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!


Steve Janoff

6 years ago

Yehoshua, I feel you take an unnecessarily restrictive view on this subject.

All human endeavor, even commercial enterprise, has elements of art in it. All of the great products we have today, such as the newer generation of electronic devices, are expressions of that.

What you describe as “Art” may be the highest expression in that it involves freedom of choice of the individual and a relative lack of constraints. In the commercial world there are many constraints, but that doesn’t mean that the individuals pursuing technical communication are not artists, or that tech comm is not “art.”

And just because user manuals are not featured in MOMA or the Louvre does not mean they are not art. Often, it takes many years for the “art” in a work to be appreciated. Toulouse Lautrec’s posters were just posters in his day. Today we consider them art. (They may have been considered art in his time but I think you know what I’m driving at.) The Eames chair is a timeless classic, as are other products like this.

The great architects built buildings under contract: private homes, commercial office spaces, government edifices, scientific research centers. With time, these great buildings were viewed as art.

In their own time, many of the works that later prove to be timeless classics are ridiculed.

But perhaps in the not too distant future, the Apple manuals of the 1980’s, or other products of technical communication from a more “distant” era, will be considered art in the way we now look at certain early computer designs. The humble Macintosh was a work of electronic and computer-design art.

The best works of technical communication rise above their product at the moment. They need more exposure. Perhaps this is a good time for someone to found a Museum of Technical Communication. Then you might change your thinking on this.

Oh, and last: If you put Picasso in jail and take away his pen and his paintbrush, he is still an artist. And even his thoughts and imaginings are artful. You can take the person away from their art, but you can’t take the art (or the artist) out of the person.

I have no problem seeing Technical Communication as Art, and Technical Communicators as Artists. I don’t believe in selling ourselves short just because of the limits we find ourselves bound by in the commercial world.

I also feel that for a Technical Communicator to see themselves as *not* being an Artist is simply a way to compensate for the internal frustrations of not having complete creative freedom. This is not good for a positive self-image. It is conforming in the worst way to the constraints of the commercial world. That doesn’t mean you have to break out and revolt; you just have to reconfigure the way you view your work. And if an opportunity comes along in your work to exercise your creative freedom, welcome it, and enjoy it.

You may be a “frustrated” artist, but you are still an artist. Of course, if you don’t have an artist’s sensibility and you don’t *want* to be seen as an artist, e.g., if you want to be seen as a craftsperson or a scientist, then that’s a different story. We all get to choose our own view of ourselves and our work.

Is TechComm Art? Yes! | Write Techie

6 years ago

[…] dynamic art with historical and everyday examples.In contrast to Yeoshua Paul’s article, “Resolved: Technical Communication is NOT art,” from the previous week that our profession is not an art, both Wanda and I address those […]