Creative tech writing: an oxymoron?

By on 3-17-2005 in Technical Writing

Records of a Rational Rustic: Technical Writing vs Creative Writing

Found this via my Technorati watchlist (which I can conveniently pull through Bloglines).

Ramdas S., the author, goes into some detail about the differences between creative writing and technical writing in terms of “creativity.”

There is a classic TECHWR-L argument in the making here, and it also happens to be one of my favorite arguments. Mainly because I do not think that so-called creative (i.e., fiction) writing and technical writing are diametrically opposed genres, if you will. Indeed, they are both creative forms; the differences lie in how that creativity manifests.

So, let’s pick things apart a bit. Just to keep things clear, I’m going to refer to Ramdas’ “creative writers” as fiction writers.

Ramdas says:

I know several engineers in India are being lured by the outsourced technical writing industry. It is indeed enticing since the monies offered are very good. However, a good ‘creative’ writer often feels frustrated when they enter into the world of technical writing.

I think this frustration stems not from the inherent differences in the conventions of creative and technical writing but in the self-perception that fiction writers often have that they are somehow “selling out.” I also think that this frustration results from the rigid view they often have that only fiction demands creativity and non-fiction demands anything but. Mind you, these opinions are based only on my experience of working with writers who’d rather be lounging at Starbucks all day with a laptop working on the Great American Sci-Fi Thriller than single-sourcing on deadline. For one (like me) who digs tech writing, working with someone who denigrates what you love because it is not what they love is a frustrating experience in itself.

Next, Ramdas says:

A creatively written literature need not be precise, concise or even useful. But the goal is that the reader enjoys reading the work, while the writer enjoys creating the piece of literature.

Hmmm…I disagree, to a point. Granted, creative work on its own need not be any of these things. But if it is to be successful, commercially and artistically, it must be all of these things in varying degrees. In my opinion, a good work of fiction needs to be precise in how it uses language. It needs to be concise in its narration (leaving the grand verbal demonstrations to the character dialog). And it needs to feed the soul of the reader (which is the ultimate case for usefulness). Fiction that meanders unnecessarily, that uses language inappropriately for the story it is telling, among other things, definitely does not feed my soul and I would imagine, it does not feed the soul of most others.

And this rather gets to the heart of what many people think creative writing is. Many people think that creative writing is undisciplined which could be true if quality were not a factor. But the fact is, good creative writing, whether fiction or technical, requires discipline.

Onward…

Next, Ramdas says:

Technical writing is creating literature that is easiest to understand for an average reader. Its aim is to present facts in a very precise, unambiguous, concise and useful manner. Simplicity in presentation even at the risk of sounding very bland is the founding principle of technical documentation. The only enjoyment a reader derives is that he understood the facts with minimum effort and reading a lot fewer words.

While I don’t dispute Ramdas’ description of technical writing, I do take issue with blandness and the reader’s enjoyment (or lack thereof) as a consequence.

I’m sure everyone has seen technical writing that could double as a non-narcotic cure for insomnia. I know I have. But I’ve also seen technical writing that’s been engaging and thought-provoking (Eric Meyer, God’s Gift to CSS, comes to mind). Conversely, I’ve also seen utterly bland fiction writing and fun, informal tech writing that did absolutely nothing for me as a reader. In both cases, I wanted to burn the book and crucify the author for daring to waste my time. The point here is, blandness isn’t the exclusive province of tech writing, just as thought-provoking or light prose isn’t the sole territory of fiction writing.

As for the reader’s enjoyment, Ramdas’ pallid description of it is a component in the overall effect (read: success) of both fiction and technical writing. True, most people aren’t going to come away from a how-to manual all fired up with hope for humanity. But if the how-to manual is well-written and it helps the reader accomplish his task, the reader will come away from the task a much happier person. Therein lies one difference between fiction and technical writing: fiction is its own universe while technical writing is a subset of the reader’s own universe. Thus fiction is allowed to become detailed and all-encompassing. Technical writing by contrast needs to impart info and get out of the way.

At any rate, I would argue that, first, most fiction readers can be assumed to be “average.” Sure, there’s some pretty high-brow fiction out there, but the stuff that actually makes in front of the most eyeballs is the middle-to-low-brow stuff. Prime examples: Harlequin romances and Stephen King. Thus, the aim of most contemporary fiction readers is aligned with the aim of readers of tech writing. In both cases, they want to know what’s going on with minimal effort. I have yet to meet a fiction reader who could tolerate languid descriptions and characterizations that go on for chapters at a time and still keep track of his place in the story at large.

Next:

Creative writers have no limitations in the usage of language and can make use of the hundred thousand words that make the English Language. To present a matter a creative writer can take any number of words. A creative writer is highly imaginative and has unlimited resources in language and vocabulary.

