Resolved: Technical Writing is NOT Art

The elements that make a discipline an art include individuality, freedom of expression, intention, value and creativity. Technical Writing incorporates some of these traits, but not all, and therefore cannot be Art.

Editor’s Note: In a world where the lines between design, content development, information and experience are blurring, technical writers often debate the need for creativity in technical communications, and whether the field should be considered an Art rather than something else. Yehoshua Paul takes on the side of the debate that says Technical Writing is Not Art.  We invite you to read through his arguments, and join the discussion by posting a comment.  Then look for the opposing viewpoint, written by Roger Renteria and Wanda Phillips on Monday, October 22.

Is Technical Writing Art?Since the dawn of time, philosophers have debated many hotly contested issues: what came first the chicken or the egg? Age before beauty or beauty before age? Can God create a rock that he cannot lift? And of course the question that has confounded scholars since the first technical document was written in ancient Rome, should technical writing be considered art? After all, someone had to write the manual on how to construct a colossus, and clearly the author was an artist based on the outcome of that manual, but there are others who disagree, and for some very obvious reasons believe that technical writing is not art and technical writers are not artists.

The art world also seems to side with the dissenters. User guides are never displayed at the MOMA, maintenance manuals are not exhibited at the Louvre, and Help while offered, is not given its own wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In many ways Technical Writing is the antithesis of Art.

Technical writing has its creative aspects, such as document design, formatting, and visual cues, and more recently video and e-learning. However, even if these were the highest priorities of technical communicators (beyond even receiving accurate information from SMEs and finishing a project on time), more is still required before we can even begin to consider technical writing as art. Some of those considerations are:

  • Individuality – Artists have their own unique style, which characterizes their work. Art is used as a means of self-expression. Picasso had cubism, Shakespeare had iambic pentameter, and Andy Warhol stood on a plinth to express himself. You can identify who created an artistic piece just by looking at it and identifying the creator’s own unique style.

Technical writing is the exact opposite. Writers are expected to bury their egos, remove any personal trace from their writing and conform to company standards even if it requires the murder of innocent punctuation, such as the semi-colon. With good technical writing, it is impossible to tell whether content was written by one or multiple authors because the writing style is always identical, and the identity of the author(s) is irrelevant to the reader.

  • Freedom – The only things that limits artists are their imagination and chosen medium.  Artists are free to create whatever they want whenever they want. While traditional art used to be more structured and rigid, modern art provide artists with the freedom to experiment and express themselves using any and all (legal) means.

Technical writers do not write for themselves, they write for others, and this determines what and how they write. Freedom is restricted by requirements to maintain consistency, write for a specific target audience, and conform to company styles and standards. Simplified Technical English and Localization, for example, are just a few of the many external requirements that limit the freedom of technical writers.

Technical writers, for the most part, do not intend for their content to be perceived as art. For many it is a job that requires specific skills, such as communication, good analytical skills, and of course writing, but the end result is intended to facilitate a better understanding of a product, not create an object of aesthetic value intended to trigger a sensory-emotional response in the reader.

  • Independent value – Each artistic creation has its own inherent value. It exists independent of everything else, and while it can be part of a set each individual piece can be appreciated separately.

Technical content requires a product or subject to be of any value. The user guide is used to enhance a product, and when the product becomes obsolete the user guide is no longer relevant. Unlike art, which aims for immortality, the value of technical content is only as good as the latest version of the product.

  • Creative: Art is creative by definition. Artists are constantly looking for new ways to experiment, innovate, be original, and stand out from the crowd.

The creativity in technical writing is an important and necessary skill, but only as an aide to help users better understand a product, and not for its own sake. Many technical writers prefer the creative aspects of technical writing to be automated, such as macros for formatting, styles, and templates so that they do not have to deal with the creative aspects, and can focus on the actual writing.

These are the key reasons why technical writing cannot be considered art. Other reasons include external recognition, and ownership. Artists get to sign their names on whatever they create. Technical writers get to sign their name on the table of revisions, which is (usually) never released to the customer.

Art can be anything, it can be beautiful or it can be ugly, truthful or deceitful, structured or chaotic. There is a prestige attached to being an artist, which might explain why so many technical writers would like to view themselves as such, but in fact our industry is more akin to science. Science is about the need to understand and explain the universe. Science organizes knowledge using tested means and methods, and technical writers are the same in their pursuit of SME knowledge.

When debating whether technical writing should be considered art or science, it seems pretty clear to me that science wins the debate. Technical writing may employ artistic means and methods, but only so long as these are used to help users to better understand a product, the moment art becomes a distraction it is discarded, and something better is used in its place. The Romans had it right, In Scienta Veritas, in Arte Honestas – in science truth, in art honor. Technical writers need the truth!

Yehoshua Paul

Yehoshua Paul is a documentation specialist, technical communicator, technical writer, content manager - you name it, he’s done it. In his five years as a technical writer, Yehoshua has managed to work in a wide variety of companies; from small startups to large multi-national corporations. Currently he is working as the lone technical writer in a software company that develops web-based systems for airlines, travel agencies and tour operators.

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