Guest Post: Is Technical Writing Creative?

The following is a guest post by Lopa Mishra, a technical writer in Mumbai, India.

Lopamudra Mishra

At a college reunion party recently, someone asked me what job I’m pursuing. On replying that I’m a writer, a friend jumped in to clarify that I’m a “technical” writer. My friend considers that technical writing has nothing to do with creativity, contrary to “plain” writing which is a highly ingenious endeavor.

To be honest, I was of the same opinion when I was still exploring the opportunities in the field of writing. But contrary to my friend, I do not hold the opinion anymore. My change of opinion has a story that I think is worth writing.

At the verge of graduation a year ago, I was facing the same ordeal as all would-be graduates face: the ordeal to decide what you want to do in life. I was about to finish five grueling years studying IT, and even after majoring in the subject I did not feel I wanted to become a software developer. I did not detest IT but felt I was not someone who could write endless lines of code. The voice within me kept whispering, “Do what you love doing most.” I loved writing but I had no idea of how to make a living out of it.

In the final year of graduation, we had a paper on Component Object Modeling or COM as we commonly call it. It was a tough paper to deal with, and the fear of flunking had set in deep. As a prudent measure I bought the book at the beginning of the semester. I was a bit scared to open the book, as it had been rumored that the author had filled the book with jargon, and the component flow diagrams were nothing but jumbles that were best left unsolved.

With great courage I opened the book and plunged into the first chapter. After two days of thorough reading, I was ready with my notes and illustrations for the chapter. When my friends learned about this, they said, “You made notes out of that complex waffle? How crooked is your brain!” :)

I started teaching COM to my friends, making notes, drawing simpler diagrams, and deciphering code. I had done this so many times for myself; only this time I had started teaching my friends. Did it ring a bell? Yes, it did! It was my solemn realization of what I was best at – figuring out how things work, structuring and organizing information, and presenting it in a way that is easy to understand. This called for a job that brings together all these elements, and that’s when I felt technical writing would be a job where I would fit in well.

Realizations can often put you in a state of unrelenting contemplation. My realization had now led me to another question in my mind: “Is technical writing creative?” A few people told me that it is nothing like writing a book, where you can let your mind wander into the wonderland, and that I would have to stick to specific styles and standards while writing. It would in no way be similar to what I write in my blog, and I may actually be left with no time to write any other stuff.

I did not want to get into a profession that I would quit soon after joining.  As much as I love writing, I had to keep in mind that I could not afford to write blogs and get paid for it. There is no end to daunting thoughts, and so having faith in my abilities, I appeared for an interview for the job of a technical writer and got through.

It has been a while since I started working as a technical writer. I am now in a position to answer the question, is technical writing creative? As a technical writer you have to present information in a manner that helps someone get it in a jiffy, and by no means can it be done without creativity. You have to think like the person who is going to use the content written by you and most likely on occasions when the user is stuck at a point when clear instructions are life savers.

Right from the design and look of the document to the illustrations, videos, and screencasts, you need to take care of every little detail that helps make the user’s life easy. You have to think of new ways to convey information if the traditional approaches do not work for the user. On many occasions, you have to make sense out of chaos, bring order to haphazard chunks of information, and organize random facts. Other times, when the document’s aim is to draw the reader’s attention, you need to design and draft engaging content for the user.

I am quite new in this industry, but I’ve realized that there is a huge learning curve here. There is a lot of opportunity to explore new technology. It also breaks the monotony as you get to learn something new in each project. In a short span of time I got the opportunity to be involved in a variety of writing projects, covering the span of software, marketing, and academics. It’s interesting to pick up and master different styles of writing. It’s fun to fidget with new applications and authoring tools, and figure out how stuff works. It helps me to face my deficiencies and motivates me to understand my thought process better. When I get my hands on an application, I also get down to the intricate details of it and discover functionality not explained by developers.

Being a technical writer has also helped me bring more discipline to my writing style, in terms of structuring and planning the content. It has helped me improve my flow of thought and make better choices between elaboration and brevity. It has also enhanced my word choice, especially in situations where I need to opt for simple words instead of complicated ones. It constantly refines my creative abilities.

