The ability to write clearly is perhaps the most important skill one can have in an open source environment. In the long run it matters more than programming talent. A great programmer with lousy communications skills can get only one thing done at a time, and even then may have trouble convincing others to pay attention. But a lousy programmer with good communications skills can coordinate and persuade many people to do many different things, and thereby have a significant effect on a project's direction and momentum.
There does not seem to be much correlation, in either direction, between the ability to write good code and the ability to communicate with one's fellow human beings. There is some correlation between programming well and describing technical issues well, but describing technical issues is only a tiny part of the communications in a project. Much more important is the ability to empathize with one's audience, to see one's own posts and comments as others see them, and to cause others to see their own posts with similar objectivity. Equally important is noticing when a given medium or communications method is no longer working well, perhaps because it doesn't scale as the number of users increases, and taking the time to do something about it.
All of which is obvious in theory—what makes it hard in practice is that free software development environments are bewilderingly diverse both in audiences and in communications mechanisms. Should a given thought be expressed in a post to the mailing list, as an annotation in the bug tracker, or as a comment in the code? When answering a question in a public forum, how much knowledge can you assume on the part of the reader, given that "the reader" is not only the one who asked the question in the first place, but all those who might see your response? How can the developers stay in constructive contact with the users, without getting swamped by feature requests, spurious bug reports, and general chatter? How do you tell when a medium has reached the limits of its capacity, and what do you do about it?
Solutions to these problems are usually partial, because any particular solution is eventually made obsolete by project growth or changes in project structure. They are also often ad hoc, because they're improvised responses to dynamic situations. All participants need to be aware of when and how communications can become bogged down, and be involved in solutions. Helping people do this is a big part of managing an open source project. The sections that follow discuss both how to conduct your own communications, and how to make maintenance of communications mechanisms a priority for everyone in the project.
Consider this: the only thing anyone knows about you on the Internet comes from what you write, or what others write about you. You may be brilliant, perceptive, and charismatic in person—but if your emails are rambling and unstructured, people will assume that's the real you. Or perhaps you really are rambling and unstructured in person, but no one need ever know it, if your posts are lucid and informative.
Devoting some care to your writing will pay off hugely. Long-time free software hacker Jim Blandy tells the following story:
Back in 1993, I was working for the Free Software Foundation, and we were beta-testing version 19 of GNU Emacs. We'd make a beta release every week or so, and people would try it out and send us bug reports. There was this one guy whom none of us had met in person but who did great work: his bug reports were always clear and led us straight to the problem, and when he provided a fix himself, it was almost always right. He was top-notch.
Now, before the FSF can use code written by someone else, we have them do some legal paperwork to assign their copyright interest to that code to the FSF. Just taking code from complete strangers and dropping it in is a recipe for legal disaster.
So I emailed the guy the forms, saying, "Here's some paperwork we need, here's what it means, you sign this one, have your employer sign that one, and then we can start putting in your fixes. Thanks very much."
He sent me back a message saying, "I don't have an employer."
So I said, "Okay, that's fine, just have your university sign it and send it back."
After a bit, he wrote me back again, and said, "Well, actually... I'm thirteen years old and I live with my parents."
Because that kid didn't write like a thirteen-year-old, no one knew that's what he was. Following are some ways to make your writing give a good impression too.
Don't fall into the trap of writing everything as though it were a cell phone text message. Write in complete sentences, capitalizing the first word of each sentence, and use paragraph breaks where needed. This is most important in emails and other composed writings. In IRC or similarly ephemeral forums, it's generally okay to leave out capitalization, use compressed forms of common expressions, etc. Just don't carry those habits over into more formal, persistent forums. Emails, documentation, bug reports, and other pieces of writing that are intended to have a permanent life should be written using standard grammar and spelling, and have a coherent narrative structure. This is not because there's anything inherently good about following arbitrary rules, but rather that these rules are not arbitrary: they evolved into their present forms because they make text more readable, and you should adhere to them for that reason. Readability is desirable not only because it means more people will understand what you write, but because it makes you look like the sort of person who takes the time to communicate clearly: that is, someone worth paying attention to.
