Playing at Work

If this blog has any purpose, it’s been to explain my mental and intellectual approach to the job of technical writing. One aspect of my work process is simply playing with ideas. Play can take many forms, but for me, it’s mostly a matter of rearranging ideas or words or combining them in unexpected ways. Part of the enjoyment for the writer is arranging words in just the right way to accomplish the end you want. Sometimes it’s like playing with words like blocks or Legos: the solution I’m searching for must be correct and elegant.

Another aspect of play, for me, is simply allowing my sense of humor a little free rein. This is especially important when I am learning a new topic and I have no idea what’s going on (yet). I’ll start considering alternate models in my head to explain how different ideas fit together.

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, I’m an English major made good. That means my primary recreation has often been book reading, so more often than not, I will try to apply English major logic or symbolism to technical subjects.

A lot of writing–fictional, poetic, or otherwise–is about metaphor: connecting the unknown to common ideas we all share. Never been on a ship before, and neither have your farm-raised neighbors? You might describe its movement through the ocean as a plow moves through the land. Does your first love make you feel all warm inside? Perhaps you’ll start thinking of months in June (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate”). Not sure how a computer system works? Okay, fine. But you might know how a political structure or business works: who’s the boss, who are the workers, what are their functions?

English majors also get some training in symbolism: water for cleanliness or washing away sins; different colors for emotions: white for purity, red or purple for rage, blue for sadness, green for life, grey for ambiguity, black for death; light bulbs for ideas; and so forth. These symbols are helpful when we have to come up with things like icons for technical manuals to improve reader navigation or comprehension. (True example: page 9 of NASA’s Technology Roadmap for Launch Propulsion Technology.) We might not be the final designer of images in a document, but it helps to at least have an idea before passing on the document to the graphics person.

English majors also play with conflicts:

  • man vs. man
  • man vs. society
  • man vs. himself
  • man vs. environment
  • man vs. the supernatural
  • et cetera 

Within those conflicts, we have plot structures: introduction, rising action, climax, denouement, ending. We also have different characters within those structures: protagonist, antagonist, mentor, love interest, hero, anti-hero, viewpoint character, and so forth.

If you’re an engineer, you’re probably looking at that list and having nightmares about your last English Lit. exam. Or, more likely, you’re asking, “What does all that foolishness have to do with my document?” Bear with me, friends. A lot of this stuff never appears in the final document. It is the fodder upon which the tech writer’s imagination feeds.

Say you’re writing a tech manual and you’re trying to imagine the perspective of the user or users of a new piece of hardware–an aircraft carrier, a helicopter on that carrier, or a computer-guided weapon system on that helicopter. Is the user in a peaceful situation? In danger? Facing multiple problems at once? Who does the user report to? What assumptions does s/he have? In such ways one can get into the “mind” of the user. Call it method acting for the writer.

Another example: you have to write a letter on behalf of your company president to Senator So-and-So, requesting specific, additional funding for a particular piece of military hardware (also called an earmark or a plus-up). How do you begin to approach that? Once again channeling your inner method actor, you have to consider two primary characters: your company president and the senator. How would you write to a national leader? Formal? Demanding? Condescending? Concerned? Then you have to consider what Senator So-and-So wants/needs to know before he will be willing to take action. What arguments will move him? Military lives saved? Money saved? Enemies found sooner?

All of this is play. It appears in my notes as random, sly comments; doodles and diagrams; PowerPoint organization charts or collages; Excel spreadsheets that sort out multiple bits of data; or random conversations with others or in my head. The joy isn’t just playing around with ideas, but using those ideas in new ways to help your readers accomplish their goals. If all this sounds like fun to you, you just might be a writer. 🙂

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Playing at Work

  1. Pingback: Playing at Work by Heroic Technical Writing « Technical Communication at UAHuntsville

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