Is technical writing creative?

Do you find it more difficult to put a document together when you’re not feeling all that motivated? I do. That’s because technical writing is a creative endeavour. You need a bit of flair to write those low-fat, high-fibre, not-entirely-sugar-free documents.

Some people may think technical writing is dry, boring and mundane. I don’t find that. It’s challenging and rewarding, and gets you in the zone as much as any other creative activity.

You need to engage the imaginative side of your brain to find the right words, to cut out the dross, and most importantly to put yourself in the place of your reader. Auto-generated documentation definitely has its place. But the best Javadoc includes some human-spawned words, clarifying the purpose and context of a class, method, etc.

After all, our readers are human, not machine. If machines did everything, there’d be no need for documentation. Or chocolate. Or anything.

Back to the trees

It’s a while since I’ve put a picture of a tree on my blog. What do trees have to do with documentation? Well, stretching for a connection: From time immemorial people have been writing on bark ;)

I was out walking in the Ozzie bush this morning. Here’s an Old Man Banksia, being as picturesque and in-the-moment as they always are:

Is technical writing creative?

Is technical writing creative?

Here’s a gum tree in flower, with a rainbow lorikeet soaking up the zen:

Is technical writing creative?

Is technical writing creative?

Here’s the same tree, with Sydney city in the background and the lorikeet leaving:

Is technical writing creative?

Is technical writing creative?

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About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 14 February 2009, in technical writing, trees. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I think the most creative aspect of Tech Writing is when you are trying to put a user-friendly gloss on a feature that is actually a kludge (AKA a hack!).

    Of course, this very rarely happens at the software company where I work!

  2. Ha ha, good one shaneb. Been there, done that too!

    I’ve just paid a visit to your blog at A Harmless Fraud — great stuff! Fun and interesting at the same time. It moved me to tweet ;)

  3. Thanks for the “tweet” and generous comment, Sarah.

    In a “mutually supportive” gesture, can I say I like *your* blog. I came across it as I’m trying to muster evidence to persuade the higher-ups to move on from the era of FrameMaker/PDFs to something radical…like a Wiki.

  4. Really nice post. There are lots of creative aspects to doing technical writing.

    One thing you didn’t mention, documenting vaporware. I have some clients whose software never works while I’m documenting it. I have to rely on the developers to tell me what would have happened if it had worked. In fact, I quite often write fiction as a technical writer!

  5. LOL, that’s a really good point Charlene, and written with such a delightful tongue-in-cheek style. Yes, you’re right. There have been times when I’ve had to document a feature which wasn’t there yet. Sometimes I’ve had to pull the documentation out of the publication batch at the last minute, because the feature didn’t make it into the release.

    Where I am now, the first situation doesn’t tend to happen. We’re an agile shop, so we do software and documentation in small chunks. Usually, there’s enough of a feature ready for documentation in time for each release. And if the actual released product is a bit different from the one documented, we’re lucky because all our documentation is on a wiki so it’s easy to change.

    It’s cool that you have such an artistic bent and you’re a technical writer in your other life. Just the right person to comment on this blog post ;)

  6. While I’m not a technical writer by title, I have been a communications consultant to a number of corporate IT systems rollouts that benefited from a more user-friendly editorial cleansing from myself.

    Even the simple description of how to log on to a web-based app. can kill the adoption rate among users if done poorly and without regard to how the average person thinks.

    For this reason alone, it’s nice to be able to employ my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing!

    -Tom Roux
    Editor-at-Large | The Business Insider (www.TimRosaBlog.com)

  7. Hallo Tom, you are so right about the importance of even the simplest bit of “how to” documentation. Especially the bit that tells people how to log on!

    Heh, I wonder how many of us technical writers / communicators have dabbled in creative writing too. There’s some lurking in my past — three novels (not published) and a few humorous articles (published in various magazines).

  8. Re: Charlene’s comment about documenting vaporware — I call this “speculative nonfiction”. Another situation where speculative writing can be handy is when the developers won’t give you any information: just make something up and ask them to review it; you’ll all kinds of useful information in the form of corrections. Of course, this assumes that the developers actually do review your docs. If not, you risk actually publishing fiction.

  9. Re Janet’s comment — we sometimes joke that on our newer, “Agile Development” projects, we are actually creative fiction writers disguised as tech writers.

    But yes, there is usually something documentable available at release. And you have to be creative to put a good face on it at times, knowing that the next iteration will work and look better, and you’ll have to write something new.

  10. Excellent points from Janet and tamwriting, thank you! We technical writers often find ourselves creating a straw man document, based on minimal input. Seeing stuff written down in an organised way actually helps the engineers to nut out the final details. The documentation shows the process which the end users will have to follow when using the new feature, which in turn may result in changes or additions to the feature. This is especially true in an agile environment.

    I guess, if the feature doesn’t quite match the documentation on release date, we can always claim that the butler done it ;)

  11. It feels so great to hear the comments and realise that why all technical writers think the same way even when poles apart.

    That means there is certainly some creativity while being technical :)

  12. Hallo Vinish,
    Yes, it’s great to be one of the world-wide community of tech writers. We’re such interesting and adventurous people ;) I was reading through your recent blog posts, and came across this one, where you say:
    “There is a huge misconception that people in IT do not lead happening-interesting lives, particularly technical writers…”. LOL :)
    Cheers, Sarah

  13. Great article! Through techical writing, you can explore new dimentions and it will bring your wild imagination to create new things.

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