For email in particular, experienced open source developers have settled on certain conventions:
Send plain text mails only, not HTML, RichText, or other formats that might be opaque to text-only mail readers. Format your lines to be around 72 columns long. Don't exceed 80 columns, which has become the de facto standard terminal width (that is, some people may use wider terminals, but no one uses a narrower one). By making your lines a little less than 80 columns, you leave room for a few levels of quoting characters to be added in others' replies without forcing a rewrapping of your text.
Use real line breaks. Some mailers do a kind of fake line wrapping, whereby when you're composing an email, the display shows line breaks that aren't actually there. When the mail goes out, it may not have the line breaks you thought it had, and it will wrap awkwardly on some people's screens. If your mailer might use fake line breaks, look for a setting you can tweak to make it show the true line breaks as you compose.
When including screen output, snippets of code, or other preformatted text, offset it clearly, so that even a lazy eye can easily see the boundaries between your prose and the material you're quoting. (I never expected to write that advice when I started this book, but on a number of open source mailing lists lately, I've seen people mix texts from different sources without making it clear which is which. The effect is very frustrating. It makes their posts significantly harder to understand, and frankly makes those people look a little bit disorganized.)
When quoting someone else's mail, insert your responses where they're most appropriate, at several different places if necessary, and trim off the parts of their mail you didn't use. If you're writing a quick comment that applies to their entire post, it's okay to top-post (that is, to put your response above the quoted text of their mail); otherwise, you should quote the relevant portion of the original text first, followed by your response.
Construct the subject lines of new mails carefully. It's the most important line in your mail, because it allows each other person in the project to decide whether or not to read more. Modern mail reading software organizes groups of related messages into threads, which can be defined not only by a common subject, but by various other headers (which are sometimes not displayed). It follows that if a thread starts to drift to a new topic, you can—and should—adjust the subject line accordingly when replying. The thread's integrity will be preserved, due to those other headers, but the new subject will help people looking at an overview of the thread know that the topic has drifted. Likewise, if you really want to start a new topic, do it by posting a fresh mail, not by replying to an existing mail and changing the subject. Otherwise, your mail would still be grouped in to the same thread as what you're replying to, and thus fool people into thinking it's about something it's not. Again, the penalty would not only be the waste of their time, but the slight dent in your credibility as someone fluent in using communications tools.
Well-formatted mails attract readers, but content keeps them. No set of fixed rules can guarantee good content, of course, but there are some principles that make it more likely.
Make things easy for your readers. There's a ton of information floating around in any active open source project, and readers cannot be expected to be familiar with most of it—indeed, they cannot always be expected to know how to become familiar. Wherever possible, your posts should provide information in the form most convenient for readers. If you have to spend an extra two minutes to dig up the URL to a particular thread in the mailing list archives, in order to save your readers the trouble of doing so, it's worth it. If you have to spend an extra 5 or 10 minutes summarizing the conclusions so far of a complex thread, in order to give people context in which to understand your post, then do so. Think of it this way: the more successful a project, the higher the reader-to-writer ratio in any given forum. If every post you make is seen by n people, then as n rises, the worthwhileness of expending extra effort to save those people time rises with it. And as people see you imposing this standard on yourself, they will work to match it in their own communications. The result is, ideally, an increase in the global efficiency of the project: when there is a choice between n people making an effort and one person doing so, the project prefers the latter.
Don't engage in hyperbole. Exaggerating in online posts is a classic arms race. For example, a person reporting a bug may worry that the developers will not pay sufficient attention, so he'll describe it as a severe, showstopper problem that is preventing him (and all his friends/coworkers/cousins) from using the software productively, when it's actually only a mild annoyance. But exaggeration is not limited to users—programmers often do the same thing during technical debates, particularly when the disagreement is over a matter of taste rather than correctness:
"Doing it that way would make the code totally unreadable. It'd be a maintenance nightmare, compared to J. Random's proposal..."
The same sentiment actually becomes stronger when phrased less sharply:
"That works, but it's less than ideal in terms of readability and maintainability, I think. J. Random's proposal avoids those problems because it..."
