Creativity in Structured Writing

By | 2012/10/15

One of the most frequent concerns that writers express about structured writing is that it will rob them of their opportunity for creativity. In itself, this is not an argument against a business adopting structured writing. Businesses don’t exist to provide creative outputs for writers, but to create products for customers and income for shareholders. But that aside, does structured writing really rob writers of the opportunity to exercise creativity? I think not. In fact, I think it increases the opportunity for real creativity.

Let us begin with the proposition that real creativity is hard. Mere variation is not creativity. Creativity brings something new into the world — and not something trivially or inconsequentially new, but something substantially and usefully new. Something both distinct and valuable. Creativity is not measured in quantity but in quality. Indeed, works of great creativity are usually reproduced in great numbers because many people want to get their hands on the new and valuable thing that creativity has conceived.

Mona Lisa

The value of true creativity is realized in massive high-fidelity reproduction.

Uniform high quality reproduction, therefore, not random variety, is the hallmark of true creativity. People want true high-fidelity recordings of the creative works of great musicians, not the random warblings of happy amateurs. People want true and unaltered copies of great works of literature, not the endless pastiches of aspiring scribblers. People want real iPhones or Galaxy SIIIs, not cheap knockoffs.

Great creativity, then, produces a unique pattern, but the proof of the value of the pattern is in its widespread and faithful reproduction. Where faithful reproduction is not maintained, the fruits of creativity are lost.

Technical communication is not literature. It is functional information delivery, and its quality is measured not in beauty or originality of expression but in consistent and reliable support for the tasks of the users of the products it documents. Even the writers who worry about structured writing robbing them of the opportunity for creativity will generally advocate for consistency in terminology, style, and formatting in the information they and their colleagues produce.

The opportunity for creativity in technical communication, therefore, is not found in the everyday task of typing up new content, but in establishing the patterns and templates that guide that typing and conform it to the standards established for it.

Structured writing is simply a more formal way of capturing and applying those patterns and templates that creativity in technical communication creates. It provides for a much higher degree of fidelity to the patterns that creativity establishes. It does this in three ways:

  • By allowing the capture of the patterns at a much finer level, thus guiding the hand of the writer more firmly as they craft individual instances of the pattern.
  • By supporting automation of many parts of the writing, presentation, and formatting of content, thus ensuring greater fidelity to the pattern and freeing the writer for less repetitive work.
  • By enabling mechanical validation of the content, and of the content processes, again ensuring greater fidelity to the pattern, fewer errors, and more consistent coverage while freeing the writer to focus on other aspects of quality control.

Great craftsmen demonstrate their creativity in creating tools for themselves that help them produce products with a greater degree of uniformity and consistency. Creativity in generating the pattern is matched by creativity in creating the tools that ensure fidelity to the pattern.

A truly creative technical writer, therefore, should crave access to the tool-making capability of structured writing. They should actively seek out tools that can help them consistently produce the high quality patterns for information products that are the result of their creativity. Structured writing, in short, is a tool for creativity in technical writing.

Of course, it isn’t always used that way. Sometimes, companies implement generic structured writing approaches merely as a way to streamline publishing or to facilitate ad-hoc reuse. They forbid the development or use of custom schemas or processing, ruling out the opportunity for writers to capture and faithfully reproduce the patterns that their creativity generates.

Automated publishing and ad-hoc reuse are useful, of course, and they free writers from certain classes of drudgery, providing the opportunity for the greater exercise of creativity. But if the company won’t go further, and use their structured writing system as a means to bring the creativity of their writers to fruition in the production of highly consistent, high quality technical content, they have missed a major part of the promise of structured writing.

Some fear, with good reason, that the creation of custom schemas and processing may lead to an unmanageable collection of poorly thought-out and poorly managed code that does more to limit productivity then enhance creativity. But this is only a problem if the system is poorly engineered. True creativity, as opposed to opportunistic bodging, requires great engineering. If you want to use the tools of creativity, you must learn to use them well. Great artists must be great engineers. No truly creative person will settle for less.


Category: Structured writing

About Mark Baker

I am an aspiring novelist and former technical writer and content strategist. On the technical side, I am the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process. I blog at and tweet as @mbakeranalecta.

