As a young, awkward adolescent, I would often wear hand-me-down clothes or pass-ons from my older cousins. I remember a time in middle school wearing a shirt of some popular but distant beach or vacation spot when a well-meaning person asked me questions. “Have you been there? Wasn’t it fun?” Although the person was simply trying to start a conversation, I resolved never to wear a shirt with a logo or anything recognizable again. I only wore solid colors or basic prints. Luckily, the late 80s and early 90s gave me lots of large floral prints to choose from. I was too shy and introverted to wear zebra zig-zags or other bold patterns.
Technical writing, to me, is safe. Even though I focus on using active voice (“calculate results” instead of “the results were calculated…”), I write dry, dispassionate instructions. That’s my comfort zone. And while I may focus on user actions rather than developer priorities, I’m still a ghost writer. My name isn’t on anything I publish at work. There’s very little of me in the process, and I like it that way. Critique is easier to take because I disassociate my internal self from what I write. It becomes objective, instead of subjective. Like a math problem, criticism improves my techniques and gives me alternate solutions.
Everything changes when I “write a story” (as I used to call creative fiction). These are now my ideas, from my inner core, that I’m holding out for everyone to see and comment upon, friendly and troll alike. It doesn’t matter that people even pan classics and bestsellers, I am personally involved. Maybe these feelings are an extension of the awkward adolescent years when I thought about being a writer, but writing abstract ideas or writing fiction makes me have this sudden urge to clean all the crumbs from my keyboard or something equally tedious and unimportant. If someone walks by, I want to Alt+Tab to another screen to prevent them from seeing what I write.
Does it Have to Be One or the Other?
Over the last year, I’ve been researching storytelling and how it combines with technical communication. Technical storytelling, non-fiction narrative, call it what you will. The ability to really connect with people and hook into their emotions makes instructions highly effective. Science shows the need for stories isn’t just for children at bedtime. (Post coming soon.)
Lately I’ve been reading Story Craft by Jack Hart, and it’s one of the ways I’m looking at my writing in a whole new way. Between Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story by Lisa Cron on Lynda.com and From Storytelling to Story Selling by Bobby Lehew at Marketing Profs (it’s worth the subscription to both!!!), it’s becoming hard to write a blog post because I feel so novice.
Then yesterday, I started reading SEO Simplified For Short Attention Spans by Barry Feldman. The opening chapter starts, “You’re not optimizing your site for search,” my client said between bites of his burger. “You’re shooting yourself in the foot, man. How’s anyone going to find it?” I knew he was right. I knew just enough about the subject of SEO to know I didn’t know diddley-squat.
Here Barry Feldman is writing a technical manual about how to understand search engine optimization, and he hooks us in with a conversation complete with enough details we can picture him and a friend, eating together and discussing business over some food. He sets himself up as one of us, knowing some but completely overwhelmed by a very large, imposing subject. Now we’re hooked, we can relate. I love it.
I Think I Can, I Think I Can
As I write, now, I’m thinking more and more about various aspects of storytelling in my technical writing. Who is my character? What is the scene? Is my voice and tone appropriate?
A few months from now, I’ll probably look back on this post and smile at how amateur it will seem. Good writing is difficult, and the only way to get better is to write, write, and then write some more.