You will not be able to get rid of hyperbole completely, and in general it's not necessary to do so. Compared to other forms of miscommunication, hyperbole is not globally damaging—it hurts mainly the perpetrator. The recipients can compensate, it's just that the sender loses a little more credibility each time. Therefore, for the sake of your own influence in the project, try to err on the side of moderation. That way, when you do need to make a strong point, people will take you seriously.
Edit twice. For any message longer than a medium-sized paragraph, reread it from top to bottom before sending it but after you think it's done the first time. This is familiar advice to anyone who's taken a composition class, but it's especially important in online discussion. Because the process of online composition tends to be highly discontinuous (in the course of writing a message, you may need to go back and check other mails, visit certain web pages, run a command to capture its debugging output, etc.), it's especially easy to lose your sense of narrative place. Messages that were composed discontinuously and not checked before being sent are often recognizable as such, much to the chagrin (or so one would hope) of their authors. Take the time to review what you send. The more your posts hold together structurally, the more they will be read.
After writing thousands of messages, you will probably find your style tending toward the terse. This seems to be the norm in most technical forums, and there's nothing wrong with it per se. A degree of terseness that would be unacceptable in normal social interactions is simply the default for free software hackers. Here's a response I once drew on a mailing list about some free content management software, quoted in full:
Can you possibly elaborate a bit more on exactly what problems you ran into, etc? Also: What version of Slash are you using? I couldn't tell from your original message. Exactly how did you build the apache/mod_perl source? Did you try the Apache 2.0 patch that was posted about on slashcode.com? Shane
Now that's terse! No greeting, no sign-off other than his name, and the message itself is just a series of questions phrased as compactly as possible. His one declarative sentence was an implicit criticism of my original message. And yet, I was happy to see Shane's mail, and didn't take his terseness as a sign of anything other than him being a busy person. The mere fact that he was asking questions, instead of ignoring my post, meant that he was willing to spend some time on my problem.
Will all readers react positively to this style? Not necessarily; it depends on the person and the context. For example, if someone has just posted acknowledging that she made a mistake (perhaps she wrote a bug), and you know from past experience that this person tends to be a bit insecure, then while you may still write a compact response, you should make sure to leaven it with some sort of acknowledgment of her feelings. The bulk of your response might be a brief, engineer's-eye analysis of the situation, as terse as you want. But at the end, sign off with something indicating that your terseness is not to be taken as coldness. For example, if you've just given reams of advice about exactly how the person should fix the bug, then sign off with "Good luck, <your name here>" to indicate that you wish them well and are not mad. A strategically placed smiley face or other emoticlue can often be enough to reassure an interlocutor, too.
It may seem odd to focus as much on the participant's feelings as on the surface of what they say, but to put it baldly, feelings affect productivity. Feelings are important for other reasons too, but even confining ourselves to purely utilitarian grounds, we may note that unhappy people write worse software, and less of it. Given the restricted nature of most electronic media, though, there will often be no overt clue as to how a person is feeling. You will have to make an educated guess based on a) how most people would feel in that situation, and b) what you know of this particular person from past interactions. Some people prefer a more hands-off attitude, and simply deal with everyone at face value, the idea being that if a participant doesn't say outright that she feels a particular way, then one has no business treating her as though she does. I don't buy this approach, for a couple of reasons. One, people don't behave that way in real life, so why would they online? Two, since most interactions take place in public forums, people tend to be even more restrained in expressing emotions than they might be in private. To be more precise, they are often willing to express emotions directed at others, such as gratitude or outrage, but not emotions directed inwardly, such as insecurity or pride. Yet most humans work better when they know that others are aware of their state of mind. By paying attention to small clues, you can usually guess right most of the time, and motivate people to stay involved to a greater degree than they otherwise might.
I don't mean, of course, that your role is to be a group therapist, constantly helping everyone to get in touch with their feelings. But by paying careful attention to long-term patterns in people's behavior, you will begin to get a sense of them as individuals even if you never meet them face-to-face. And by being sensitive to the tone of your own writing, you can have a surprising amount of influence over how others feel, to the ultimate benefit of the project.
