Creativity in Technical Communications (long)

Subject: Creativity in Technical Communications (long)
From: Steven Jong <SteveFJong -at- AOL -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 27 Mar 1997 11:53:32 -0500

I know about the issue of quality versus creativity in technical
communication. "Creativity" can be a code word for "I gotta be me;"
"standards" can be a code word for "ossification."

Where do I stand on the issue? That's a complicated question. I'll put my
creative credentials up against anybody's. I'm the person who included a
complete set of pen-and-ink cartoons--humorous cartoons--in a technical
overview of a major player's network-management product, because I believed,
as did Engineering, that they more vividly illustrated the concepts I was
trying to introduce than anything I could write. (They weren't my cartoons,
by the way.) I won the battle, and there were zero customer complaints. I'm
the person who brings structured documentation methodologies with me; I've
been promoted for it.

But there's another side to the issue. When I started, I had lots of ideas
that I thought were better than what I saw around me, and I fought for them.
I enjoyed some successes (I still do), and saw some of my ideas become the
standard. Over time I've became more responsible for the work of others, and
I've developed a vested interest in seeing that everyone's work was of a
consistent high standard--okay, maybe sometimes my standard, but not
necessarily. If "creative" only means "doing it my way," then how do you know
it's better? Sometimes the results are demonstrably worse. Without a common
framework of measurement, a change is just a random jump in a different
direction, as likely to make things worse as better. (Dr. Deming, the God of
Quality, enjoyed ridiculing such strategies.)

One way to measure the effectiveness of creative ideas is to see how well
they serve our overarching purposes--communicating clearly, reaching our
audience. For example, you probably wouldn't want to switch to a jazzy new
font or an odd paper size without considering the standards (the rules) about
readability and print cost.

I've been a judge in my STC chapter's publications competition. This year I
judged a technical document that creatively used humor. My reluctant judgment
was that it just wasn't funny. Yet before you label me a curmudgeon, two
years ago I judged a quick-reference cube--yes, a plastic cube, with common
procedures summarized on each face--for a videoconferencing product. It was
meant to sit on the table next to the camera. Let me tell you, that piece was
hotly debated! Some judges wanted to award it nothing; I was blown away by
its creativity, but also by its utility. (I argued that it was the first
technical document I ever wanted to steal 8^) Our chapter compromised and
gave it an award of Excellence (the second highest level), but when we
forwarded it to the international STC competition it won a Distinguished
award (the highest level). And yet some would have rejected it outright!
Creativity is an eternal struggle.

They say you can't do good creative fiction writing without having read great
books (a sin I'm trying to atone for now); it's hard to solve a problem (say,
controlling distance between the reader and a character) creatively if you
have no idea that it's even an issue, let alone how Jane Austen or Henry
James approached it. Without a well-grounded background you're just spinning
your wheels--not standing on the shoulders of giants but trying to replicate
the climb. Analogously, being "creative" in technical communication without
understanding the underlying principles and standards could lead you to
struggle "creatively" with standard elements like layout or boilerplate text
when we really need for them to be identical, or hand-coding one document in
HTML when we really need a hundred translated to a consistent standard. They
say knowing the rules liberates us from worrying about them. Learn the rules
first, then transcend them!

-- Steve

Steven Jong, Documentation Group Leader ("Typo? What tpyo?")
Lightbridge, Inc, 281 Winter St., Waltham, MA 02154 USA
<jong -at- lightbridge -dot- com>, 617.672.4902 [voice], 617.890.2681 [FAX]
Home Sweet Home--

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