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Creative traps in technical communication

Richard Kennedy
by Richard Kennedy

Creativity is an essential skill for technical communicators, but it must be carefully managed to ensure the quality of the content is not being compromised. The purpose of technical writing is to communicate instructions or information as efficiently as possible. Using flowery prose to establish an emotional connection while your user is trying to establish an internet connection is a recipe for disaster.

This article looks at three of the most common errors made by writers making the switch from creative to technical writing.

I'm sure this will seem obvious to anyone in the technical writing field, but many younger writers come from creative backgrounds. I myself have a background in literary studies and creative writing. Years of writing creatively to convey emotion and metaphor forged habits that were initially quite difficult to break.

These habits included:

  • not being consistent
  • using words with vague or multiple meanings
  • overreliance on words to convey meaning

Not being consistent

When writing creatively it is desirable to use multiple descriptive words to add symbolic depth and stop the writing feeling repetitive. This comes from the writer's desire for the reader to get lost in the story being told.

Technical writers aren't telling stories; they're giving instructions, and they certainly don't want users to feel lost. Technical writing should be repetitive and exact. Every word should have a consistent definition, spelling and application. Even a simple discrepancy, such as instructing computer users to "press" rather than "click" a button can cause confusion, since most users are familiar with clicking buttons on a computer screen and use of the word "press" seems to suggest the pressing of a physical button.

Using words with vague meanings

Another habit of creative writers is to use words with vague meanings. This adds a level of complexity, since readers will interpret the word differently and use their understanding to create theoretical connections. This level of thinking is usually performed at a university or over several days in a comfortable armchair.

Technical writing manuals are typically read when the product is first purchased and then again whenever the user needs to resolve a problem. When writing to help users manage these instances it is important to understand that the user wants to use the product as soon as possible and, more importantly, the product is not the writing.

Overreliance on words to convey meaning

Creative writers generally only use words to communicate because words are great at creating complex images and feelings in the minds of readers. For example, describing dry oak leaves crunching under a character's sneakers communicates sensory information and could also convey a setting with a feeling of dread.

Technical writers have no need for such communication because product features are clearly defined. Using an image capture tool is far more effective than using words. Compare the following examples:

  • Click the Save button.
  • Click Save button.

In the first example the user has little idea what the button looks like, so they start searching the screen. In the second example the user knows exactly what the button looks like, locates it onscreen and clicks the button. This single instance might not save much time, but multiply the time saved out over a 1000 page manual and you’re saving your users hours.

These are just a few of the habits that creatively trained writers need to watch out for when preparing technical documentation. Technical writing is not devoid of creativity, but the emphasis is placed on the user. It is the job of the technical writer to consider how to best present information so that it can be easily and pleasantly digested by the user.

In my next article I will be looking at several ways writers can use their creative side to enhance technical documentation.

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