Why “Minimalism” doesn’t mean “plain writing”

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The word “minimalist” often means less. Less clutter; less color; fewer overtly designed elements (though, ironically, minimalist design often requires more effort to achieve that seeming simplicity). In 1990, Professor John M. Carroll published a book on “…Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill”. He didn’t mean elegantly centered lowercase Helvetica text on a beige background, or IKEA-style drawings. He didn’t even focus on the reduction of verbiage as a goal in itself.  Rather, his framework gave learners the space to discover how software worked, based on actual doing rather than just reading. He found that overly detailed instructions did not help learners to assimilate new knowledge. Rather, training materials should provide a jumping-off point for learners to explore and learn for themselves, with enough support for them to diagnose and correct errors. The idea was not to avoid or gloss over potential errors, but to deal with them in a constructive way.

Over the next decade, Carroll and his colleagues would expand and clarify this framework, explaining that dumbed-down, hand-holding steps were not what it was about:

Job aids … succinctly present the step-by-step minutiae of procedures, these are de-skilling characteristics, and not at all consistent [with our approach]

(Carroll and van der Meij, Ten misconceptions about Minimalism)

These influential principles became known as Minimalism — a term that would frequently be confused with the idea of just writing less.

Writing less is one of the preoccupations of the plain writing movement. This movement has done great work to reduce ambiguity, for example making contracts and license agreements easier for non-specialists to understand. But it is sometimes taken too far. Some plain language enthusiastics make a logical short-circuit from the reasonable position that “clear writing doesn’t waste words” to an extreme conclusion that “brevity is the primary criterion of clear writing”. At its worst, an undiscriminating plain writing approach can change the meaning of phrases and make them more difficult for non-native speakers to understand. In a Twitter discussion about plain writing, Michael Andrews used the term “minimalist” in its common sense, decrying the common assumption that writing less — cutting words and characters wherever possible — inevitably makes the meaning clearer.

Marie-Louise Flacke, who does great work teaching helpful technical writing in France and elsewhere, queried the use of the term “minimalist”. To me, Minimalism in technical communication is very much alive, furthered by practitioners such as Hans van der Meij, Marie herself (with a post on this exact subject here), JoAnn Hackos, and Mark Baker. (I also bring in some of the principles every time I do an information modeling / content modeling workshop.) This Minimalism isn’t the same as a hair-shirt, reductionist, “minimalist” approach to writing in general.


Does cutting windows improve the clarity of the view? Image from pxhere.com

Does cutting windows improve the clarity of the view? Image from pxhere.com

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