Structured Writing and the State of Flow

Image: Evgeni Dinev /

It is well established that we are happiest and most productive when we are working in a state of flow. Accordingly, any interruption of the state of flow can have disastrous results for productivity. The interesting question to me is, what constitutes a interruption, and what is part of the flow.

Is fixing a bad page break an interruption of the writer’s flow, or part of it? What about looking something up in the style guide? What about searching the CMS for a topic to create a link to? If, like me, you answer that these things are all interruptions to flow, not part of the flow, perhaps you will agree with me also that by and large tech writing groups are not set up to make writers as productive as possible.

Though technical writing has been the largest single work activity of my career, I have always found it one of the hardest in which to achieve a state of flow. I often write these blog posts in a state of flow. When I am working on a programming problem, I find I commonly enter flow. But with tech writing it is harder to achieve.

When I was working in a DTP environment, I would often write my content in a text editor and then move it into Frame (or whatever) later. People would sometimes tell me that this was inefficient, and that I should just work directly in Frame. But for me it was the only efficient way to work, because I found it impossible to achieve a state of flow in FrameMaker. It is just so full of distractions and annoyances.

But perhaps other people can achieve flow in Frame. Perhaps it is actually essential to their flow. Perhaps their flow depends on the WYSIWYG view and they are lost and distracted without it. How about you?

Certainly I have found that when I am working with people who are new to structured writing, they are initially distracted by the lack of a full WYSIWYG view (structured editors can provide partial WYSIWYG at best, and how close they can get depends on how abstract the markup is). But they inevitably seem to get over this in few weeks, and then don’t want to go back to the DTP world. So I have a hard time believing that WYSIWYG is really essential to any writers flow, even is others don’t find it a distraction the way I do.

There are other distractions besides tools. I find that it is much easier to enter a state of flow when I am doing experience-based tech writing than when I am doing research-based tech writing. By experienced-based, I mean that I am writing about something I have done, as opposed to something I have merely researched without doing it for myself. Indeed, it seems in such times that the doing and the writing merge into a single flow: a moment of ardent discovery that encompasses both seeing and telling (for discovery implies both).

However it is, if we care about quality, about productivity, and about joy in our work, we should care about the things that keep us from the state of flow. I believe that structured writing can play a big part here.

Of course, structured writing can very easily become a distraction as great as anything that complex and buggy DTP tools can throw at us. But I believe it is possible to create what I call lucid markup — markup that supports the writer in their task while removing or minimizing distractions.

It isn’t easy,  by any means. I can create markup that is lucid for myself, but I am still learning how to make markup that is equally lucid for other people. Or rather, I should say, learning how to work with other people to help them create markup which is lucid for themselves.

Alas, much of the markup design I see does not seem to have been done with lucidity in mind, and does not promise to allow the writer to comfortably reach a state of flow.

How about you? Do you find it difficult or easy to reach a state of flow while writing? What kinds of things distract you or interrupt you, jolting you out of the state of flow? What would you like to change in your environment to make it easier to attain and sustain a state of flow?


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2 Responses to Structured Writing and the State of Flow

  1. Larry Kunz 2011/07/19 at 16:37 #

    Learning structured authoring is like learning to drive a stick-shift. It doesn’t flow at all in the beginning, but soon enough you’ve bought into the idea and it feels natural. If you’re like me, you actually like the new flow better than you ever liked the old flow.

    Some of the biggest flow-breakers for me are the tools that (purportedly) support the content creation task. When a content-management system, for example, forces me to break my concentration, find a file, check it out, etc., my flow is interrupted and my productivity sinks. A good CMS, on the other hand, will integrate with my text editor and make the check-out/check-in process seamless.

    • Mark Baker 2011/07/26 at 22:33 #

      Hi Larry,

      Thanks for the comment. Interesting you mention stick shift. I saw an article recently that said that people who drive stick shift prefer to barbecue with charcoal rather than propane. Stick shift, charcoal, and structured writing. Guilty on all counts.

      I agree on CMS — they can be flow breakers. Some are certainly better than others, but I find I prefer SVN over any CMS I have seen. Among other things, it avoids checkin/checkout issues altogether. Hmmm. I wonder how that preference correlates with charcoal and stick shift.