Thanks for visiting the blog. Pull up a chair and settle in for a while. We’ve got Stephanie Stamm with us today talking about technical writing and how it helped her write novels.
For over 13 years now, I’ve made a living as a technical writer, writing, editing, and formatting policies, procedures, and training materials and managing document control systems for highly regulated industries (pharmaceutical, medical device, and food packaging manufacturers). I’ve interviewed workers (subject matter experts, we call them) about their work tasks and observed their processes, so I could write instructions and training materials for new employees. I’ve edited and proofread other people’s work. I’ve formatted countless documents, making sure they meet the company’s formatting standards and the requirements for controlled documents regarding ownership, effective dates, revision dates, and a documented history of changes.
The work is, as the job title indicates, very technical, detailed—and, you might think, as far from creative writing as it’s possible to get. That’s certainly how I felt when I first started the job. And it is true that I don’t get to exercise my creative muscles at work. I am not inventing what I write about. I’m writing instructions, and the point is to make those instructions as clear and accurate as possible. Beauty of language, clever turns of phrase, and poetic expression are irrelevant and unwanted.
How, then, could technical writing possibly help me write novels?
First, technical writing, like fiction writing, involves research, curiosity, and questions. I generally start out knowing nothing about a process for which I’m going to write instructions. I have to read manuals, interview subject matter experts, observe processes—and ask questions. Early in my tenure as a technical writer, I learned that I, as a novice, could write much more detailed instructions for a task than a person who had been performing the task for years. Yes, this is in part because I’m a writer and the subject matter expert usually isn’t. But it’s also because the subject matter expert is so familiar with his or her subject that s/he skips over steps and assumes the users of the instructions will know more than they do. As a novice, with no more knowledge of the process than a new trainee, I ask questions about steps the workers perform but don’t describe and about what should be done if something goes wrong during the process. I then include that information in the instructions.
Research for my novels is a different business. For A Gift of Wings, my research topics included angelology and demonology as well as different makes of motorcycles (so I could choose the appropriate ride for one of my half-angel characters). But the necessity of the research and the curiosity behind it is the same.
This leads me to the second way technical writing has helped me write fiction: it taught me to slow down and capture details. To write accurate instructions, you have to describe, as clearly as possible, how to take a process from start to finish. If you skip key steps—or even seemingly minor ones—your reader (a trainee) can get lost. The same is true for fiction. In creating a story, even a scene, we have to slow down so we can see all the narrative steps and describe enough of them for the reader to follow with ease. I can’t tighten a bolt until I’ve inserted it. Likewise, my character can’t get angry without motivation, and she can’t slam a door if she’s nowhere near one.
This slowing down and taking time to envision a scene or to describe a character’s feelings or reactions is also what enables us to capture those sensory details that bring a scene to life for the reader. How does the character move, react, respond? What sights, sounds, textures, or smells might be important? We have to take the time to inhabit the scenes we create and then to describe those scenes with just the right amount of detail to get the important bits across. While my technical instructions don’t read like novels, nor do my novels read like technical instructions, both have their source in careful observation—whether I’m observing a work process or the imaginary scene unfolding inside my head.
Finally, my time as a technical writer has enabled me to accept suggestions for revision with ease. I don’t hesitate to turn my procedure drafts over to the subject matter expert to review for accuracy and clarity. That’s part of my job. Granted, I don’t feel the same sense of ownership for my technical writing as I do for my creative efforts. Still, I know the importance of that second, third, or fourth pair of eyes. When I’m writing a novel, I’m so inside the story that I can’t see it clearly. I need other people to read my work, tell me if I’ve left out things, skipped over steps. As author, I assume the role of subject matter expert—and, in my initial drafts, I may leave out things that are obvious to me, but not so obvious to a reader. I need a critique partner, beta readers, an editor—someone to help me see the forest created by all the trees I’ve planted.
So, while technical writing may seem—and is—very different from creative writing, the two also have their commonalities. I would never have thought it when I started my technical writing career, but I’ve found it to be an excellent apprenticeship for writing fiction.
About Stephanie: Stephanie Stamm grew up in Kentucky and then moved to Chicago, where she lived for 10 years, before settling in Southwest Michigan. She holds an advanced degree in Religion & Literature, and has been a press operator, a teaching assistant, a research assistant, an English and Humanities instructor, a potter, and, for the last several years, a technical writer. An avid reader of fantasy, she finally decided to combine her fascination with angels, ancient religions, and world-building and write the novels she wanted to read. A Gift of Wings, the first volume of the Light-Bringer Series, is her first novel. She is currently working on the sequel, A Gift of Shadows.
Where to find Stephanie:
Cindy here again!
Thanks so much for being here Stephanie. I applied to a technical writing position but though they knew I wrote fiction they didn’t think I would be able to do technical writing because they are so different. Wish I’d had this post then to prove I could do it. 🙂