Sometimes, I wonder whether writers of documentation, tutorials and articles stop to ask themselves one very important question: Does the reader really need to know this?
I recently took on the task of writing a concise series of articles about the transaction log, what is it, how it works and why it’s important. It was an enjoyable task; rather like peering inside a giant, complex clock mechanism. Initially, one sees only the basic components, which work to guarantee the integrity of database transactions, and preserve these transactions so that data can be restored to a previous point in time. On closer inspection, one notices all of small, arcane mechanisms that are necessary to make this happen; LSNs, virtual log files, log chains, database checkpoints, and so on.
It was engrossing, escapist, stuff; what I’d written looked weighty and steeped in mysterious significance. Suddenly, however, I jolted myself back to reality with the awful thought “does anyone really need to know all this?”
The driver of a car needs only to be dimly aware of what goes on under the hood, however exciting the mechanism is to the engineer. Similarly, while everyone who uses SQL Server ought to be aware of the transaction log, its role in guaranteeing the ACID properties, and how to control its growth, the intricate mechanisms ticking away under its clock face are a world away from the daily work of the harassed developer.
The DBA needs to know more, such as the correct rituals for ensuring optimal performance and data integrity, setting the appropriate growth characteristics, backup routines, restore procedures, and so on. However, even then, the average DBA only needs to understand enough about the arcane processes to spot problems and react appropriately, or to know how to Google for the best way of dealing with it.
The art of technical writing is tied up in intimate knowledge of your audience and what they need to know at any point. It means serving up just enough at each point to help the reader in a practical way, but not to overcook it, or stuff the reader with information that does them no good. When I think of the books and articles that have helped me the most, they have been full of brief, practical, and well-informed guidance, based on experience. This seems far-removed from the 900-page “beginner’s guides” that one now sees everywhere.
The more I write and edit, the more I become convinced that the real art of technical communication lies in knowing what to leave out. In what areas do the SQL Server technical materials suffer from “information overload”? Where else does it seem that concise, practical advice is drowned out by endless discussion of the “clock mechanisms”?