Literature as a Technical Writing Aid

I’ve mentioned before that while I am a bill-paying member of the technical writing profession, I have a less-than-secret desire to read and write fiction. This is my inner English major clamoring to write “something for me.” However, can reading fiction and even poetry help the working technical writer as well? I say yes. Unconvinced? Read on.

Do we need adjectives? Yes!

If there’s one part of speech that distinguishes much of the technical writing I’ve done from literature, it’s been the lack of vivid adjectives. Adjectives, of course, are those magical words that describe shapes, colors, textures, sounds, scents, behaviors, and other specific traits of the living world. In other words, they put us in touch with our five senses.  I’ve stated before that technical writers will use few adjectives (or adverbs) unless they are writing marketing copy. However, I’m starting to back away from that assessment.

Writing about people

For example, business writing often involves discussions of the customer. Do you know who your customers are? They might have specific demographic characteristics, which requires specific descriptors. You also might have to understand or describe their motivations for choosing your product over others’. Can you do that without adjectives or non-technical terms? Not likely.

Writing for people

Human beings are emotional creatures. We are tied to our bodies and the living world by our senses, which are keyed to respond to the environment around us. Our mammalian brains incorporate a set of behavioral responses that cause us to pursue (or flee from) specific stimuli. If we’re trying to write marketing copy or even technical instructions, we need to use specific words that tap into basic human responses, including clues from our senses and our emotional reactions. We want to draw in the reader, not scare them off. At a minimum, we must describe controls, interfaces, and outcomes, which rely greatly on our senses of sight, sound, and (if we’re interacting with a piece of machinery or even a computer mouse) touch.

Writing to people

Ever write business correspondence? You can state facts baldly, without emotion or a personal touch, but the person receiving it might respond negatively because they perceive your letter as cold. Mind you, sometimes that’s exactly the tone you want to set–say, if you’re discussing a legal matter–but if you’re writing a friendly letter to a current or future customer, you need to engage them with a combination of ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (logic). Two of those are warm-and-fuzzy, requiring more than a knowledge of the product or your customer’s needs for it.

How literature can help

So then we come back to a simple question: why should we read fiction or even poetry? Will those really help with out technical writing? Again, I would say yes.

Acquiring alternate turns of phrase

Fiction and poetry invoke vivid, descriptive language to involve the reader in a story or to help them visualize a scene or feel an emotion. Stories involve people interacting with each other. Poems involve the author interacting with their inner and outer worlds. Each person uses language slightly differently; in written form, that constitutes their style. Reading literature can help you acquire and appreciate other ways of expressing something that you’ve described dozens or hundreds of times before.

Acquiring different points of view

Briefly, stories like science fiction help us to think about our technologies differently and how we interact with them.

Writing for the reader’s pleasure

Creative writers are also seeking to entertain their reader, which means diverting them with delicious, clever, or witty turns of phrase to capture the attention. The bookshelves are filled with books dedicated to reading for pleasure. It’s worth taking the time to learn and appreciate how these literary entertainers make reading an enjoyable experience. Is a technical manual or help menu meant to entertain the reader? Obviously not. However, I would argue that some help features–looking at you, Microsoft–make little effort to make it easy to understand what they want you to do. “Pleasure” includes “ease of use.”

Appreciating writing as a craft

Quality of writing–literary or nonfiction–is also something the benefits from reading a great deal. Not everyone does, and many technical communicators are voracious books readers because they appreciate the craft of putting words together in pleasing forms. That takes practice and exposure to those who have done it well.

One of my favorite living writers, for example, is Mary Doria Russell, who sweats over her prose to make it easy and pleasurable for the reader to delve into her stories. The prose practically glides across the page because she takes the time to phrase her sentences so that they smoothly and gracefully carry the reader into the story she is telling. That sort of literary grace takes work. I think I read somewhere that she reviewed her breakout work, The Sparrow, more than 50 times to make certain every paragraph, sentence, and word was as she wished it.

As a professional technical writer, you usually don’t have the luxury of time to fret over a document ten times, much less 50, but given enough effort, you know that your third or fourth draft will read more clearly and cogently than that first ugly and (pardon the usage) sh!tty first draft. You’ll inevitably find things wrong with that first draft: missing words, too many words, badly phrased ideas, inappropriate modifiers, and the like. (I recall Mark Twain once apologized for the length of a letter: “If I had more time it would be shorter.”) Reading great literature–fiction or poetry–can help you pay attention to the joy and effort that goes into excellent writing.

And who knows? Given enough practice or reading time with great fiction or poetry, you might want to take your own turn with it some day. I keep trying, but meanwhile am enjoying the fruits of wisdom that come from incorporating my free-time reading into the job that pays my bills.

About Bart Leahy

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