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What Fiction Writing Taught Me about Technical Writing
2008, Q2 (June 23, 2008)
By Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

Bookworm heaven
In my job as a technical communicator, I rarely have the chance to write fiction. Occasionally, though, after the sixth time I’ve asked the subject matter experts for information and received no response, I’ll make something up: “If you turn the knob to the right, the widget will enter Auto mode. If you turn the knob to the left, the widget will explode into a thousand shiny projectiles, destroying everything in their path.”

Having something concrete to respond to generally spurs the team into action.

Yet technical writing and fiction writing aren’t as far apart as most people might think. All communication has essentially the same goal: to transfer information from the writer to the reader. The mechanics vary little. By drawing on the craft of fiction writing, technical communicators can learn valuable skills and apply them to their writing as well.

Set the Scene

One of the first things a fiction writer must do when opening a story is to orient the reader in time and space. Readers will get annoyed if they spend the first three pages assuming the setting is contemporary, only to discover later that the story is actually set in ancient Egypt or in the futuristic city of Ninendor. They’ll lose trust in the writer’s ability to guide them through the nuances of the fictional world.

In technical documents, readers also need to be oriented to the material. What’s the goal of the procedure? How long will it take? What tools will they need? Are specialized skills or knowledge required? Anything out of the ordinary should be stated in the opening, to give the reader a feel for the landscape.

Use Effective Transitions

In fiction writing, a transition is generally needed when the setting changes or when the mood shifts. Effective transitions orient the reader relative to the preceding action. Does the new scene take place an hour later? A week? Twenty years? Has anything important happened during that interval? Which characters are present in the new scene? Has their outlook changed since we last saw them?

In technical writing, some sort of transition is usually required when ending one section and beginning another. If the procedures are closely related, the heading of the new section may serve as sufficient transition. But if, for example, the first procedure is required, while the second is optional, readers must be told this up front. Otherwise, they may keep following the instructions only to discover, after completing the procedure, that they didn’t need to perform it at all. When you change direction, be sure to inform your readers, or they’ll end up hopelessly lost.

Focus on the Action

Good fiction writers know that the best place to begin a story is in the middle of the action. Think of James Bond movies: do they begin with M explaining to James what his mission is, or with Q showing him all the fancy gadgets he’ll need? No. That comes later. The movies begin with James in a life-and-death struggle. After the heart-pounding beginning, audiences are more receptive to the quieter explanatory scenes. But even then, background information should be kept to a minimum. Exposition is boring by nature, and audiences tend to tune it out.

User manuals should also be action oriented, omitting any information that users don’t need in order to perform their tasks properly. If some background information may be helpful, but isn’t required for specific tasks, consider placing the material in an appendix, rather than bogging down the procedures. If we as technical communicators don’t work to keep our readers engaged, they may begin to skim, and inadvertently miss something important.

Own It

When readers open up a novel, they’re essentially saying, “Lie to me, but make me believe you.” They willingly suspend their disbelief because even though the particulars of the story aren’t true, the essence is. Good fiction illuminates universal truth.

Fiction can only achieve this goal, however, if authors are willing to pour their humanity into their stories. If authors don’t write with conviction, their words won’t ring true, and readers will recognize this—just as an audience can tell when an actor is tentative, unwilling commit to a character.

As technical writers, we can easily see our words not as ours, but as the company’s or the engineer’s or the product manager’s. We don’t, after all, own the material. But just as an actor is a conduit for the screenwriter and the director, we are the conduit for our content creators. We convey meaning to the audience.
When readers open up a novel, they’re essentially saying, “Lie to me, but make me believe you.” They willingly suspend their disbelief because even though the particulars of the story aren’t true, the essence is. Good fiction illuminates universal truth.

To convey meaning successfully, we must understand what we’re writing. We have to ask questions, even at the risk of exposing our ignorance. About half the time, when I ask a SME a question about something that doesn’t make sense to me, I discover that the passage is either incomplete, imprecise, or downright wrong. The other half of the time, I’m confused only because I don’t have the product knowledge that the SMEs have. But never has a SME treated me condescendingly when I ask a question because I lack knowledge. On the contrary, SMEs are generally eager to explain, because it allows them to show off their hard-earned expertise. Moreover, if I’m confused, there’s a good chance the customer will be, too. Don’t let your fear of embarrassment get in the way of your role as reader advocate.

Find Your Voice

Voice is the single most important element in writing fiction. Think of Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. Those novels have all the elements of great fiction, but it’s voice that makes them unforgettable.

All writing has voice, whether we’re aware of it or not. By controlling the voice in technical communication, we encourage reader trust. Attention to tone and word choice can help us achieve a voice that’s authoritative, friendly, and consistent—or whatever our goal may be.

Consistency is especially important in co-writing projects. The voice should have the same overall feel, regardless of who wrote the section. Personal variation should be smoothed out for a seamless flow. A good editor can help with this. If you don’t have dedicated editors on your writing team, a peer reviewer can fill this role.

Consider Motivation

For the fiction writer, the process of revealing character is like eating an artichoke, peeling back the tough outer layers to expose the tender heart. All characters in fiction, including the villain, must have a compelling, believable motivation for what they do, or they’ll seem like caricatures.

In life as in art, people have reasons for the things they do, no matter how baffling their actions may seem to someone else. If your SMEs seem determined to thwart you, like the antagonist in a story, consider what may be motivating their behavior. Find a way to help them achieve their goals. Those goals may include some of the following:
  • Advancing their careers
  • Contributing to the team
  • Being recognized as an expert
  • Getting this task over with so they can go home
  • Avoiding this task to focus on something more pressing or interesting

That last example, the desire to focus on something more interesting, may be the biggest challenge technical writers face. Most people in the company don’t care about documentation with anything approaching the fervor we feel. For most of them, it’s a nuisance. So the best way we can make allies of these people is to make documentation a way of simplifying their jobs, rather than an added burden.

In general, technical communicators enjoy working independently. We’re creative, and we don’t need a lot of detailed information to begin a project. We like using our imagination to figure out how to best present the information to the audience. Many SMEs, on the other hand, hate this. They try to assemble all the facts before they begin, because having the facts helps them see the big picture. At the beginning of a project, however, this can be an impossible task.

By clearly communicating to our SMEs what we need from them, and just as importantly, what we don’t, we can take tasks off their hands that they’d rather not do. Then, they’ll be more willing to spend time providing us with the information we need so we can do our jobs. If we provide a framework, it will be easier for them to fill in the facts later.

Creativity is an important part of technical communication, as paradoxical as that may sound. If you envision your writing as the unfolding of a story in a logical and engaging way, you may find that you improve both your effectiveness and your job satisfaction.

Andrea Wenger can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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