A few months ago on his blog, Tom Johnson asked whether plain language in technical writing deepens or weakens our delight in language. It’s a relevant question, especially if you happen to be (as I am) a technical writer who loves literature and creative writing.
Tom begins by explaining how reviewing his wife’s academic essays puts him in front of vocabulary he would never use in technical documentation. He writes:
The difference in style between academic essays and technical documentation isn’t anything new. But I’m a bit troubled by it. After working many years in tech comm, much of my wife’s vocabulary is no longer part of my lexicon. I’m constantly going to the dictionary to look up words when reviewing her essays. It makes me feel out of step with my English BA and MFA background.
More importantly, in giving up these words, I have a sense of having lost something — my delight in language, in learning new words, and in reading and enjoying the eloquence of an author. Now when I read an author who uses more sophisticated language, I find myself asking, couldn’t the writer have expressed this in a simpler way? Why use that word instead of a more familiar one? My distraction with the language often poisons my attitude toward the content and author.
Indeed, when you spend so many hours of your day using a style that calls for simple terms in place of complex ones, it’s only natural to feel less affinity for more elaborate forms of expression. Tom wonders:
Has operating in simplified vocabulary for years on end made us essentially sub-lingual and hostile to literary or academic discourses? On a deeper level, does our limited language (900 allowed vocabulary words) trap us in simple thoughts?
I have wondered the same thing after coming home from a long day of technical writing and forcing myself to write fiction. I have wondered it in those infuriating moments when I grasp for the right words to evoke a scene, conversation, or conflict.
In fact, I find the experience of technical writing and creative writing so different that I started asking myself a larger question: are these forms of writing antithetical?
Tom points out (and rightly so) that the premium placed on plain language in technical writing is a feature of the profession, not a bug. Even if we lament that it tends to dampen our interest in eloquence, we can value how it serves as a corrective to the preponderance of opaque prose in the world that hinders understanding.
Likewise, Tom observes that the use of sophisticated terminology in literature and academic writing is not some systemic flaw. Such usage can be a legitimate way of identifying yourself as a member of a discourse community that expects complex vocabulary and grapples with complex ideas. Besides, novelists and essayists often like to have fun with language, and their rhetorical situation grants them this freedom.
Another compelling point was made by Mark Baker, a recognized thought leader in the field. In his comment on Tom’s post, he argues that story and audience are ultimately what matter, and that the real issue is using terms or phrases that distract your particular readers from the story you’re telling. Sometimes esoteric terms and phrases are better than simpler ones because they encapsulate shared assumptions with your audience which you don’t need to waste time unpacking.
“Good writing,” he concludes, “is using the words that tell the right story in the most economical way for the present audience. That is consistent whether we are talking about technical writing, scholarly essays, or fiction.”
Given these points, can we really say that technical writing and creative writing are antithetical? In one sense, no. Both share the same generic rhetorical concerns. Clarity, audience, purpose, style, structure, organization—technical and creative writers alike are intimately familiar with these categories and could converse about them ad nauseum.
But in another very important sense, yes. The different kinds of stories we write, and the different kinds of audiences we write for, can and very often do have very little in common beyond the generic rhetorical principles which undergird them. No one reads a software user manual in the same way they read The Call of the Wild. While we might expect clarity from both, we expect the former to inform us and the latter to provoke and entertain us.
Here are just a few salient differences between technical and creative writing, as I see them:
- Whereas the content of technical writing is generally factual and straightforward, the content of creative fiction is generally imaginative, evocative, and metaphorical.
- Whereas the style of technical writing is often standardized and formal, the style of creative writing is often figurative and artistic.
- Whereas technical writers often have a very specific audience in mind for their writing, creative writers tend to have a more general audience in mind.
In other words, while both forms of writing reside on the same continuum of expression (along with journalism, academic writing, poetry, and so on), they are rather distant from each other on that continuum. If you spend the vast majority of your time doing one, it will be difficult to switch hats and do the other.
Let me hasten to add some qualifications. Yes, writing plain, direct language is fine (depending on your story and audience), just as writing sophisticated, elaborate prose is fine (depending on your story and audience). Neither kind is inherently superior to the other. And it’s true that technical writing requires creativity and is concerned with elegance and beauty, just as creative writing can lead an author to write highly technical descriptions.
But being good at technical writing doesn’t mean you will compose excellent fiction any more than writing great novels means you will craft effective user guides. In my past experience as a tech comm hiring manager, I rarely saw a candidate with a creative writing background who could write effective technical documents. Emphasis on rarely. It’s possible, just uncommon. Your ability to switch between these forms depends a great deal on how much time you spend writing in each of them, how well you understand their features and rhetorical differences, and, no doubt, what your reading habits are.
