The problem with setting up a story is that people focus on the set-up and miss the point of the story


In writing, one of the steps you need to perform is motivating the discussion. Now, technically, you don't have to do that, but if you just dive into the guts of a topic right off the bat, people are going to say, "What the heck is going on and why should I care?"

Consider, for example, an article I wrote a while back on how to use WMI to obtain computer configuration information. To motivate the discussion, I considered a customer who wanted to collect computer manufacturer information programmatically (presumably for asset inventory purposes). But really, the reason wasn't important. It was just something for the script to do. If it weren't printing the computer manufacturer, it could have been getting the number of processors, or querying, I dunno, the thermal state of the motherboard.

Actually, the computer manufacturer was what I was after because of the bonus commentary regarding how computer manufacturer information is one of the things computer manufacturers often skimp on providing when they manufacture their computers.

Often it's not even the set-up but the placeholder itself that people fixate on. Consider, for example, my complaint about repeated pony-begging. Most people understood that the question itself was just a placeholder (and some people even joined in), but you can always count on someone complaining about the placeholder.

Another common problem is people who take an analysis of a specific case and extrapolate it to all cases. There are places where you want to use bitfields, and places where you don't. It so happens that the example I chose was one of the ones where it wasn't. Some people interpreted this to mean that there were no cases where you would want to use bitfields. Remember, good advice comes with a rationale so you can tell when it becomes bad advice. These people skipped the rationale and just applied the advice blindly.

As an experiment, I've deleted the motivating preliminary discussion from tomorrow's article. It would have involved a little game of one-upsmanship between two Czech colleagues. (Update: Who, according to one commenter, have no self-respect.)

[Raymond is currently away; this message was pre-recorded.]

Comments (16)
  1. Gabe says:

    I bet the preliminary discussion from tomorrow’s article was going to be about these two guys who were from the Czech Republic, became friends, and so on. With that gone, there will be nothing left but the punch line: "Czech mate".

  2. Matt says:

    With the last paragraph, hasn’t this article become the motivating preliminary discussion for tomorrow’s article?

  3. Someone You Know says:

    Raymond, whatever point you were going to make in tomorrow’s article is invalid, because it’s spelled "one-upmanship" and no self-respecting Czech would ever engage in it.

  4. arnshea says:

    IMHO it’s usually a reflection that the person doesn’t get some piece of the puzzle.  Even if they bothered to read the rationale there’s no time to write a rationale that doesn’t take a lot for granted.

    These gaps, when it comes to software, seem more common in the mostly-self-taught types.  At least that’s been my experience (I include myself back when I was mostly self-taught).

  5. Shame. I find your setups a nice interesting way to get myself into the state of mind needed to understand the problem you’re setting before us.

    As always, a vocal minority ruins things for the rest of us :(

  6. mikeb says:

    > it’s spelled "one-upmanship"

    I hope I’m not jumping some sort of one-upmanship gun here (not that I’d engage in it), but the online Merriam-Webster dictionary lists "one-upsmanship" as a variant, so I’d say Raymond’s spelling (and probably the point in tomorrow’s article) is valid:

    http://mw4.m-w.com/dictionary/one-upmanship

  7. Someone You Know says:

    @mikeb

    I wouldn’t say you’re so much "jumping the gun" as "missing the joke".

  8. mikeb says:

    @Someone You Know:

    Or the complete opposite…  Bam!

  9. kog999 says:

    [Raymond is currently away; this message was pre-recorded.]

    (Update: Who, according to one commenter, have no self-respect.)

    This update would seem to indicate that Raymond is not currently away. Unless of course he used his physic powers to predict mikeb would make this comments and programmed a prerecorded update linked to his response.

  10. hova says:

    No, obviously the update cannon is sentient and peruses the comments.

  11. Gaspar says:

    @kog999

    As we all know, Raymond’s blog is hosted from Russia, and in Soviet Russia, the comments monitor you!

  12. mikeb says:

    > used his physic powers to predict mikeb would make this comments

    I don’t think that Raymond was addressing my comment or maybe I’m just too far out of my depth to understand.

    Anyway, it’s apparent that Raymond does have psychic one-upsmanship powers in addition to his psychic debugging powers.  An awesome and aweful (sic) combination for a thermonuclear threat.

    I eagerly await Raymond’s stock-picking psychic powers posts.  But with my luck they’ll be pre-recorded for posting after the events he might discuss…

  13. Cheong says:

    @kog999: Or just that he’s away when the article is posted, but still checking comments to see if someone’s doing nit^H^H^Hpick-packet.

  14. Anonymous Coward says:

    So let me get this straight… tomorrow we complain about this article, right?

  15. Dave T says:

    @mikeb, @Someone You Know

    Hartman’s Law of Prescriptive Retaliation:

    Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.

  16. Erzengel says:

    I just want to say: I hate when people fixate on the placeholder. Even when I make an inordinate effort to indicate "this is placeholder", people critique it anyway.

    Reminds me of Duff’s Device, a method for partially unrolling a loop. As a placeholder, the original example of the device simply set memory. So of course the commenters, being the Id-10-t errors that they are, fixated on this and asked, "Why not just use memcpy?". They completely ignored the clever pattern for partially unrolling a loop to make it more efficient in other contexts, and critiqued that one, single example. Do these people critique Hello World applications, too? (For example, why not just use "echo Hello World"?)

Comments are closed.