Re: Creativity in Technical Communications (short)

Subject: Re: Creativity in Technical Communications (short)
From: "Wayne J. Douglass" <wayned -at- VERITY -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 28 Mar 1997 09:17:24 -0800

At 05:05 PM 3/27/97 -0800, Jim Purcell wrote:
>> There is still plenty of room in technical writing for creativity and
>> imagination, if not for art. All technical writing is essentially a
>> narrative, and the reader is an evolving character in the narrative.
>> It's just that our narratives are on the prosaic side: computer user
>> with unsaved file ends up with saved file. EPA official gains
>> understanding of the impact a new water treatment facility will have
>> on a community. Not as glamorous as getting Elizabeth Bennett to the
>> altar, to be sure, but it's the same principle, pursued with more
>> single-mindedness: we attempt to get our character, in this case the
>> reader, from point A to point B, and we use all the rhetorical devices
>> at our disposal to do so. The intersection of writerly creativity and
>> technical problem solving is what makes this profession so
>> interesting, don't you think?
Well, not really. Technical writing is exposition, not narrative; we explain
things rather than tell a story. Follow a recipe in a cookbook and you end
up with a dish, but I wouldn't call that a story either.

Nor do we "use all the rhetorical devices at our disposal." We deliberately
use a very limited subset in the interest of clarity and easy translation
into other languages - hence the "prosaic" character of our writing (another
post in this thread used the word "gray"). We avoid remarkable, gnarly
sentences like the opening of Robert Frost's "Directive" ("Back out of all
this now too much for us"). Our writing is indeed "without ornamentation,"
as you quite rightly put it in a passage I excised.

Like other journalistic endeavors, we rely on boilerplate formulas to
organize lots of information quickly and clearly. The inverted pyramid is to
news reporting what procedure writing is to technical communication (hence
the thread on "appears" v. "displays" on this list). And we usually suppress
our individual stylistic quirks in order to follow a "house style" that
further contributes to the sameness of our work.

So we make a virtue out of our self-imposed limitations and produce good
work in spite of them. Writing in a style that doesn't call attention to
itself is harder than it looks. Dwight MacDonald, one of my favorite
writers, once said that making a lot of money was child's play compared to
writing a good sentence. But writing good sentences is basis of everything
that we do. Elaborate text formatting applications, fancy graphics,
hypertext documents, and whiz-bang multimedia are amusing distractions from
that bedrock (whoops - used a metaphor there).

--Wayne Douglass

Verity, Inc. Email: wayned -at- verity -dot- com
894 Ross Drive Telephone: 408-542-2139
Sunnyvale, CA 94089 Facsimile: 408-542-2040
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