Do I suffer from writer’s block? Well, it’s easier to deal with it now. Thanks to my new-found ability to churn out words at the drop of a hat! Sure, there are times when I write dribble. Sometimes the pressure at work takes a toll and the sentences are oddly formed, no matter how hard I try. At times I get engrossed in content research so much that when it comes to writing, my mind is numb. But I do not remember a time when I stared at the monitor and said, “I have nothing to write and there are absolutely no thoughts to pen down.”

Technical writing has cured me of the pandemic that writers are most worried about. Technical writing involves a lot of reading, which eliminates paucity of thoughts. It also provides the opportunity to interact with other writers and know about things they are reading and writing. This in turn generates a lot of ideas for writing. Over time I’ve realized that there is no such thing as writer’s block. You don’t need to put up a masterpiece every time. You just need to let yourself go, and allow even drivel to come up on paper. It is from this twaddle that you build your masterpiece.

To conclude, I would say that writing, whether technical or not, is a creative activity. I am happy that I get a chance to indulge in both. I believe writing fluently is a gift and I hold it close. I am living my dream of being a writer, and each day I am getting better at being the writer I always wanted to be.

Lopamudra Mishra lives in Mumbai, India. She works as a technical writer at ibruk Consulting Pvt. Ltd. Writing is both her passion and profession. Everyone who loves to read is welcome to explore her blog, lopascribes.wordpress.com.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

27 thoughts on “Guest Post: Is Technical Writing Creative?

  1. K. Mehta

    As a technical writer, I have no idea why technical writers make such a big deal about this profession. The only thing that keeps me satisfied about this profession is that, I know people from the top (CEOs, Directors etc) to the folks at the operational level will be reading what I write. That is all.

  2. Pidge

    I agree. I find technical writing to be very creative. Figuring out how something works in one language (engineer-ese) and then explaining it to someone in plain English is quite a creative process. And that only covers the writing – not all of the other design work (formatting, screencasts, etc.) involved!
    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Larry Kunz

    Is technical writing creative? It sure is!

    In fiction writing, creativity comes in knowing your characters and then watching them go through various experiences. In technical writing, creativity comes in knowing your audience and then guiding them through experiences. Creativity also comes in the form of problem solving: how can I communicate effectively given the audience’s requirements and limitations, the content I have to work with, and the media available to me?

    I’m delighted that you’ve found all of this out, at such an early point in your working life. I’ll bet you’ll have a long and satisfying career in this profession.

    1. Lopa

      Thanks Larry for reading the post! And, thank you so much for your warm wishes! It’s indeed a pleasure.

      I enjoy writing like nothing else, and perhaps that is the reason I try to put in my very best when I write; be it a manual, an article, a white paper or online help. There is a lot of creativity that goes into making any content helpful, and worth reading! I completely agree with you that creativity comes in the form of problem solving. Writing in any form is a creative endeavor, and fortunate are we to be engaged in it!

  4. DiSc

    I have a soft spot for tales of TWs who find their true vocation – which is a reason why I visit this blog daily – and I can very well relate to your story. I went through some of the same, but it seems you were smarter and braver: it took me almost ten years after graduation before I got a job as TW.

    I suppose the difference is that you “did what you love most” right away, while I tried everything else until writing was pretty much the only viable option left.

    So congratulations for looking at yourself with clarity.

    About the whole creativity thing… look, I do not think fiction writing is all that different from technical writing. The canons for good writing, fictional or otherwise, were established some two millennia ago in the Western world (in India even before?). They have not really changed since. Writers just apply archetypes invented by someone else to new situations.

    If anything, technical writing catches up with new situations quicker than fiction: we are still reading novels, newspapers and poetry like we were 100 and 200 years ago. Bob Dylan is 70 and literary critics are still debating whether pop music can be considered literature.

    In the meanwhile documentation has gone online, “social”, “mobile”, and all the other buzzwords technology has given us over the last 20 years.

    DiSc

    1. Lopa

      Hi!
      Thank you so much for those lovely words!
      It means a lot actually.

