Departments January/February 2020

Musings of a Creative (Technical) Writer

By Allison DeRose | STC Member

The other day, I read a quote that was hard for me to swallow. The quote went something like this: “The ultimate goal of a technical writer is to be invisible.” At first, I immediately rejected the notion. I mean, who wants to be completely invisible, especially in their writing? Is that really supposed to be my “ultimate goal?” That just seems lame and underachieving and, honestly, kind of a cop out. Then I kept reading and was forced to reconsider.

The quote continued: “Users don’t notice great writing, because they are too busy getting their job done.” Ah. Now it made sense, right? Someone isn’t going to stop in the middle of assembling a home gym and say, “Man, that was a beautiful, flawless sentence. This tech writer is a genius!” I admit that I do this quite often while reading other literature. I will read a line of poetry, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and just let the words marinate for a minute while I fully appreciate every flavor. If you ever see me with a book in hand and my eyes closed, I promise that I am not sleeping; I am marinating and appreciating.

In technical writing, being appreciated as a great writer looks a bit different. It looks like someone finishing the final step, making sure there are no extra screws or parts laying around, carelessly (or triumphantly) tossing the instruction booklet aside, and then taking a step back to admire a job well done (usually with arms crossed or hands on hips in an overall stance of pride, victory, and satisfaction).

Despite this understanding, I still was reluctant to admit that I had to make myself invisible to be successful as a technical writer. My entire academic career was all about being seen, being heard, being vulnerable and exposed. I have a Masters in English Creative Writing. I am a poet. I excel in stripping down metaphorical walls and laying my open mind on the page in bare words. I spent countless hours in workshops, discussing intent and meaning, and was evaluated on how I developed my voice through the written word. Within my poems, I am inherently visible in every line. So how, as a newly employed technical writer, was I supposed to cloak a technique that I had studied and worked so tirelessly to uncover? Ensuring visibility had become my first, second, and third nature. It was my comfort zone.

The aspect of poetry that I fell in love with is its deliberateness. Each poem is carefully crafted. Each word, each line break, each punctuation mark is chosen for a reason and has a purpose. If it doesn’t have a purpose, then it doesn’t belong. Each choice made in poetry leads to a consequence. For example, changing a line break by one word can evolve the meaning of the line into an extended metaphor or can smooth out the rhythm where it was previously syncopated. Writing poetry is a tedious practice of awareness.

Starting this technical writing job, I had to convince myself that poetry and technical documentation were not that different and that I was not diving into something completely unknown with absolutely no prior experience. I soon came to realize, however, that I did not need as much convincing as I originally thought, because that idea was proving to be truer than I ever imagined it could be. I realized that the similarity lies in the deliberateness of both types of writing, and I knew that was the reason I was drawn to technical writing in the first place. Every decision made when writing a poem is deliberate, and this absolutely holds true for technical writing as well.

Then I considered another question: Is it possible to be deliberate and invisible at the same time? I looked up the definition for “invisible” and noticed the gist of the definitions was something that is not seen, not visible, not viewed. This word, then, seems to tie into the sense of vision. I think that when it is thought of this way, calling a technical writer “invisible” makes sense. We are not perceptible outright when someone reads one of our sentences, but our deliberate choices make us deeply embedded within the documentation. We are not the type of invisible that makes us not valuable. We are invisible in the way that makes us the most qualified, unobtrusive guides. We make tasks as effortless as possible, while remaining humbly hidden. It is not, as it is in poetry, our goal to be noticed.

In my own personal experience, I find this to be true. In technical documentation, I only notice poor writing: When spelling mistakes are made, when word choice is askew, when run-on sentences cause me to lose my place on the page and to read the same line four times. I only notice the writing when I become frustrated because I cannot finish the task and blame the writer.

After I finish writing a poem, I hand it to someone to read, and the first thing nearly everyone says is, “This is great! But what does it mean?” That is my favorite question, and my reply is always, “What do you think it means?” Poetry is all about self-analysis and personal interpretation. Technical documentation is the exact opposite. If someone picks up a user manual and says, “What does this mean?” you have essentially failed as a technical writer. As technical writers, we can’t leave room for interpretation. We have to tell the user exactly what they need to know and make sure that it is undeniably unambiguous, which is accomplished through the careful choices that we make as we write.

Thus I have learned that, as a technical writer, my goal is to be an invisible guide, and my success is defined by the success of others. This was something that I had to get used to. Am I writing creatively? Not necessarily. But I am writing deliberately. To me, that is all that matters.

ALLISON DEROSE (arderose@gmail.com) is a technical communicator from Rochester, New York. She is a Certified Professional Technical Communicator and a published poet. In her spare time, Allison enjoys playing tennis, photographing nature, drinking coffee, and spending time with her family and rescue dog, Gracie.

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