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Is Technical Writing the End of Creativity?
2014, Q1 (March 24, 2014)
By Matthew McGinnis, Chapter Member

“Fiction novels, especially the first draft, can be written for yourself. Screenplays, though, must be written for an impatient reader and audience.”

This was the first rule I learned about screenwriting in an introductory college course, and I find it relevant as I transition to a career in technical writing. Writing a screenplay requires active sentences that are concise and simple enough to keep an impatient reader flipping pages. Word choice has to be concise and direct enough to keep impatient readers engaged, not what sounds the most poetic in the writer’s mind. Trying to accomplish this level of brevity spawned an inner editor I never knew I had. It’s what helped me cut the flowery, pretentious sentences that dominated my college days. (Like most writers, reading work from ten years ago makes me cringe.) It’s also what makes technical writing so fitting for me.

Same but different
Screenwriting and technical writing--the same but different

Ultimately I decided making up movie plots wasn’t my gift. Luckily, I also discovered screenwriting and technical writing require the same communication skills that I always enjoyed exploring. As a technical writer I am still catering to an impatient reader who doesn’t want to read my brilliant and captivating documentation. This is what effective communication is about — understanding the reader and writing accordingly. It is a challenge I think most technical writers enjoy tackling.

Friends warned me that technical writing would end the creativity I enjoyed from writing screenplays. After studying technical communications at Austin Community College, I realized how wrong they were. There may not be a fiction story at work, but at the heart of technical writing is a carefully mapped structure (just try to assemble a help guide with RoboHelp), a document design that fits content, and a concise writing style. These are also factors that contribute to an effective screenplay (just replace “technical information” with “plot information”). It’s no wonder, then, that my best technical writing projects were written with the same skills I used to write screenplays.

There are no plot twists, shocks, scares, or belly-aching laughs involved in technical writing. But like screenwriting, it requires learning from subject matter experts and having the ability to communicate this information to readers who may not know the terminology. Instead of taking abstract science and placing it in two lines of dialogue for a big-budget science fiction script, it means translating advanced engineering concepts to a lay audience. The challenge, then, is the same.

Over the past year I’ve found that it was never the fictional storytelling that drew me into writing. Great writing is about taking a shapeless mass of information, trimming it, simplifying it, and delivering a product from it. Besides, screenwriters don’t typically get famous, so I never had to sacrifice potential fame or glamour for this transition.

Matthew can be reached at mcginnismw at hotmail dot com. End of article.

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