Guest Post: Is Technical Writing Creative?
The following is a guest post by Lopa Mishra, a technical writer in Mumbai, India.
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.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.