Writers vs. Technical Writers

This is just a social observation of mine, but I get really different reactions when I say I’m a “writer” compared to when I identify myself as a “technical writer.” On the whole, saying that I’m a writer gets a better reaction than saying that I’m a technical writer–people just seem more interested in picking my brain. Since my observations are purely anecdotal, my suppositions about why this is so will also be complete vaporware. Take my explanations about as seriously as you take a single, random election poll.

Perceptions of the work

When I say I’m a writer, the person I’m speaking to assumes that I mean fiction writer: novels, short stories, or screenplays. I leave out poetry here because an honest-to-gosh poet will identify him/herself as such. Or maybe as a songwriter. In any case, a “writer” is perceived as a creative person, or someone writing creative material. And on the whole, people can relate to works of fiction. They watch TV shows and movies or have books in their homes. Creative writing is consumed as entertainment.

Technical writing, on the other hand, can put some people off just by the modifier technical. The default assumption, of course, is that I write software user manuals. I’ve done so twice, for a grad school project and once for a space mission mass calculator for Zero Point Frontiers, but otherwise, no, that’s not my thing. If the other person doesn’t conjure up the software manual thing, I have to explain myself. My friend Cynthia likes a line I must have used more than once: “I translate Engineerish into English.” That usually gets a laugh, anyway. In any case, the perception of technical writing is unlike that of books or screenplays. Tech writing is serious, difficult, and perhaps unapproachable or unrelatable.

Perceptions of the person

Fiction writers also get better treatment in those aforementioned books and TV shows (think about who’s writing them). On the one hand you have those fabulous fictional novelist-detectives with unlimited travel budgets like Jessica Fletcher or Richard Castle (below). On the other hand, you have characters like “Tina the Technical Writer” in Scott Adams’ Dilbert, whom the cartoonist often describes as “brittle.”

Technical writers, in keeping with their serious subject matter, are perceived to inhabit serious environments, like computer rooms, laboratories, or office cubicles, while fiction writers are out in the field, living lives of danger or adventure. Meanwhile, my actual novelist friends spend a great deal of time at home, in their offices, agonizing over chapter organization, characterization, or doing yet another round of editing to their drafts. But that’s the perception.

Perceptions of creativity

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but technical writing is not considered as “creative” as, well, creative writing. This does not make those of us who practice the trade any less creative, merely creative in a different way. Consider the difference between a sculptor and a structural engineer, for example: both are designing physical objects that must stand up under their weight, both are building something that has a definite purpose in mind, both are using their minds to solve a particular problem embodied in a physical object, and both must give some thought to aesthetics–usually but not always the sculptor.

Let’s look at this from the writing point of view.

  Creative Writer Technical Writer
Tools Words, typefaces, layout, hyperlinks, illustrations Words, typefaces, layout, hyperlinks, illustrations
Purposes Moral, aesthetic, entertainment, educational, persuasion, philosophical/political Operational, instructional, strategic, economic, persuasion, entertainment (occasionally), philosophical/political, scientific
Format(s) Narratives, scripts, screenplays, short stories, novellas, novels, epics, websites, poems, articles Report, white paper, instructional manual, website, fact sheet, article, narratives, textbooks, scripts, workbooks, speeches
Stylistic Emphasis Literary: evocative, emotional, physical description, personal; helping the reader understand or appreciate the author’s ideas with the idea of changing the reader’s mind or outlook Clarity: factual, physical description if relevant, little to a lot of “personality,” usability; helping the reader to understand an idea or process with the idea of completing a specific task
Audience Emphasis Entertainment Work
Creative Outcomes Characters, plots, scenes, dialogue, manners/customers, worlds, technologies, aliens Instructions, processes, policies, strategies

These are broad brushstrokes, and no doubt I’ve missed some things, but as a general guideline, the table above shows how the work of creative writers vs. technical writers has some overlap. And yes, I would argue that creativity is needed for both types of work. The writer of fiction faces the burden of imagining realistic people, situations, and settings and bringing those to life through their writing. The technical writer must develop instructional, operational, marketing, or policy-related materials that accurately reflect the intentions of the customer while achieving the desired outcome(s) with their audience.

Having written both types of content, I am not about to say which one is “easier” or “more difficult.” One might as well ask which is more difficult to paint: a portrait or the interior of a skyscraper. Both require thinking, planning, and labor–but the outcomes and the functions of the work are inherently different and present different constraints. On my own behalf, I can say that as I’ve gotten older, fiction writing has become much more difficult simply because I don’t do it as much anymore. I used to write a short story (10-20 pages) a month in my 20s. Now I’m lucky if I get a single complete story (anywhere from 10 to 200 pages) written every two years. However, on the practical side, I’m cranking out two 500-word blogs, plus numerous articles for a space news site, plus a wide range of other work-related products every week. I can say that I enjoy both equally, but for different reasons.

If there is one last difference between the creative writer and the technical writer, it is this: the creative writer usually answers to his or her own vision from start to finish. An editor might offer suggestions or even extensive revisions, but in the end the creative writers are espousing their own personal ideas. The technical writer is answering to one or more owners, managers, or customers. In the end, tech writers are creating products to help someone else achieve their own ends rather than writing for our own ends. That’s the sort of freedom that even a freelance tech writer cannot beat. So yes, I will continue to introduce myself as a technical writer–until that day when I take that leap and get a story or book published that is wholly my own.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in audience, blogging, fiction writing, freelancing, personal, technical writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.