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.
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.