The Tech Writing Brain and the Creative Writing Mind

I used to write a lot more fiction and even poetry  before I became a professional technical writer. Mostly that’s because the same brain cells I use for work sometimes run out of words at the end of the day, to the point where creative writing on my own is more work than I care to contemplate. (Note that there are no fiction books out there under my name.) Still, if you’ve got that creative “itch” you want to scratch, I believe it is possible to do both, assuming you conserve your energy and go into your after-hours creative work with a slightly different mindset.

Work is work

There’s no getting around it: work is serious. You’re hammering out words that produce functional content for specific business purposes, whether it’s online help, a white paper, or technical documentation. Work writing is very structured, designed to achieve a specific end in the real world. Business writing also has a very specific style to it, which is generally plain and devoid of “personality,” though this can vary by the culture of your company.

It is possible to carry over your structured, orderly, purpose-driven writing habits from your work writing to your creative endeavors. While the discipline and need for structure are the same, it’s important that you resist the habit of writing creative content with exactly the same mindset.

How creative writing and business writing are alike

It took me a good 10-15 years to realize that creative writing was work, at least if you want to do it well, entertainingly, and for pay. It is also, much as I love my space colleagues, usually more fun than writing for an employer for one simple reason: you’re writing to please yourself. The ideas are yours, the intended outcomes are yours, and the personality is yours. Again, I know there are companies that allow a certain amount of “personality” to creep into their online or technical content, but if you’re doing that writing, you’re still doing it for someone else’s project, not your own.

Since I tend more toward fiction than poetry, I’ll concentrate on short stories and novels here. As I noted above, if you want to pursue creative writing in your off-duty time, you still need to put in the time, preferably at a set time every day and in a place where you can avoid distractions. Fiction also has a certain structure that must be followed to be effective for the reader, whether you’re writing short stories or novels or a series of novels. Readers expect an inciting episode, a development of character/crisis, a climax, and some sort of explanation of what happens after the central crisis of the story is solved. Mind you, there are alternate structures and some authors play with those, you’re still expected to deliver something recognizable as a coherent narrative. Lastly, whether you’re writing brochures or ballads, you’re still expected to have a broad vocabulary and be able to employ it effectively.

How creative writing is different

Where fiction writing differs from business writing is in the part of your mind that you employ to put words together. Again, you’re writing for yourself, so in this case, creative writing is all about your personality, as expressed in words. You’re sharing your personal insights on people, politics, crime, the environment, your car, or whatever topic interests you. You’re also not tied down to a corporate style but are free to express yourself as you would prefer to speak. You can develop your own personal style or write with the attitudes of other people (characters). If you have an antagonist in a story–and most of them do–you also get to write in the manner of someone you or your characters disagree with profoundly.

When it comes to word choice, business writing tends to be very high in “idea” content, very low in sensuous content. If you’re writing for engineers, say, and not travel brochures, you’re unlikely to throw a lot of literal color or atmosphere into your work products. If you’re trying to simulate how people speak, you know that people stumble and are not always grammatically correct. Creative writing, then, uses a different and often broader section of your vocabulary. You still have the rules of grammar, of course, and it’s probably a good idea for your narrative voice to use them well enough for the reader to understand what you’re saying. Even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while narrating from the perspective of a semi-literate boy, manages to tell a compelling story.

Closing thoughts

Bottom line? Creative writing helps your writing mind expand its capabilities and the two types of writing can mutually reinforce each other. Poetical turns of phrase might find a way into your business correspondence while a particularly tense situation in the office might be transformed into the seed of a story. Being able to draw upon the words you know, put them in good order, and do some diligently and consistently are all necessary traits for successful writing regardless of the type of work you do. Any writing is a craft, the differences arise from how seriously you take the work and whose opinion you are serving.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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