19 thoughts on “Creativity in Structured Writing

  1. Just Plain Karen

    Hi, Mark. Perhaps a parallel analogy to yours comes from poetry. As an amateur (meaning: prolific but little published) poet, I enjoy writing formal poetry because I have to bend my thoughts into meaningful phrases that fit within the form’s imposed structure. (To me, anyone can write a “prose poem”–although I just call that “prose.”) I think you’re saying the same thing. In technical writing, creativity isn’t being able to write anything you want how you want to; it’s about writing what absolutely needs to be said effectively within the confines of structured documentation.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Karen, thanks for the comment.

      Actually, I think there are three distinct kinds of creativity here. The first, which you are referring to, is to write good sonnets, given the sonnet form. The second, which is what I was referring to, is the ability to invent the sonnet form. The third is to find a way to shoehorn a narrative poem into the sonnet form, or pad out a haiku to sonnet length because the sonnet is the only form you are allowed to write.

      Where structured writing so often comes to grief is when companies say, sonnets are an industry standard so we will only write sonnets. This then involves the writer in the third kind of creativity — which may be creativity, but it is frustrating to the writer, and frustrating to the reader who is not getting the kind of poem them want.

      To make structured writing work well, poets need the freedom and the skill to:

      * Choose the right verse form for the poem they have to write.
      * Conform their poem successfully to the chosen verse form.
      * Create new verse forms when none of the existing verse forms work for the poem they need to write.

  2. Vinish Garg

    Very well put Mark. A technical writer can be as creative as any other individual or artist. A poet has the liberty to visualize, sense and pen down emotions and thoughts of flowers, sun, wind, rain, smile, child or anything. But that is the freedom he has got. Technical writers too have the liberty to plan information architecture, play with css, be innovative in TOC of help manual, be creative in wireframing, and so on. Even in structured writing and even if a style guides talks about Do’s and Dont’s, a procedure always needs to be planned and an instruction is always to be written. It is up to the individual whether one feels deprived of creative liberty or relishes the challenge of being creative within the style guide limitations.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Vinish, I agree. People often take “creativity” to mean simply artistic creativity. We can argue about whether tech comm is art (as TechWhirl is debating at the moment), but engineering creativity is as much creativity as artistic creativity, and tech writing presents lots of opportunities for engineering creativity.

      One of the areas in which I thing that engineering creativity needs to be applied, of course, is in getting away from manuals and tables of contents. Every Page is Page One.

  3. Larry Czaplyski

    Where to begin?

    First, the idea that a technical writer could be a creative writer is to my mind, ludicrous. I’ve worked as a technical writer for over twenty-five years and I can say truthfully that there was not one day where the thought entered my mind that what I was doing was in any way related to creative writing.

    Tech writing is simply one form of business writing and probably the least creative aspect of that form. A copywriter has license for some creativity but never a technical writer. I’d be interested in any example of creative technical writing.

    If folks are saying that using your mind to come up with solutions to technical writing issues is creative writing, than I think they’re really confusing what creativity is all about.

    Using your mind to come up with a new or different slant on an activity is what every sentient creature does by virtue of having intelligence. Being creative in the sense of, for example, writing poetry or fiction, is a very different matter from the simple and effective every-day use of your brain.

    As for formal structured writing, I don’t know too much about it. It seems a complicated way of helping folks who have difficulty writing, write a little better.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Larry.

      I’ve never been sure myself what “creative writing” is supposed to mean. It seems to mean something between fanciful and self-indulgent, and tech comm should certainly never be either of those things.

      But, as I mentioned to Vinish, I don’t think we should restrict “creativity” to the artistic, the fanciful, or the self-indulgent. Engineering is also a creative discipline, and while we live in an age that is largely banal and self-indulgent in artistic creativity, it is vibrant, brilliant, and enormously productive in the engineering creativity.

      Structure writing — or intelligent content, as some seem to be re-branding it — presents the tools and the opportunity for us to apply engineering creativity to technical communications.

