Creative technical writing

Subject: Creative technical writing
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Mon, 31 Mar 1997 09:14:57 -0600

Rachael Schumacher wondered whether there was a place for
creativity in technical writing. Rachael, the answer is a
qualified yes, but probably not the "yes" that you were
looking for. There are two main types of creativity
involved in technical writing: problem-solving creativity,
and stylistic creativity. (I'll omit the simple--hah!--act
of putting words on paper... that's certainly creative, but
since we all agree on that, we needn't discuss that.)

Problem solving is where we do most of our creative work:
learning to understand something complex, and figuring out
how to express it simply and concisely so that our readers
don't have to do all that hard work. It can be a true
challenge, particularly when you're stuck with documenting
something that is--to be blunt--counterintuitive or too
complex to explain simply. (Been there, trying to do that.)

Stylistic creativity is permitted but not encouraged in
technical writing. We assume that our audience reads to
learn how to do something, or to solve a problem, not for
entertainment; creative, elaborate writing styles generally
impede comprehension. The "Windows for Dummies" (redundant,
but a nice quote nonetheless! <grin, duck and run>) series
of books may be creative writing, but that's stretching the
information. A focus on reader goals, not our own need for
self-expression, is what sets technical writing apart from
all other forms of writing. Not even Shakespeare could make
an assembly manual or software docs both entertaining and
effective... though having said that, I anticipate numerous
parodies from list members in response. ("To click, or to
press? That is the question! Whether 'tis more active in
the voice to...", "Above all else, to thy grounding strap
be true... for thus it follows, as the night the day, that
thou shalt not fry thy DIMM packages like eggs in the sun
shouldst thou hap to carry a static charge.")

Having said that, I have seen _one_ good example of a
creative, entertaining manual: the instructions for
software called "The Incredible Machine" (have I got the
right name?). The software lets you build a series of Rube
Goldberg problem-solving machines using a variety of "off
the shelf" equipment... and the manual is written in the
form of a mad scientist's lab notebook. So far as I know,
it works just fine for the intended audience (I loved
it)... so the moral of my story is that it pays to know
your audience. In this case, they want both instruction
_and_ entertainment, and thus a more creative approach
works just fine.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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