It’s worth expanding on this thesis by considering a few specific categories and examples. Of course, much of this is based on my personal observations and experience. I’d be curious to hear from other writers who frequently cross these genres.
Creative writers must organize large amounts of information: scenes, chapters, characters, plots, backstories, research, etc. Even the most ardent proponent of stream of consciousness cannot escape this fact. As creative writing professor Colum McCann put it: “To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.”
I used to think that story structure would be one area where my organizational skills as a technical writer would go a long way. After all, technical writers analyze and wrangle large, complex volumes of information on a regular basis. We create fancy models for large documents and online content management systems. We think of the best ways to guide readers from one section to the next. If a term or product name changes, we update it consistently wherever it is used, often across hundreds of pages. If a new concept or feature emerges … you get the idea.
And yet there is a massive difference in how creative and technical writers organize the information at their disposal.
Leaving aside exceptions like interactive storytelling and video games with branching dialog, creative writers produce material that is meant to be experienced linearly. This is the case even in novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, where events are presented out of chronological order. By contrast, technical writers produce content that is topical, modular, and task-driven so that it can support linear as well as non-linear user experiences. Even when they create hierarchical documents with “chapters” and a clear introduction and conclusion—an increasingly rare situation due to the growing adoption of non-hierarchical online content systems—they know in their hearts, however much it hurts to admit it, that their readers will almost always search for, scan, or jump to a section of interest in a sort of iterative, haphazard fashion.
This difference has significant implications for organization. Technical writers have to consider what terms a user will search for, how to create scannable headings and lists, and how to keep each topic freestanding in case a reader arrives at it from an unexpected entry point (what Mark Baker calls the “Every Page Is Page One” principle). Your average creative writer cares not one whit for any of these things. They focus instead on sequences like hook, rising action, and denouement.
Put in grossly simplistic terms: technical writers organize for findability and ease of use; creative writers organize for dramatic effect.
This isn’t to say that a technical writer’s organizational skills are worthless to the creative writing process. I personally have little trouble with creative tasks like outlining a chapter and keeping track of lore and other background details. Additionally, my experience with ensuring order and consistency across large sets of technical content has helped me when making creative choices that affect the order and consistency of a complex narrative.
Nevertheless, structuring content for dramatic effect is difficult to master if you’re accustomed to composing modular topics in support of non-linear human interaction. Conversely, if you’re used to linear chapters with minimal formatting, you have to make a big mental adjustment to design freestanding topics that are interlinked with other freestanding topics, few of which will be read in the way you might intend.
Fictional stories almost always include some measure of exposition or backstory about the setting and characters. This aspect of fiction is not always viewed with excitement. As Stephen King said in On Writing, “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”
Still, exposition is inevitable to some degree, and it often involves distilling complex ideas in terms a reader can understand. Consider for instance chapter 7 of The Once and Future King, which has an exquisite exposition on the technical complexities of jousting. In The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss uses the first-person voice of Kvothe and other characters to tell you about the intricacies of sygaldry, library catalog systems, and the subtle art of buying a horse. Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon has numerous passages on advanced mathematical theories. In Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein describes mobile infantry mech suits in such a relatable way that by the time he’s done, you almost feel like you’re wearing one.
I do sometimes find that the expository component of creative writing comes easier given my technical writing background. This is because I face the following kind of scenario almost every day: “Here’s what X is and how to use it, in words that aren’t from another planet.”
For some good examples of what I mean, check out the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. (I have 3.5 Edition on hand, but any edition will do. Or see the D20 Reference site for online examples.) At first blush the book seems like a dense, soul-sucking tome of technical explanations and reference tables. But if you sit down and read the book patiently, you’ll find a conversational-yet-structured vocabulary that explains the game’s complex rule system in an orderly, friendly way. This is expository writing at its finest, and technical writers know it well.
But the Player’s Handbook is not a novel, and its manner of explanation does not translate precisely to expositions in creative writing. An author may dive straight into a simple paragraph-style exposition, but will often add humor and colloquialisms to keep things engaging. Other times they weave the exposition between bits of action, or fuse it with character dialog so that you hardly recognize it for what it is. They rarely if ever use structured formatting (tables, lists, subheadings) or pictures. It is very different with technical writers. The closest they get to dialog is writing FAQs or developing training tutorials that involve characters and scripts. Humor and colloquialisms, while occasionally used, are uncommon because they risk ambiguity and don’t translate well into other languages. So while exposition is undoubtedly an area of overlap, it is by no means a straightforward match.
Show, don’t tell. Everyone who’s written a story has probably heard this phrase at least once in their life.
In Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques, novelist and professor James Hynes calls this convention evocation: the use of detailed, visceral descriptions so that readers feel as if they’re actually in the story. “For me,” says Hynes, “the idea of evocation is at the heart of all fiction. It’s the thing that makes it work, that makes it memorable, that allows a fictional story and imaginary characters to lodge themselves ineradicably in a reader’s head.” He goes on to add this critical point: “When the writer is evoking something for the reader, she is drawing it out of the reader, not simply telling the reader something. She is engaging the reader’s imagination and reminding her of something from his or her life.”
Creative writers pull this off in all sorts of ways, from metaphors and similes, to artful synonyms and nouns, to compelling character conversations and vivid scenes. As an example, consider this charming passage from The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons:
Low, orange grass—if grass it was—grew on the flatlands and low hills like fuzz on the back of some immense caterpillar, while things which might have been trees grew like whispered-carbon sculptures, their trunks and branches Escher-ish, their leaves a riot of dark blue and violet ovals shimmering toward a sky alive with light.
Or this elegant excerpt from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas:
The entire chamber was lined with crimson brocade, worked with flowers of gold. In a recess was a kind of divan, surmounted with a stand of Arabian swords in silver scabbards, and the handles resplendent with gems; from the ceiling hung a lamp of Venetian glass, of beautiful shape and color, while the feet rested on a Turkey carpet, in which they sunk to the instep; tapestry hung before the door by which Franz had entered, and also in front of another door, leading into a second apartment which seemed to be brilliantly illuminated.
Do technical writers evoke scenes like this in their daily jobs? No. Certainly they describe things, such as the features of a product or system, the results of a test, or a multi-phase engineering process. But they do not do this in the same way a creative writer would, nor for the same reasons.
Descriptions in technical writing tend to be direct and objective, knowing that the reader is most likely in a rush and not in the best of moods by the time they open a manual or a report. They often follow a prescribed stylistic pattern, with minimum sentence variation, so as to require less cognitive effort. Tables, ordered lists, diagrams, and even videos are commonplace. When multiple detailed paragraphs are necessary (as in long-form reports or proposals), technical writers generally stick with a direct style and avoid elaborate sentences, synonyms, or metaphors.
Now this doesn’t mean technical writers are restricted to writing dry, soporific sludge. We often write in a conversational style, and we can use similes or metaphors to get our point across. Nevertheless, our average rhetorical situation is such that there is little reason to engage in the ornament or play that is characteristic of evocation.
Take this description of wiki spaces from the Atlassian online help:
Spaces are Confluence’s way of organizing content into meaningful categories. Think of it like having different folders into which you can put your work.
Spaces come in two main varieties:
- Site spaces – These spaces are found in the Space Directory and are the areas where you create content and collaborate with others. They are sometimes called global spaces.
- Personal spaces – Every Confluence user can set up a personal space which they can keep private or make public so others can view and edit. Personal spaces are listed in the People Directory and found under your personal profile.
The style is direct and conversational, and there is even a simile (folders) to illustrate what a wiki space is. The sentences are functional, broken into parts you can scan, and formatted with bold type, bullets, and hyperlinks.
Technical writing is not meant to draw you into a document and keep you there, but to help you know, do, or even believe something. It is more the stuff of education than evocation. Of course, technical writers do try very hard to create elegant content that puts readers at ease before they even start reading (whether they succeed in this is another question). But in these cases the goal is not so much to “draw readers in” as it is to “calm readers down” and build their confidence that what follows is trustworthy.
Creative writers, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with immersing you in a story, with evoking a conflict and a series of fictional events in which you can participate. They may have a deeper message they are seeking to convey, and they may want to awaken you to a particular social injustice, but they certainly won’t give you explicit instructions to take into the world after you close the book.
There are many other facets to compare. I haven’t touched on pacing, character development, point of view, research, design, genre, etc. Still, I believe the thesis would hold true: although technical writing and creative writing are not utterly distinct, they do have acute differences in form, function, and other features—differences which are so pronounced that they appear to be in opposition even though they occupy some of the same rhetorical territory. It is not easy to move between them with deftness and skill.
This shouldn’t be cause for concern among writers. If (like me) you work as a technical writer and want to do creative writing—or vice versa, you’re a creative writer who wants to break into technical writing—it will be hard but certainly not impossible. It is like getting into any other application of the craft. Read a lot, practice a lot, learn from failure, watch less Netflix. You might even try my suggestions at how to become an exceptional technical writing job applicant.
Nor should we be led to believe the fallacy that technical writing is at odds with beauty and creativity, or that creative writing is dismissive of technical accuracy and the complexities of the “user experience.” Both forms are deeply concerned with truth and beauty. They merely handle these matters in different ways, and these are differences we can celebrate.