      1. Larry Czaplyski

        I think we’re talking about two different things: creative writing vs. random acts of creativity/inventiveness that can occur while performing typical engineering or technical writing activities.
        There was a time before cars become too complicated for the average owner to work on them, where my most creative/moments occurred while working on a car engine. I’d reach a dead-end point where I had no idea how to proceed. Either I had the wrong tools or a physical obstacle stopped me cold. I’ve had a number of those moments and for each one, I finally figured out a way to solve my problem. I recognize that as creativity/inventiveness and I relished those moments. I’ve also experienced similar “ah-ha” moments while working on technical documentation problems.
        However, that doesn’t make me a creative writer or turn technical writing into creative writing. I agree with you that structured writing offers new ways to approach problem areas in technical writing, but if you are saying that technical writing can be a form of creative writing, I strongly disagree.

        1. Mark Baker Post author

          I never meant to suggest that technical writing has anything to do with “creative writing” in the sense that that phrase is used in night school catalogs. But that does not exclude creativity in a more general sense from the practice of technical writing.

          I think the the creativity in technical writing is primarily engineering creativity — the finding of practical and elegant solutions to practical problems. But I don’t think there is anything random about inventiveness or creativity in engineering. Creativity and inventiveness in engineering is a planned and disciplined activity.

          1. Larry Czaplyski

            I agree with your comments now.

            I did think you were comparing technical writing to creative writing.

            But where did you come up with the night school reference?

          2. Mark Baker Post author

            Just seems like there is always a “creative writing” course in every night school catalog. 🙂

  4. Ruth

    Great topic. I have been wanting to write about this but I haven’t organized my thoughts sufficiently. I don’t see creativity in tech writing in quite the way you do.

    I see it like this: You have researched a piece of what you need to write, and you sit down at your PC. You have probably previously planned out your structure but now you’re starting to write. You have in your mind your research of the features or whatever, plus a bunch of ideas about what problems your readers will have comprehending the material, a sense of how competitors have done a good job with similar features, etc etc etc – and the words start to flow out of you. That process continues as you read what you wrote, see your mistakes, revise, tweak, undo, redo.

    To me that’s a very creative process. The impediments to that creativity are things like tagging text, inserting conrefs, etc. They break your concentration and take you away from the creation of content. In that regard Docbook is almost as big an impediment as DITA. The extra impediment to creativity that DITA adds is having related topics separated so you have to open them separately in separate windows. Having a whole chapter open at once (as you can do in Docbook) makes for an easier writing process.

    For me, the bottom line about creativity is quality. Call it what you will – being in the zone, being creative – it’s what produces great content. If management wants quality, they need to think about things like how to help writers have the tools they need to do their best writing.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Ruth. Thanks for the comment.

      I think the key difference between how you and I are describing creativity in technical communication is that you are describing creativity in the artisan style of tech writing, where I am talking about creativity in an industrial style of tech writing.

      Moving to an industrial style does take away from the flow of artisan style or working. In an industrial style, you are not designing each piece individually as you work, but defining a pattern for the mass production of consistent pieces. The creativity, therefore, moves from the crafting of the individual pieces to the crafting of the molds and patterns.

      Unfortunately, many structured writing systems are not designed or socialized this way, which can result in a clash between the artisan way in which writers want to work and the industrial nature of the tools they are using. Here is where writers often feel that structured writing is robbing them of their creativity, but the problem is really more profound than that. It is a clash of methods that is really causing the difficulties.

      I’m with you entirely on the distractions in DITA markup. Any structured writing system necessarily involves tagging content, of course, but much can be done to make the tagging process natural and lucid. This has nothing to do with making it visual (as many people imagine) but with making the tagging be about the subject matter, not the publishing process. Both DocBook and DITA fall short on this, but DITA is particularly bad.

      1. Ruth

        Hi again,

        Thanks for the comment on my comment! 🙂

        I can’t agree that the creativity in writing is reduced by adding creativity to the molds and patterns part of writing. An equivalent way of saying this is: the complexity and importance of crafting content is not diminished by the presence of architects who create restrictions on how topics are structured.

        Writers have always written to restrictions: style guidelines, conventions found throughout the doc set, etc. Restrictions don’t reduce the need for creativity. If architects provide molds for writers, writers still have to find a way to create content within the molds that meets the need of readers.

        There is no artisanal and industrial writing. There’s just writing. If we decide that our writers should not worry about all the complex things that make our content useful to readers (user tasks/goals, user education, language, terminology familiarity, etc), then we are just deciding not to worry about making what we write useful to readers. And that might not matter when you’re writing specs for airplane parts, but it does matter for most technical writing.