One of the defining characteristics of open source culture is its distinctive notions of what does and does not constitute rudeness. While the conventions described below are not unique to free software development, nor even to software in general—they would be familiar to anyone working in mathematics, the hard sciences, or engineering disciplines—free software, with its porous boundaries and constant influx of newcomers, is an environment where these conventions are especially likely to be encountered by people unfamiliar with them.
Let's start with the things that are not rude:
Technical criticism, even when direct and unpadded, is not rude. Indeed, it can be a form of flattery: the critic is saying, by implication, that the target is worth taking seriously, and is worth spending some time on. That is, the more viable it would have been to simply ignore someone's post, the more of a compliment it becomes to take the time to criticize it (unless the critique descends into an ad hominem attack or some other form of obvious rudeness, of course).
Blunt, unadorned questions, such as Shane's questions to me in the previously quoted email, are not rude either. Questions that in other contexts might seem cold, rhetorical, or even mocking, are often intended seriously, and have no hidden agenda other than eliciting information as quickly as possible. The famous technical support question "Is your computer plugged in?" is a classic example of this. The support person really does need to know if your computer is plugged in, and after the first few days on the job, has gotten tired of prefixing her question with polite blandishments ("I beg your pardon, I just want to ask a few simple questions to rule out some possibilities. Some of these might seem pretty basic, but bear with me..."). At this point, she doesn't bother with the padding anymore, she just asks straight out: is it plugged in or not? Equivalent questions are asked all the time on free software mailing lists. The intent is not to insult the recipient, but to quickly rule out the most obvious (and perhaps most common) explanations. Recipients who understand this and react accordingly win points for taking a broad-minded view without prompting. But recipients who react badly should not be reprimanded, either. It's just a collision of cultures, not anyone's fault. Explain amiably that your question (or criticism) had no hidden meanings; it was just meant to get (or transmit) information as efficiently as possible, nothing more.
So what is rude?
By the same principle under which detailed technical criticism is a form of flattery, failure to provide quality criticism can be a kind of insult. I don't mean simply ignoring someone's work, be it proposal, code change, new issue filing, or whatever. Unless you explicitly promised a detailed reaction in advance, it's usually okay to simply not react at all. People will assume you just didn't have time to say anything. But if you do react, don't skimp: take the time to really analyze things, provide concrete examples where appropriate, dig around in the archives to find related posts from the past, etc. Or if you don't have time to put in that kind of effort, but still need to write some sort of brief response, then state the shortcoming openly in your message ("I think there's an issue filed for this, but unfortunately didn't have time to search for it, sorry"). The main thing is to recognize the existence of the cultural norm, either by fulfilling it or by openly acknowledging that one has fallen short this time. Either way, the norm is strengthened. But failing to meet that norm, while at the same time not explaining why you failed to meet it, is like saying the topic (and those participating in it) was not worth much of your time. Better to show that your time is valuable by being terse than by being lazy.
There are many other forms of rudeness, of course, but most of them are not specific to free software development, and common sense is a good enough guide to avoid them. See also “Nip Rudeness in the Bud” in Kapitel 2, Getting Started, if you haven't already.
There is a region in the human brain devoted specifically to recognizing faces. It is known informally as the "fusiform face area," and its capabilities are mostly inborn, not learned. It turns out that recognizing individual people is such a crucial survival skill that we have evolved specialized hardware to do it.
Internet-based collaboration is therefore psychologically odd, because it involves tight cooperation between human beings who almost never get to identify each other by the most natural, intuitive methods: facial recognition first of all, but also sound of voice, posture, etc. To compensate for this, try to use a consistent screen name everywhere. It should be the front part of your email address (the part before the @-sign), your IRC username, your repository committer name, your issue tracker username, and so on. This name is your online "face": a short identifying string that serves some of the same purpose as your real face, although it does not, unfortunately, stimulate the same built-in hardware in the brain.
