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?


Content is a service, not a product

A couple of days ago, an intriguing tweet taught me a lesson about content – and the search for its source taught me another lesson about the benefits of twitter. It all started with this:

Content is a service, not a product. For consumers, less a thing they buy, more an experience.

This tweet by Scott Abel on Feb 23, 2010 made sense to me immediately. That day, I wondered how much content I had actually produced, compared to serving existing content to people who need it: I had converted a legacy document to a new template. A colleague had needed a use case which I told him could be found in the release notes. And some existing documentation needed to be made available in a new channel. So my readers needed me to supply content, not to create more of it.

Then I noticed Scott’s tweet RT’ed a less telegraphic tweet by Aptara from Feb 17, 2010. Attached to it was a link…

… which led to a blog post by from Feb 9, 2010 that ended in a link to its source…

… which was an article by Kevin Keller in Business Week from Feb 7, 2010, “What Murdoch Still Doesn’t Get About the Internet”: Content isn’t a product anymore, it’s a service. Because for consumers, content is less and less a thing they buy and more a thing they experience. It turns out the sentence paraphrased and quoted…

… a blog post by Andrew Savikas from July 13, 2009, “Content is a Service Business”: … what you’re selling as an artist (or an author, or a publisher for that matter) is not content. What you sell is providing something that the customer/reader/fan wants. … media companies are in the service business, not the content business. An update at the end of the post mentioned…

… a talk by Jim Lichtenberg at O’Reilly’s TOC conference on Feb 8, 2008: Book publishing is moving from bringing physical commodities to market, to offering services that delivers content in a variety of modalities based on consumer choice. Jim mentioned as his inspiration…

… the seminal article by Tim O’Reilly, “Publishing Models for Internet Commerce” from June 19, 1995: The actual content is valuable–but far more valuable [in publishing] is the relationship with the people…

I had read O’Reilly’s article years ago, but I couldn’t remember that point as clearly as Scott Abel made it. The phrasing is, of course, different, but most likely, the timing or the context wasn’t right either.

Then I noticed how the very idea proved itself: Here was content that was available and essentially known to me, like the unused coffee-maker at the back of my pantry. But it took Scott’s service to make it valuable as a new and fresh insight that summed up my experiences of that day.

Certainly, Scott didn’t plan to teach me a lesson with his tweet. But the scattershot distribution is part of twitter’s design and success, so my insight is not an isolated accident, but intended. In my case, twitter was effective because the tweet was applicable and good, not because it was a new idea.

What do you value more in twitter and blogs: What’s fast and new or what fits for you?

And, to come full circle, what’s your experience: Do you feel like you create or curate content?

P.S. To read more about good vs. new, check out Scott Berkun’s first article for Business Week, “Good beats innovative nearly every time“.

Two things to know about art and process

Know how to start. And when to stop.

– Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 207.

In her book, Tharp comes to terms with creative processes. Yet this particular insight applies also to successful processes. (And I don’t mean knowing when you’re deadline is…) It translates directly to Steve McConnell’s power of process: Know to start with some “thrashing”, i.e., unproductive work. And know to stop before trashing and project efforts drown out any productive work you might achieve.

To read up on Steve McConnell’s ideas, see his article “Power of Process“.

I first heard about McConnell and how he’s relevant for tech writers in ITauthor’s blog post “It’s not about writing … it’s about shipping“.

“The Creative Passion” guest post

“How exciting is technical writing, really?” Every once in a while, discussions in blogs or at conferences turn to that question. How technical writing is not really a calling or maybe even boring. I find it fulfilling and engaging in itself. Technical writing is my creative passion…

– The guys at DMN Communications have invited me to write a guest post. Thanks, Scott and Aaron!