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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - The Unix Style - Cultural Style

Cultural Style

Most software documentation is written by technical writers for the least-common-denominator ignorant — the knowledgeable writing for the knowledgeless. The documentation that ships with Unix systems has traditionally been written by programmers for their peers. Even when it is not peer-to-peer documentation, it tends to be influenced in style and format by the enormous mass of programmer-to-programmer documentation that ships with Unix systems.

The difference this makes can be summed up in one observation: Unix manual pages traditionally have a section called BUGS. In other cultures, technical writers try to make the product look good by omitting and skating over known bugs. In the Unix culture, peers describe the known shortcomings of their software to each other in unsparing detail, and users consider a short but informative BUGS section to be an encouraging sign of quality work. Commercial Unix distributions that have broken this convention, either by suppressing the BUGS section or euphemizing it to a softer tag like LIMITATIONS or ISSUES or APPLICATION USAGE, have invariably fallen into decline.

Where most other software documentation tends to to oscillate between incomprehensibility and oversimplifying condescension, classic Unix documentation is written to be telegraphic but complete. It does not hold you by the hand, but it usually points in the right direction. The style assumes an active reader, one who is able to deduce obvious unsaid consequences of what is said, and who has the self-confidence to trust those deductions.

Unix programmers tend to be good at writing references, and most Unix documentation has the flavor of a reference or aide memoire for someone who thinks like the document-writer but is not yet an expert at his or her software. The results often look much more cryptic and sparse than they actually are. Read every word carefully, because whatever you want to know will probably be there, or deducible from what's there. Read every word carefully, because you will seldom be told anything twice.

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The Art of Unix Programming
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