html

    I was complaining about yet another badly-written dialogue+jargon+thinly-disguised-ad article. Jonathan Kohl sent that to me and coffee came out my nose.

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