RE: Creativity and Single Sourcing

Subject: RE: Creativity and Single Sourcing
From: Martha J Davidson <editrix -at- slip -dot- net>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1999 15:20:03 -0700

I've been enjoying this thread immensely. In the interest
of avoiding a "me too" post, I've abstained until now.

Four posters have said things that fit how I see the
creativity question, and I want to bounce off their
ideas and add my take on the whole thing.

First, Geoff Hart, whose post I didn't save, mentioned
that creativity is not necessarily free-form, but works
within a defined structure, or words to that effect.
This fits a phrase I've often used to describe how I see
technical writing, "creativity within constraint." I've
found that working within specified limits offers more
opportunity to be creative than if those limits were not
already there.

Then Sean Brierly wrote:
>However, a single-source doc (define doc as you will) sees all the
>creativity up front. Thereafter, writers must adhere to the format of the
>doc. Period.

Exactly the sort of constraint I mentioned, though I believe
that rather than squelching my creativity, formats like this
provide more chance to be creative. In a single-sourced
document, I have to be more aware of how the information
will be used in all of its ultimate destinations, and therefore
more careful how I write it, so that it will work in a number
of contexts. I also have the chance to focus my content
on the audience and potential delivery methods, and with
judicious use of conditional text (or equivalent formatting)
I can craft my text to suit the situation.

>Do you want your fire department to fight each fire in a separate way for
>the sole purpose of expressing some "creative" urge?

Actually, if I were caught inside a burning building, I would
be grateful for every ounce of creativity the fire fighters
could muster so that they could find me and get us all
out of the building alive and as safely as possible. The last
thing I would want is someone who says, "the regulations
say I can only go into the building in this manner and
under these conditions," or whatever might be suggested
in fire-fighter training.

>Do you want an airline
>pilot to be free to express themselves with creativity in takeoff and

Again, I hope to fly with pilots who know enough about
weather conditions, mechanical failures, and other potential
glitches that they could handle their aircraft with whatever
level of creativity were required in unusual situations. The
more options a pilot has, and the more he or she knows
how and when to exercise those options, including doing
something that's never been done before if necessary,
the safer my flight will be.

This ties to Steve Jong's four types of adherence to rules:
>1. You don't break the rules.
>2. You break the rules because you don't know them.
>3. You break the rules because you know their limitations.
>4. You break the rules because you refuse to follow them.

As a technical writer, I've always done #3, and very much
prefer to work with others who do the same. And these
are the types of fire fighters and pilots I'd trust the most.
I think the same goes for pretty much any discipline.

Sean continues:
>Sure, if you want to call your chaotic technique of interviewing "creative,"
>go to town. But, after the style is settled and the writing begins, it's
>time to think less about creativity and more about getting the book done.

I think the word "chaotic" here is confusing. I agree
that it often takes a measure of creativity on my part
to identify the best questions to ask an engineer in
order to get a clear understanding of technical material
I am documenting. And it also takes creativity on my
part to choose the best way to describe complex
processes in the clearest way for my audience. It is
one thing to take words supplied by an engineer and
"make them pretty" (to tie this to an earlier thread);
it is an entirely different thing to digest technical
information and to present it in a way that my
audience will find useful. Though I use established
practices ("use numbered lists for a series of
sequential steps" and the like) and a format
described by a style guide, I use every ounce of
creative energy I can find to choose the words
that accurately and clearly convey the principles.

And finally, Maggie Secara said:
>Creativity in our profession isn't about whimsical margin setting any more
>than it's about painting a mountain. It's about how we approach the subject
>matter and the task of communicating it. It's about figuring out how the
>damn thing works from an incomplete spec and a half-functioning prototype,
>and an engineer whose native tongue is not your own.

That's it in a nutshell.


Martha Jane {Kolman | Davidson}
Dances With Words
mailto:editrix -at- slip -dot- net

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?"
--Hillel, "Mishna, Sayings of the Fathers 1:13"

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