Delighting in our language

Fellow technical writer Tom Johnson has entitled his blog I’d Rather Be Writing.

But lately it seems Tom wouldn’t rather be writing — at least, doing technical writing. In Tom’s words, the day-to-day job of technical writing, especially the plain language aspect, has “removed my ability to delight more in language and to express myself in more articulate, interesting ways.”

Tom describes the essays his wife writes as a student in a Master of Liberal Arts program. She gets to deploy phrases like erstwhile acolyte — phrases that would never find a place in technical writing. For Tom, the thrill is gone. Worse, he says, in both writing and reading he’s lost the delight of learning new words, playing with the language, and “enjoying the eloquence of an author.”

How do I respond to a brother writer in need?

First, by stating the obvious. Erstwhile Acolytes would be a great name for a rock band.

Second, with understanding. Early in my professional life I dreamed of making my living as a “creative” writer. I — and many of my young colleagues — looked at technical writing as a way to put food on the table until we sold that first novel or screenplay. Now, nearly 40 years later, here I am — still working as a technical writer.

But something happened along the way. I came to understand that all writing — including technical writing; maybe especially technical writing — is creative, because problem solving is a creative process. In our case the problem is how to communicate most effectively with the target audience.

Tom mentions the Simplified Technical English (STE) dictionary. Originally developed for the aerospace industry, it stipulates a set of writing rules and a vocabulary of about 900 words. Erstwhile isn’t one of those words, and neither is acolyte. Yet communicating effectively within the constraints of the dictionary is a creative activity. It’s like solving a puzzle.

various kinds of puzzles(Granted, it’s a puzzle in which I reserve the right to change the rules. If I know that the precisely right word happens to be outside the 900-word canon, then dammit I’m going to use that word. Audience trumps guidelines every time.)

So, yes, I don’t get to write erstwhile acolyte in the Installation Manual for E4G Routers. But I get the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve met my audience’s needs. And I’ll shelve erstwhile acolyte until I’m writing for an audience it resonates with.

Which brings me to my last point. Vary your writing by finding different audiences. All technical writing and no play makes Johnny a dull boy. This blog, for example, gives me a platform for reaching a different audience — still professional, but more collegial — than I reach in my day job. Here I can write more expressively and have a little more fun.

So, if you want to recapture the joy of using our language, I’ll suggest to you, as I suggested to Tom, that you try writing for different audiences. Try writing essays or poetry. And each time you write, think of it as solving a puzzle: the puzzle of how to communicate effectively with the audience you’re addressing.

Do you ever find yourself losing your delight in our language? What ways have you found to recapture that delight?

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11 thoughts on “Delighting in our language

  1. Cat

    I do both technical and creative writing. Technical writing teaches me to be spare and concise. It helps with precision in poetry and short stories where you have a very small space to work in.
    Also, these two worlds cross-pollinate each other. My latest published poem references HTML and CSS, for example. SF writers are often tech writers.

    Reply
  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Good points all, Cat. You’re absolutely right that the different kinds of writing cross-pollinate each other. Thanks for pointing that out, and for taking the time to comment.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poem that mentions HTML and CSS. Any chance you could post a link?

    Reply
  3. stevefjong

    Some day I hope to retire and write fiction, but I share Tom’s concern that years of technical writing has stunted my creative abilities. Sometimes I worry my love scenes will be better suited as bulleted lists…

    (Funny I can be! I’m not so sure about flowery.)

    Reply
  4. Vinish Garg (@vingar)

    I find it easy to separate technical writing from creative writing – be it fiction, essays, or satire. My writings on Medium (I am at https://medium.com/@vingar) are a mix of technical writing (and UX, content strategy), and creative writing.

    I use my learning from one skill (sentence structure, active voice in technical writing) in another, while ensuring that the instinct (and style, and goal) are not diluted. Possibly because I use a common denominator in both the forms of writing – storytelling.

    I have seen many journalists doing it very successfully – in sports. The way they cover a sports event or a match is very different from the way when they share their personal opinion on players or coaching. Ultimately, it is about the language, and so it all boils down to the bandwidth we have (how strongly we want to venture into unexplored territories, and for what rewards). Just as actors get under the skin of character they are playing in a film (so many shades, in so many varieties), writers too can do it for their strengths of course.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Vinish, for introducing storytelling to the discussion. Whether it’s deployed in the context of technical writing, journalism, or fiction, storytelling provides an excellent way to connect with an audience — and it’s also highly creative. BTW, I’m seeing more journalists using storytelling in non-sports contexts. Because they put a human face on the issues of the day, those pieces tend to be very engaging and very effective.

      Reply
  5. Mike Unwalla

    Many people incorrectly think that STE “stipulates a … vocabulary of about 900 words”.

    STE has a BASIC vocabulary of approximately 900 words. STE rule 1.5 says, “The dictionary does not include technical names as approved words, because there are too many of them, and each manufacturer uses different technical names.” STE rule 1.12 says the same about technical verbs. To use STE correctly, you cannot use only 900 words. You must use your organization’s technical terms (nouns, adjectives, and verbs).

    Reply
  6. Bart Leahy

    You know what I miss? Adjectives. ๐Ÿ˜† That makes fiction writing in my free time a challenge. Tech writing is specific but not VIVID. Thatโ€™s the hurdle I need to overcome.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Delighting in our language – Technical Writing World

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