      I am extremely thankful to Tom for sharing this post. Writing is something that helps me re-connect to myself, and helps me express myself as nothing else. And, probably this is the reason I could decide to take up this yet-to-explored (in India at least) career option.

      Very aptly you have said that the canons for good writing were established some two millennia ago ( starting right in ancient Sumer and the Indus Valley in India!)

      You have very well pointed out that fiction writing is not way different from technical writing. Indeed the norms of writing apply equally to all forms of writing. Good writing stems from a good flow of thoughts, and an equally good organization of it. This is, and will remain a universal truth. Technical writing is yet another advanced, and evolved version of writing, I must say.

      It was a pleasure to hear from you!

  5. Raj

    The problem with the question whether technical writing is creative or not is the mysterious mindset that “technical writing” should also be “creative”. Why do we want technical writing also to be “creative”? Will the creative tag offer some sort of a certification or status that it is genuine, valid, or superior? What will happen if we all agree that technical writing is not creative? Nothing. The profession will survive.

    Moreover, writing code also requires some creativity. If there is no writing involved, it does not mean that the work, task, or job one does is not creative or inferior. There is no need for a forceful or unhappy affirmation that technical writing is indeed creative; therefore, technical writers are also creative. I do not buy that argument. The IT industry in India is beset with the herd mentality. Yes, I echo the sentiment that we are making such a big deal of technical writing.

    Moreover, there is a distinction between a job done creatively, and an individual who is creative despite the job he or she does. Remember names like Kafka, Borges, Faulkner, Brian Aldiss, and Eliot and compare. The gap is huge.

    I would not call a technical writer as “writer” in its truest sense. I cannot. May be it is my prejudice. Because writers are free to utilize their creativity and nobody imposes standards and guidelines upon them. Technical writing is not that free. There is a huge difference between absolute freedom and restrain.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for your comment, Raj. I think many technical writers aspire to be creative writers (novelists or essayists), so attaching some creative aspect to the profession validates their goals. It is true that technical writing is creative, but as you say, so is coding. I agree that there’s a huge difference between writing a novel and writing a manual.

    2. Lopa

      Thank you Raj for sparing time to read my post!

      No doubt, code-development is equally creative. It’s not necessary that writing has to be included in any work to make it creative. For that matter any work that makes you think and do something in an innovative manner is creative. It’s just that I am not immensely good at it. :)
      I am just happy doing the job of a technical writer. It helps me remain connected to writing in general. It has actually helped me become a better writer, and bring in more clarity in my thought process. I can actually figure out the improving trend in my essays and articles in my blog over the time.
      Well, I also account this to what I have been reading and my experiences in life over a period of time.

      Thank you for your comment. It was nice knowing your thoughts.
      Thanks again.

      1. Raj

        Thanks Lopa. Can’t help from sharing the following quotes:

        1. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. — Maya Angelou

        2. Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better. – John Updike

  6. Jonathon

    Lopa, I really enjoyed reading this post. My wife and I are both pursuing MA degrees—hers is in creative writing; mine in technical writing. Three years ago, I considered also going for creative writing, but having two MFAs in the family just didn’t seem right. I didn’t think we would make it financially, so I learned more about technical writing.

    I realized I was the person who wanted to read every last instruction before unpacking a box. I have always paid attention to the small print on CDs or tapes (from when I was buying music at 12 and 13). And I heard there was a market for tech writers, so I went for it.

    I’m so glad I did. There are job opportunities out there, that’s one reason. But tech research gets into some incredibly interesting stuff. Carolyn Miller, Yates and Orlikowski, and Clay Spinuzzi have all got me dreaming about genres and genre theory. It’s fascinating!

    So thanks for your post. I agree that it takes creativity to write in technical fields, especially to imagine new ways to display complex information.

    And that’s what the 21st Century is all about. Data translation.

    1. Lopa

      Hi Jonathon!
      I am indeed very delighted, and very glad that you liked the post.
      Many thanks to you for finding time to read it.

