Creative Advice from a Technical Writer
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
I've been a technical writer for 6 years and counting. I fell into this profession by accident but what started off as a job became a career I love. Growing up, I never dreamed that writing would be my career. Whether I was telling everyone I was going to be vet, a JAG officer, or a quantum physicist, I always added the caveat "but I'll write my novels on the side."
Technical writing is not the same thing as writing creatively but it is "technically" writing. While I'm not being paid to write my science fiction stories (yet), I am being paid for writing, which is something I didn't think was possible. Technical writing has actually helped my creative writing quite a bit. It forces me to think of writing in a different way than I do when I write stories or even blog posts.
When you write a technical document, you need to be focused on the point you are trying to convey. You want to use as few words as possible to explain technical information in an easy to digest manner. It's also recommended that you keep your language simple and to avoid the use of unnecessarily complex words or sentence structures. You want to make content that anyone can read and understand.
Below are some of the things I've learned from technical writing that I now applied to my creative writing:
Keep it simple. When writing creatively, you may want to wax poetic, which is fine on occasion. Make sure when you use long, flowery, or complex language or grammar that you are doing it for a purpose. Some writers have this style where they constantly write in a way that is more difficult for the average reader to understand. However, writing in a simpler style doesn't mean that your writing has to be boring. In fact, it can oftentimes be more challenging to convey your point without using SAT words. Okay, I know not everyone is a fan of Hemingway, but he rarely uses complex words. He uses everyday language to convey complex ideas. And that is a challenge. Using simpler language and sentence structure makes your writing easier to read and gives you unique opportunities for wordplay.
Be concise. No one wants to sit down and read a sixty-page manual. No one wants to read how someone's grandmother made cookies one time for five pages before getting to the damn recipe. Be concise. Get straight to the point right away. This is done in a different way in fiction than it is in technical writing. In technical writing, this means that you need to answer the question that the user has right away. You want the reader to spend as little time as possible on your documentation so that they can get back to their product. In creative writing, however, this means that you don't want to spend too much time on superfluous details. If you are going to spend a long time on some detail or another -- think of the green light at the end of dock in The Great Gatsby -- it had better mean something. Don't spend two pages talking about a feast that has nothing to do with the plot -- looking at you George R. R. Martin -- because then you risk losing the trust of your audience. You want them to continue to believe that the information they read will pay off in the end.
Say what you mean. I've found that it's best to be as literal and specific as possible when describing action in fiction. I think this is something that stems from being a science fiction writer as I need the reader to believe some pretty wacky things so the real has to be as real as possible. Sometimes, we want to say something in a way that sounds poetic or different, but then we end up confusing the reader or frustrating them. Don't make the reader work harder than they have to or you could lose them entirely.
Think of your audience. Audience is key when it comes to technical writing. Am I writing for an admin who knows what user provisioning is or am I writing for an end-user who doesn't know where their Junk folder is located? It makes a huge difference in the way you write when you know who you're writing for. Now, you may have a project in mind that you're not sure who your target audience is, and that's okay! You don't need to know that right away for fiction, but you do need to read your writing like a reader. It's hard, but try to take yourself out of your story when you're reading it and ask yourself if there is any missing information or anything that might confuse you as a reader.
The structure is important to the integrity of the piece that you are writing. Structure plays a huge role when writing technical documentation. Users need to be able to find the information they need and quickly. You also want to make sure that you have structured your manual or article in a way that follows the logic of a user. The same thing is true in fiction. Though, you don't need to be chronological in your structure like you do in technical writing. However, you do want to make sure your story is structured in a way that is structurally sound. You may have a great story, but if you structure it wrong, it may not have the effect you want it to have on your readers. That can mean thinking outside of the box when it comes to structuring your piece. This is a topic I'd like to revisit in a later post with some examples of unconventional, yet powerful, ways of structuring your story.
Interrogate your sentences. Every. Single. Sentence. Matters. Make sure that every sentence you have written is working for the piece as a whole, that the sentence makes logical sense in relation to the sentences that come before and after it, and make sure that the sentence is necessary. Sometimes rearranging the sentences in a paragraph can turn a boring paragraph into one that pops. Ask your sentences if they are doing the work they ought to be doing.
Focus on what matters. Think about the purpose of the story. What is it that you are really trying to tell the reader? Sometimes this means cutting out perfectly good backstory. I did this for a story of mine called "Runaway" and it hurt a lot, but I realized that this backstory, while important to the character, was not important for the story I was trying to tell. In fact, it distracted from the main story. Don't fret too much about cutting a long passage from your story that doesn't fit because you can totally repurpose the piece and use it somewhere else.
Enlist the help of two types of reviewers when possible. In my history as a technical writer, I've always had two types of reviewers: the subject matter expert, or SME, and the peer reviewer (typically another technical writer). These two types of reviewers have two separate purposes, the SME reviews for technical accuracy. Is this document telling the user the right thing to do and are all technical specs and requirements accurate? The peer reviewer is there to make sure that there are no grammatical issues, that it's structured in a way that makes sense, and that they can follow your steps to get from point A to point B and that they don't have questions about the feature or product. With creative work, it's good to have someone who checks your writing on a mechanical level. Do these sentences make sense, are there any typos, any inconsistencies, or continuity errors? And then, you also want someone who looks purely at the story itself. What did they like? What didn't they like? What did they get out of the story? I think it's important to have two different people for this so that each reviewer can focus on one aspect of your work to review. I find that I get better feedback that way.
Test your writing. As I mentioned in the previous item, we often have someone test the steps in our writing to make sure that a user can perform the steps in order to accomplish the task. This is also important in fiction writing. You have certain questions, ideas, and perceptions of your story. What do you want your reader to take away from the story after they read it? Write a list of questions you have with answers you think the reader should be able to come up with, and then have someone read it and answer the same questions. Did their answers align with yours? If they didn't, are you okay with the answers you got or is there some sort of disconnect from what you were trying to do and what the story is actually accomplishing?
Don't take criticism personally. Lastly, the hardest takeaway for any writer or any artist is to not take criticism personally. I think that as artists and writers we pour so much of ourselves into our writing that if someone doesn't like it or doesn't get what we are trying to do, we take it as a personal attack. Being a technical writer made me more receptive and okay with taking criticism, because I get criticism back for everything I write from the name of a column to a ten-page manual I wrote. You have to think of reviews as a positive thing. Someone read your work and cared enough to help you try and make it better. If someone says, this part doesn't work for me. Instead of getting upset and going, "well I love this scene, it's staying," think about what makes that scene not work for that reader. You have the opportunity to make your writing better. Use it.