The screen name should be some intuitive permutation of your real name (mine, for example, is "kfogel"). In some situations it will be accompanied by your full name anyway, for example in mail headers:
From: "Karl Fogel" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Actually, there are two things going on in that example. As mentioned earlier, the screen name matches the real name in an intuitive way. But also, the real name is real. That is, it's not some made-up appellation like:
From: "Wonder Hacker" <email@example.com>
There's a famous cartoon by Paul Steiner, from the July 5, 1993 issue of The New Yorker, that shows one dog logged into a computer terminal, looking down and telling another conspiratorially: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This kind of thought probably lies behind a lot of the self-aggrandizing, meant-to-be-hip online identities people give themselves—as if calling oneself "Wonder Hacker" will actually cause people to believe one is a wonderful hacker. But the fact remains: even if no one knows you're a dog, you're still a dog. A fantastical online identity never impresses readers. Instead, it makes them think you're more into image than substance, or that you're simply insecure. Use your real name for all interactions, or if for some reason you require anonymity, then make up a name that sounds like a perfectly normal real name, and use it consistently.
In addition to keeping your online face consistent, there are some things you can do to make it more attractive. If you have an official title (e.g., "doctor", "professor", "director"), don't flaunt it, nor even mention it except when it's directly relevant to the conversation. Hackerdom in general, and free software culture in particular, tends to view title displays as exclusionary and a sign of insecurity. It's okay if your title appears as part of a standard signature block at the end of every mail you send, just don't ever use it as a tool to bolster your position in a discussion—the attempt is guaranteed to backfire. You want folks to respect the person, not the title.
Speaking of signature blocks: keep them small and tasteful, or better yet, nonexistent. Avoid large legal disclaimers tacked on to the end of every mail, especially when they express sentiments incompatible with participation in a free software project. For example, the following classic of the genre appears at the end of every post a particular user makes to a public mailing list I'm on:
IMPORTANT NOTICE If you have received this e-mail in error or wish to read our e-mail disclaimer statement and monitoring policy, please refer to the statement below or contact the sender. This communication is from Deloitte & Touche LLP. Deloitte & Touche LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC303675. A list of members' names is available for inspection at Stonecutter Court, 1 Stonecutter Street, London EC4A 4TR, United Kingdom, the firm's principal place of business and registered office. Deloitte & Touche LLP is authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority. This communication and any attachments contain information which is confidential and may also be privileged. It is for the exclusive use of the intended recipient(s). If you are not the intended recipient(s) please note that any form of disclosure, distribution, copying or use of this communication or the information in it or in any attachments is strictly prohibited and may be unlawful. If you have received this communication in error, please return it with the title "received in error" to IT.SECURITY.UK@deloitte.co.uk then delete the email and destroy any copies of it. E-mail communications cannot be guaranteed to be secure or error free, as information could be intercepted, corrupted, amended, lost, destroyed, arrive late or incomplete, or contain viruses. We do not accept liability for any such matters or their consequences. Anyone who communicates with us by e-mail is taken to accept the risks in doing so. When addressed to our clients, any opinions or advice contained in this e-mail and any attachments are subject to the terms and conditions expressed in the governing Deloitte & Touche LLP client engagement letter. Opinions, conclusions and other information in this e-mail and any attachments which do not relate to the official business of the firm are neither given nor endorsed by it.
For someone who's just showing up to ask a question now and then, that huge disclaimer looks a bit silly but probably doesn't do any lasting harm. However, if this person wanted to participate actively in the project, that legal boilerplate would start to have a more insidious effect. It would send at least two potentially destructive signals: first, that this person doesn't have full control over his tools—he's trapped inside some corporate mailer that tacks an annoying message to the end of every email, and he hasn't got any way to route around it—and second, that he has little or no organizational support for his free software activities. True, the organization has clearly not banned him outright from posting to public lists, but it has made his posts look distinctly unwelcoming, as though the risk of letting out confidential information must trump all other priorities.
If you work for an organization that insists on adding such signature blocks to all outgoing mail, then consider getting a free email account from, for example, gmail.google.com, www.hotmail.com, or www.yahoo.com, and using that as your address for the project.
 There has been some interesting academic research on this topic; for example, see Group Awareness in Distributed Software Development by Gutwin, Penner, and Schneider (this used to be available online, but seems to have disappeared, at least temporarily; use a search engine to find it).