        As a separate point, the highly structured environment where a writer isn’t responsible for a subject area but just for assigned topics is something that would be appropriate only in rare circumstances. In most writing environments there is no need for that level of structure and it would diminish the quality of output to tell writers that they can’t be the expert in their subject area. My mian complaint about DITA and structured writing is that we have generalized some edge cases and want to apply something universally that is not appropriate.

        The issues are big. Sorry for the long comment.

        1. Mark Baker Post author

          Ruth, long comments are good. I make lots of them all over the place. 🙂

          I suspect we art going to have to agree to disagree on some of this, though. There is most definitely a difference between artisanal and industrial writing. But I agree with you on DITA, especially on DITA as commonly practiced. Generic structure isn’t doing anything for the writing process, just allowing you to put piece together and have them print.

          This is why I say that structured writing is a tool for writers themselves. Writers should not have to be creative about how to express what needs to said within the constraints of molds created by someone else who does not understand the subject matter or the user. Writers, or groups of writers, need to be able to create their own molds to support the more efficient and consistent creation of the content.

  5. Alex Knappe

    Being just back from a tech comm convention, all I can state is: the industry completely jumped the XML-train. So in the long run, all there will be left is structured writing. Does it destroy creativity? Well, did CIs do it? I don’t think so.
    The most simple action to “preserve” creativity in any structured content is to simply add an tag, that is usable in all contexts, into your DTD.
    This tag already solves every problem that might rise, while writing your documentation and would be a perfect instrument to check, if your structure is good enough to suit the needs of the authors or your standards.
    The more often you find such a tag in a documentation, the worse is your process.
    It indicates two possible things:

    1. Your structure is a mess and nobody can work with it effectively.
    2. Your writers aren’t trained well enough and see only one way out to get the job (not so well) done – use this tag.

    In the first case, pretty much every writer using the given structure will use the tag.
    In the second case, only few writers will use it.

    It might even indicate, that only a certain type of docs are affected by a bad structure design. This is the case, if you find the tag in only some special type of your documents.

    But it also provides a way for the writer to place something “creative” into the otherwise standardized creation process. Got a brilliant idea for exactly this one time occurance? Go ahead, place a tag and do whatever your brilliant idea includes.

    It is up to the review process to stop writers from overusing such a tag.

    1. Alex Knappe

      Whoops seems the Textfield devoured the tag, I meant

  6. Alex Knappe

    Should have been “unstructured”

  7. Mark Baker Post author

    Alex, I agree wholeheartedly. The last form of creativity you want in a structured writing system is to have the writers finding creative way around the structure. But if you blindly assume your structure is perfect and simply insist on conformance, that is exactly what you will get.

    But even worse than having writers be creative in getting round the structure is having them do it in ways that you can’t detect. So, the answer is to give them a safety valve — a tag or a set of tags, or even a whole document type, that they can use to get their work finished if the available structures don’t work for what they are trying to write.

    You can then review your content for the presence of the safety-valve topics or document types and determine if their use signals a lack in your structures or in your writer’s understanding of the structures — both of which are problems you can then fix.

    The trap in this, however, is to adapt to deficits in the structures by making extending existing structures to support more variety or to make more things optional or repeatable. Options are the enemy of structure. You want each of your structures to be strict and to have as few variations and options as possible. The more variations you allow, the less you can know for certain about a topic based on its type, and the less you know for certain about a topic based on its type, the less automation you can apply to it. The right solution is to create new structures for the new needs that your have found.

  8. Myron Porter

    Perhaps a productive way to view creativity in technical communications and structured writing is that of problem-solving.
    All writers have a problem to solve–how to effectively communicate something to an audience. There are similar choices in literature: voice, diction, perspective, form, devices, etc., but the main issue remains communication. And, creativity is necessary to resolve this issue, sometimes to a much greater degree than other times.

    I view structured writing, as a form, a bit differently though. It must be consistent (usually another indicator of quality–Toyota method and all that), but just as a poem or novel must be, internally consistent. The form and the consistency act in tandem as a vehicle to help deliver communication. How to achieve this may involve little or a lot of creativity. For me, structured writing is simply a device or conduit for communication through communication flows (I hope).


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