Umm…no. Fiction writers do have limitations in their usage of language; namely, the reader. Any writer, whether fiction or technical, wants to be read AND understood. Who cares how many words a fiction work uses, or how artfully those words are used, if the reader can’t make heads or tails of what is actually being said? To present a matter, the fiction writer cannot use as many words as he wants — at least, not if he wants to be published. No editor on earth would allow that. Instead, the fiction writer does as the technical writer does — he makes use of only those words that have the most impact in getting the author’s message across to the reader. In fact, depending on the format of the work (e.g., a short story published in a magazine), a fiction writer may also have space constraints. Being limited to 750 words can have a serious impact on the author’s use of language.

As for fiction writers being highly imaginative and having unlimited resources in language and vocabulary….well, if they’re any good, they are quite imaginative. Almost psychotically so. But here again, these things are not exclusive to fiction writers. Good technical writers must be just as imaginative and they must use all the language resources they can to get their message across in a way the reader understands.

Of course, this raises the question about the sort of imagination that is required for fiction writers vs. technical writers. The answer lies further back in my post, about the fiction work being the universe for the reader, and the technical work being a subset of the reader’s own universe. The fiction writer’s imagination takes advantage of the reader’s implied permission to entertain. Thus, the fiction writer is free to conjure as he will, setting his own context for the story, because the ultimate goal is the reader’s entertainment. The technical writer’s imagination takes advantage of the reader’s implied demand to “do the job and get the hell out of the way.” Because the goal here is not entertainment but achievement, the technical writer is not free to set his own context. Instead he must work within the reader’s context, and he must do so as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. Doing that effectively requires significant imagination from the technical writer.

Next:

For a technical writer words are a premium. He is a miser when it comes to his language resources, picking words carefully and using a very limited set of vocabulary. He is not enamored by the beauty of a word or phrase, and will prefer to use the simplest synonym that will not confuse a reader, instead of using a word that can make a sentence richer in terms of aesthetics.

Not always true. I’ve seen some tech writers who confuse tech writing with fiction, writing about things that don’t exist or in such a way that clearly demonstrates how enamored with words they truly are. Conversely, I’ve seen some fiction writers forget what fiction really means as they create flattened characters or boring stories.

But I would argue, primarily, that being a miser with words is not the exclusive domain of tech writers. Here again, using words effectively is the hallmark of good writing, fiction or technical. And here again, depending on the form (e.g., that short story in the magazine), the fiction writer may be required to use words sparingly yet still deliver an entertaining work.

Next:

Creative writer is not bothered about the structure of the literature he creates, nor does he pay attention to the language nuances. Creative writer enjoys the liberty of tweaking with the language grammar, without sounding obnoxious.

Wrong. Incorrect. Counterfactual. Erroneous. Dare I say, patently false.

I would argue that, if any type of writer were the most concerned about language nuances as well as the structure of the work, it would be the fiction writer. This goes back to my point about fiction being its own universe. How else can you, as the writer, effectively communicate what is going on in the universe you create if you do not structure it in a way that allows the reader to easily understand and follow along? How else can the reader enjoy your universe if you do not use language nuances to your advantage, to give your story a twist, an edge that excites the reader and persuades him to keep reading? What point is there to creating your universe if you do not care enough about the reader to make it easy and meaningful for him to spend time in that universe?

The world is full of nuances and if the fiction writer wishes to capture any of them in the universe he creates, he must pay attention to how they manifest in the language he uses.

As for the liberty of tweaking grammar, that’s usually called artistic license and is practiced equally by fiction writers and, in very limited circumstances, by technical writers.

Next:

Technical writers hate flowery language, euphemisms, catchy phrases, paraphrases, passive verbs, foreign language phrases/words and proverbs. Technical writers love the idea of a structured document and have a fetish for style sheets.

Not true. Good writers, fiction or technical, don’t use any of these things when it does not serve the reader. A technical writer writing a treatise for an academic journal might use any or all of these things because 1) it’s what the reader expects to see, and 2) it gets the message across to the reader effectively.

Regarding the love of a structured document and a fetish for style sheets, all I can say is, Ramdas needs to get out more.

And finally:

Creative writers thrives on emotions of the reader, trying to navigate him thorough surprises, fears, suspense, humor.
Technical writer presents facts in a manner where the only emotion a reader feel is a sense of comprehension.

Here again, this goes back to what I said about fiction being its own universe and tech writing being a subset of the reader’s own universe.

If the fiction writer can take the reader on such an emotional ride, it is because the reader wishes it in his wish to be entertained. Of course, that same reader does not wish to be entertained when he has to crack open a manual to figure out his new digital camera. Instead, he wants to accomplish something. So, he invites the tech writer into his universe and says, “Help me do this.” But the tech writer cannot dictate as the fiction writer does. Instead, the tech writer must work within the confines of the reader’s perceptions, using words and structures that the reader will expect naturally.

Thus in fiction, the work itself is the reason for the reader’s emotional reaction. But in tech writing, the ease of accomplishment, not the technical work itself, is the reason for the reader’s emotional reaction.

Anyway, the long and short of it is, the things that seem to define only “creative” (aka fiction) writing really apply to all writing regardless of genre or form. And anyone who writes must adhere to them in some way if they want to be read, understood, and shared.

Otherwise, what’s the point?