      I love writing, and am very happy at my job. Perhaps that is the reason I could come up with this post. I don’t if it’s a big deal or not but being creatively involved in work matters to me.

      It was a pleasure hearing from you. :)

  7. Rachael Sarah Williams

    I’m delighted to read this post! Just the other day, it occurred to me that the dichotomy between “technical” and “creative” is a false one. Only someone with a creative mind can figure out how, for example, to create an easy-to-comprehend explanation of a complicated procedure.

    Thanks so much for posting this, Lopa & Tom. You’ve made my week!

    1. Lopa

      Hi Rachael!

      It is always delightful to know that some one is happy after reading my work. :)
      Thank you for liking the post.
      You have very well understood what I have tried to convey.
      It’s wonderful to know your thoughts on creativity and technicality.

  8. Sushant

    Lopa, thank you for posting this article. I realized, after reading your post, that it requires varying degree of creativity for different forms of writing. For example, if you are a copy writer, you must be highly creative than a technical writer. Even within the technical writing profession, we find varieties of assignments that require different level of creativity, for example, creating training manual involves more creativity than just reviewing a user manual.

    1. Lopa

      Hi Sushant!

      Thank you for liking the post!

      As I have said in the post, writing in general is creative. So it’s fun to be a part of something that helps me tweak my brain, and develop something new.

      Thanks again. I appreciate it a lot!

  9. Laura Brandenburg

    Creators make something out of nothing. I used to think of “creative types” as something I’m not. Then members of my mastermind group corrected me and let me know how creative it was. It took that clicking for me to don the creativity hat and now I embrace it fully. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Lopa

      Thank you Laura for sparing your time to read my post.
      I am glad you liked it.
      You say, “It took that clicking for me to don the creativity hat and now I embrace it fully”, and I say hold on to the hat, and the best part is once you embrace it the hat just grows bigger and bigger. :)

  10. Kevin Matz

    Great article! I agree, technical writing certainly can be creative, though it’s a different kind of creativity than what fiction writers enjoy. Novelists and screenwriters can invent characters and develop storylines in any direction they choose, while technical writers have specific topics to write about, usually either explaining how something in the real world works, or explaining how to use a product or device. Structuring and writing great explanations with empathy for the reader is a challenging skill that is on par with crafting a compelling narrative.

    The amount of creativity involved also depends on the freedom and control you have over the project.

    When working on assignments for an employer, your freedom is sometimes limited. You might ask: If someone else were given this assignment, what are the chances that they would create a deliverable that is identical or very close to mine? Sometimes there really may only be a limited number of ways to structure and sequence and describe a short set of instructions, for instance, and so this type of project wouldn’t offer much room for creativity.

    On the other hand, if you were, say, writing a book about some programming language, while you’d need to restrict yourself to covering that topic, you would have virtually unlimited freedom in how you could organize and structure the book, order and explain the concepts, choose and present examples, and so on, and you’d be able to infuse the prose with your own personal style. I’d argue that a project with this level of control and freedom is every bit as creative as writing a novel.

    It’s rare to have a project that isn’t constrained in some way — inevitably you must follow style guidelines, use a specific document template, satisfy target word or page limits, and of course meet a deadline. Such constraints aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They force you to use your creative energies to find solutions that meet the constraints. Sometimes these challenges can lead to real innovations, and inventing something new is the ultimate creative act.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Kevin, thanks for your insights on creativity and technical writing. I especially like your point here: “When working on assignments for an employer, your freedom is sometimes limited. You might ask: If someone else were given this assignment, what are the chances that they would create a deliverable that is identical or very close to mine?” It’s true that deliverables would probably look quite different produced by different authors, which only demonstrates the creative element at work. Thanks for participating on my site.

  11. Shubha

    Hi Lopa! Thank you for your insightful article. I’m actually looking out for a career opportunity as a Technical writer and your article has really helped me understand the tricks of the trade, prerequisites and several other aspects. Before reading your article, I was a bit skeptical about the nature of the job, owing to the general perception that this field lacks creativity. However, I’ve sort of realized now that I could do justice to the job and also excel at it. Thanks for the shot of positivity!

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