What If Technical Writers Thought of Themselves As Artists?

Shani Raja in his LinkedIn course, “Writing with Flair: How to Become an Exceptional Writer“:

The elite writer fundamentally views himself or herself as an artist. They view the page they write on as a blank canvas on which they begin with a sketch, and on which they proceed to paint a beautiful picture. Now, whether it’s a report, an essay, or an article that you’re writing, you’ve got to regard yourself as a sculptor of words, a painter of sentences, a composer of narratives.

[…] The mind of an artist is usually directed at creating something of beauty, and that’s exactly how I encourage you to approach your writing, with a commitment each time to creating something of beauty, even if you’re composing something as basic as a cover letter for a job application. At the beginning it has no depth, no structure, no style, but as an artist, you have to progressively give it all of those other dimensions. Your job is to turn it into a beautiful picture by trimming things down where you’ve been too, you know, perhaps long-winded, by moving points and ideas around to get the ideas to flow more gracefully, by giving the writing rhythm, by adding shades and textures until it transforms stage by stage into a beautiful picture.

Now, Shani Raja is a professional journalist, which means he probably has other journalists, business writers, and non-fiction authors in mind here. I doubt he’s thinking of technical writers, who would probably respond that considerations of artistry don’t apply to them. Technical writing is functional: it’s not about creating a work of art but about meeting the needs of an end user. This isn’t to say that technical writers are lazy about their craft. They care about clarity and brevity, and making every word matter. They are just as likely as any other writer to argue about punctuation. But in my experience, they are also quick to stress that beauty and stylistic grace are at best secondary to clarity and brevity.

And yet I think Shani Raja would reply that, for one thing, he has heard the same excuse from his fellow news journalists, who would insist that conveying the plain facts as clearly and concisely as possible is all that matters. Whatever the case, I am sure he would say that clarity and brevity are dimensions of the ideal of beauty he is espousing. Read what he says, for example, about assessing every word and punctuation mark:

Every comma has to be weighed and deemed to be contributing to the overall beauty of the writing. Every full stop must exist because you’ve decided that it’s more beautiful to end a thought right there instead of connecting it with another in the same sentence. Every capital letter on your page has been evaluated for its contribution to the beauty of the finished piece. Every word you’re using has been assessed with the same goal in mind. You have decided that it truly belongs where it is. Every phrase has been scrutinized, every metaphor weighed for its contribution to the lucidity of your message. The structure of every sentence has been considered for its beauty as well, and you have decided that this, not that, is the best way of expressing your idea.

While there’s not so much a focus here on what technical writers would call a “positive user experience,” that is basically what he is talking about.

More from Raja:

The size and length of each paragraph has been evaluated so it’s beautiful to you. You’ve even given thought to the distance between the headings and the writing that falls under it, once again, for its effect and impact on the beauty of your writing. Your attention to detail really must go that deep if you want to create exceptional writing. Is this the best order of words, or is there a way I could say what I want to say more simply, more clearly, more elegantly, or more evocatively? It’s only by looking at your writing in this way that my writing framework is gonna make sense.

Nitpicky technical writers would add, “The size and length of each paragraph has been evaluated so it’s beautiful to you—and the user.” In fact, because technical writers so often speak of being user advocates, they are not (in theory, anyways) supposed to differ too much from users in their tastes about what is usable and clear.

Raja goes on:

I believe simplicity, clarity, elegance, and evocativeness are the key ingredients that will give you the most leverage to create this beauty that I’m talking about in your writing. That’s because each ingredient has its own aspect of beauty, which I’ll explain at the start of each section. But first of all, your attitude must be right, and to receive this information deeply, you’ve got to see yourself fundamentally, as I say, as an artist. As you’ll see, what matters is that a certain quality of artistic thought has gone into all of your choices about every aspect of your writing.

Again, Raja situates simplicity and clarity—two ingredients of the craft that technical writers fawn over—within in a larger aesthetic framework. The two other ingredients that Raja mentions—elegance and evocativeness—are not often uttered in technical writing circles, if at all. Elegance, maybe. Evocativeness, though? Not really. But I don’t think that is because they don’t apply; I think it’s because they take a different shape.

Anyways, I don’t know that I’ve ever hear technical writers confess to thinking of themselves as artists, except perhaps in the sense of, “There’s an art to organizing information so that it flows well and can support various entry points” or “There’s an art to writing a clear, simple procedure” or “There’s an art to describing a feature plainly and accurately.” In these cases, though, they are not really talking about beauty; they are talking about function. Raja is pressing further than that. He’s not just saying that technical writers should recognize that there is an art to writing something that’s accurate, organized, and easy to follow. He’s saying, “Let’s consider ourselves artists whose job it is to create beautiful user experiences.” Too many technical writers are content to write something that is correct but that is by no means beautiful.

Is beauty even possible within documentation? The word documentation itself evokes notebooks, bullet points, and bland prose. And whose idea of beauty are we talking about, anyway? Isn’t beauty subjective?

Here’s Raja’s answer to that last question:

Now of course our ideas of beauty might differ slightly. Even in literature, some people love Oscar Wilde’s ornate and witty style. A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him, for example. Others may find this over the top, and even tedious. Some relish Hemingway’s simple and direct style. I love to go to the zoo, but not on Sunday. I don’t like to see the people making fun of the animals when it should be the other way around.

Now, others may find that style childishly simplistic, for example. Each writer has a different concept of beauty, but each is trying in their own way to create it. Your own concept of beauty may tilt you towards one style or another, say in your business, blog, or book writing, and it’s not my place to tell you which of these individual styles to actually prefer. Instead of prescribing how you should write, I want in this course to empower you to choose your own style, by showing you, really, all the different sorts of things that you can do to make it exceptional in these four ways.

In sum: beauty is the goal, and Raja in his course wants to offer a toolbox, or a recipe book if you will, so that writers of all stripes can combine the elements of simplicity, clarity, elegance, and evocativeness to create a thing of beauty. That’s a different view than what I find to be a more common attitude among technical writers, which is that beauty has little to do with it.

I believe a paradigm shift is in order. More on this idea soon.

“The Writer”
Source: Deviant Art