Does structured writing stifle creativity?

I hear that a lot, but I don’t think that structured writing limits creativity. Look at poetry, look at sonnets. That’s about the most regulated, structured writing you can get – and yet nobody thinks poets are not creative.

Today’s quote of the day is a paraphrase from one of the speakers at last year’s DocTrain West, but I can’t remember who. (If you remember saying this, I’ll be glad to credit you… 🙂 )

The idea stuck with me, because I think it’s a very apt comparison. Just as sonnets impose a certain number of lines and a choice of rhyme schemes, structured writing allows you to mix and match elements in topic types. It redirects the creative challenge to focus on contents.

As Sarah O’Keefe points out in her recent article “XML: The Death of Creativity in Technical Writing?“:

XML kills off the possibility of creativity in one specific area (formatting)… Technical communicators add the most value and have the most opportunity for creativity in crafting sentences, paragraphs, topics, and groups of topics that explain complex concepts to their readers. XML does not interfere with this mission.

What do you think? Does structured writing interfere with your creative impulses?

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10 Responses

  1. Hi Kai,

    I started out as a programmer. Some of the guys I worked with were very creative with their code, in ways I could never be.

    So, when it comes to xml, my take is that if you have the ability, you can be as creative as you want.

    Creativity can be applied most anywhere.

    My 2c.

    • Good point, Ivan – which reminds me that I forgot to supply the context of the first quote: It’s often writers who “pride themselves on the style and looks” (as techquestioner says below) who are wary of XML. Those of us often don’t control the XML structure/templates and feel they lose their habitual ways of creativity.

  2. I think that how techwriters react to XML depends on what aspects of technical documents they have been acustomed to take pride in. Writers who prided themselves primarily on how easy the information they wrote was to use, and whether it provided what the users needed to do their jobs, with lesser attention to their documents’ looks, won’t see XML as taking away their creativity. Writers who slogged through producing the content, but prided themselves on the style and looks of their documents will see XML as impacting their creativity.

    However, my advice to those writers is to take what they know about creating good-looking templates in Word or Framemaker, and to learn the new tools used for document definition and transformation so they can specialize in formating templates for the XML output into different types of documents.

    • Thanks, techquestioner, for intuiting the missing context of the quote! 🙂 I agree it depends a lot on how you see your job and your main contribution to it.

      In that sense, the complaint of stifled creativity is often close to: “Oh, but we won’t be making nice books anymore?!”

      In that case, your advice is excellent and helpful, not only to the writers, but also to their managers!

  3. Maybe we should tackle this differently: is there a need to be creative in tech writing? Do the users care about this? Is structured writing supposed to leave room for creativity?
    Also, I don’t think that the comparison with poetry is so apt. I remember spending hours at school doing “text explanation” about sonnets or other poems, they could be interpreted in so many ways. Users are not supposed to take a dictionary to understand our manuals, aren’t they?
    My 0.5€

    • Good questions, Annette, thanks! Personally, I couldn’t do tech writing for very long without some creativity, see my guest post over at DMN Communications on my “creative passion”. Your definition of creativity and your mileage may well vary!

      And, no, the users don’t and shouldn’t care about whether I feel creative or not. 🙂

      But, yes, I think there’s room for creativity in structured writing, in the way techquestioner suggested. I can either just fill in the template and get it over with. Or I can try to apply the template to make it quick and easy to for users to get on with their work – I think that would also be creative…

      P.S. I agree that poems often bear out several interpretations – but I think the comparison focuses on the restrictions in the writing process, not on the unambiguous clarity of the text.

  4. Annette: I think tecnical documentation definitely needs creativity! Users don’t want to trudge through materials that are stripped of creativity – that makes reading onerous. I think technical documentation should be constantly exploring new ways to be creative (and I’ve blogged about it here.

    Kai: Creativity needs structure to exist. It provides a framework, like the skeletal system in human physiology – without the rigid structure, we’d be a mass of soft tissue, formless and unable to move or do anything.

    • Thanks, Bill. That is a more fundamental link between creativity and structure than I had in mind originally – but your point is well taken!

      In that vein, “silly putty help” or “jelly fish documentation” would aptly describe a few documents I had the ambivalent pleasure to review… 🙂

  5. […] friend and fellow writer Kai Weber raises an interesting question in a post called “Does structured writing stifle creativity?” The migration to XML architectures has a lot of people asking similar […]

  6. […] also flexible enough to incorporate change. Kai Weber wrote a post about a related topic recently, creativity and structured writing. People added some interesting comments there too. Let me know what you think about style guides, […]

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