Is technical writing the same as creative writing? No.
Can technical writing be creative? Yes, indeed; any form of writing can use creativity.
Technical documentation requires accurate and precise communication. This may limit the use of creativity in writing; however, it is possible to use a creative approach in content design and presentation.
Can you use the story building skills of a creative writer in technical writing? Yes; not by using flowery language or an imaginative narrative style as in a story but by using original thinking and figuring out effective ways to improve the structure and layout of the content. For example, creative writing tools such as similes, metaphors, or adjectives should not be used in instructional writing; however, you can be creative in the use of visual aids like infographics, illustrations, charts, and tables to effectively present a concept.
While you cannot turn your technical document into an emotionally gripping story, you can use an engaging writing style to hold the interest of your reader. Skilled writers are able to attain a fine balance and stick to the guiding principles of technical writing while using innovative approaches for content presentation. Bear in mind that it takes time and effort to master a good writing style. So, don’t lose patience if you feel you are not there yet, but keep experimenting.
Let us explore three key elements of a story and how they can be used in user documentation:
(graphics samples provided below are from Autodesk Inventor CAM 2021: Milling Fundamentals courseware published by ASCENT)
The setting serves as the main backdrop of a story. It sets the mood and tone. In technical writing, use the scope, purpose, and audience of the document to determine the setting. Always provide the context for the reader. Providing a brief overview before introducing any new concept will allow your reader to have a better understanding of what will be explained.
In the courseware developed by ASCENT, each chapter begins with a brief introduction and a listing of the learning objectives which allow the user to know what will be covered in that chapter. This sets the context for the reader. Also, in the practice section, the objectives and the duration inform the user as to what they can learn from the practice and approximately how long it will take them to complete the tasks in the practice.
Just as a story has a beginning and an ending and some action in between, so does your technical document. Create a solid structure for your document where the different pieces of the story can fit. A good introduction can provide a suitable beginning for your document. Then, you can divide the content into chapters/sections where you elaborate on the concepts, define who is responsible for what and provide instructions on how to use a particular feature or how tasks should be performed. Provide an appropriate conclusion for the document.
The ASCENT courseware follows a standard layout and structure and the content is divided into different chapters. Each chapter begins with an introduction and a listing of learning objectives and ends with a review of the chapter and a summation of the various commands used in that chapter. The commands, their button images, and location provided in a table serve as a quick reference for the user. In between intro and conclusion lies the main part of this story where the instructional content and hands on practices are outlined. The various elements within a chapter’s structure are as shown below:
A plot is the storyline or the main narrative that connects the various threads of the story and the sequence in which the key events unfold. For a technical document, this will be the content flow and sequence of topics. Good documents have a logical flow that is easy for the reader to follow. Keep your writing consistent and engaging through careful choice of words and well-connected sentences. Maintain a steady pace in information delivery so that a reader can easily digest the information.
In the ASCENT courseware, each practice tells its own story of a set of tasks that are organized in a logical sequence. These are tasks that the user can perform to get hands on experience of the software. Here, the content being organized in a logical sequence makes it easy for the user to follow along:
- First off, breaking down of a practice into manageable sized tasks makes the content easier to digest.
- The heading for the task clearly describes the action to be performed.
- The step-by-step instructions follow the sequential process in which the task must be performed.
- The numbering indicates when a task begins and ends.
Technical documentation often deals with complex technical topics, but this doesn’t mean that the content presentation has to be dry or monotonous. You can use plain language and relatable examples to make complex concepts easier for the reader to understand. Often you can make the content interactive and more user-friendly by adding audio/video elements.
As a technical writer, you have to constantly evolve and figure out new ways to connect with your audience. Encourage yourself to think out of the box and experiment with creative ways to present information. Learn as much as you can about your target audience and use your story building skills to design a document that is well-organized and has a logical flow.
Like many things in life, "practice makes perfect". Keep practicing and honing your skills in creative technical writing and you can consistently develop engaging technical documentation.
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