Structured content does not kill creativity

Structured content is cooler than you may think. As a model for technical communications, it suffers from several misconceptions which prevent that you and your organization get the most out of it.

I’ll debunk a couple of misconceptions that I’ve encountered. Each one presents a learning opportunity where you can show a writer, a subject-matter expert or a manager how structured content is actually quite beneficial.

Myth #2 is:

Structured content kills creativity, right?

The argument is that the structured content forces you into a corset of rules and reduces you to filling in the blanks. It means to comply with a structural model which can get quite intricate. For a procedural topic, rules could include:

  • Start the topic with a heading; start the heading with a verb.
  • Start the text with an introductory phrase, sentence or paragraph, depending on how much context the procedure requires.
  • Write all procedural steps in a numbered list.
  • Etc.

Channeling creativity

I think the argument, taken at face value, misunderstands creativity. Creativity, whether in the arts or in more craft-like professions, is always an expression regulated by rules and confined by boundaries.

Think about poems. Ann Rockley (I think) once gave the example of a sonnet, a fine form of poetry which has been around with few changes for centuries. It is highly regulated in terms of number of lines, rhyme scheme, etc. Or think of a haiku: 3 lines of 5 + 7 + 5 syllables, that’s pretty strict. But I’ve never heard a poet claim that the rules kill his or her creativity.

So structured writing sets up more obvious rules than you may be used to. With them, it channels creativity to ensure that your writing is more reliable, more accountable and to your readers more useful.

Anybody can write?

Filling in the blanks in a structured writing template seems more mundane and banal than to write one paragraph flowing into the next. This can lead to the idea that structured writing might somehow be easy…

Structured writing is mainly different from technical prose, I think – and ultimately just as demanding. In both scenarios, you can ask yourself: Have I put my best sentences into the topic? And in both scenarios you will meet people who think that anybody can write. But the marks of high quality writing are pretty similar in either case: Is the writing clear, consistent, and correct?

Your benefits

For you as a writer, structured writing doesn’t so much limit or kill creativity, but it helps you to channel it: You can focus on putting the most useful, most concise documentation on screen or page in consistent structure. It frees you from having to worry about structure, content and layout at the same time: You can focus on content alone, while the structure is given, and the layout is applied separately.

For readers, structured writing increases their trust and confidence in the documentation. Whether you spell it out explicitly or leave them to discover it by themselves, structured writing ensures a level of consistency that is hard to achieve by other means.


If you’ve found this post helpful, if you disagree or if you know additional benefits of structured content, please leave a comment.

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4 Responses

  1. Amen! Tight structure, indeed, can inspire creativity. The sestina, for example, defies the poet’s preconceptions and rarely turns out as planned. More often, the writer ends up somewhere other than she intended, often for the better.

    • Thanks, Shane. Well, with a tight 36-line structure, I should expect some surprises along the way. But then again I’m the kind of amateur poet who can surprise himself even with a limerick… 🙂

  2. You’re absolutely right, Kai. For me, creativity is all about finding out the best way to meet a goal — whether the goal is fixing a broken appliance, expressing ideas through poetry, or sharing knowledge. Structured content gives us a highly effective way to share knowledge. Your comparing it to the various poetry forms is apt — and quite creative on your part.

    • Thanks, Larry, I find your definition of creativity admirably practical. But credit where credit is due: I first heard the comparison to poetry from Ann Rockley (I think – it was someone at the final DocTrain West conferenc at Palm Springs). But I found it immediately plausible!

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