By Larry Kunz
posted on December 16, 2009 12:18
Did you ever read something and find yourself thinking more about the writing than about the message? The message is there, but it's overshadowed by the flowery prose or the clever turn of phrase.
When you read something like that, do you think “that's good writing”?
You probably don't. That's because—contrary to what we might have been taught—the best writing doesn't call attention to itself.
In college I was assigned to read one of Charles Dickens' less well known novels: Bleak House. In one scene, the characters are riding in a sleigh during a heavy snowstorm. I don't remember the words Dickens used to describe the scene. But I remember shivering as I read that passage, and remember getting up with the intention of closing the window and turning up the heat. Only then did I realize that the room was already quite warm, and that it was in fact late spring.
The best writing isn't good just because it's good. It's good because it does something for the reader. Perhaps it sparks an emotion or an “aha” moment. It might even bring a physical response like my wanting to turn up the heat.
Really good technical writing is like that. Not only does it help a reader do a task, it evokes a reaction like “Hey that wasn't so bad. I'm ready to tackle the next task.”
A couple of months ago Sarah O'Keefe argued in her Palimpsest blog that, when it comes to documentation, low cost and availablity trump flowery formatting every time. In the same way, the best writing is direct and effective, not artistic.
About the Author
Larry Kunz is a project manager and information architect with SDI with more than 30 years’ experience as a writer, manager, and planner. He has experienced the transition from book-based documentation to today's integrated delivery of information both as a writer and a manager. Larry is a Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and in 2010 received the STC President’s Award for leading the Society's strategic planning effort.