Technically Creative

For many aspiring professional writers, the term “technical writing” is an intimidating and, perhaps, boring phrase. What even is technical writing? Writing manuals and textbooks? Sure, they are important, but how can a lover of writing find any passion and fulfillment in a position such as that? I was also confused by this, until I had a long chat with my beloved uncle, John B. Martin, PhD. He found time in his very busy retired and quarantined day to answer my questions about his life’s work as a technical writer and the joy that he found in it.

John B. Martin, PhD. Fun-loving uncle and technical writing extraordinaire.

Humble Beginnings

John originally set out to be a Rehabilitation Counselor, getting his bachelor’s in counseling at the University of Georgia. He worked as a counselor in Atlanta, Georgia for a short time before he decided to get his doctorate in rehabilitation counseling from Mississippi State University. While he was there, he worked as a Hall Director, which allowed him to live for free and receive an extra $400 a month. Once he graduated, he was released from the position, requiring him to find a new job. However, John explained to me, during this time, “[President] Reagan vetoed the Rehabilitation Act and put all of the rehabilitation counselors, most of them, out of work, because it was a time in our country that prisoners did not need to be rehabilitated.” Because of this, there were no jobs in his field available, so he took a temporary job working in the Research and Curriculum Unit at Mississippi State.

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Pros and Cons

A creative writing enthusiast from very young, John was hesitant, at first, about technical writing because he was not sure how he could bring creativity into such a field. He explained that technical writing is a very different type of writing than prose and poetry.

Now the pros and cons of it are that it’s a different type of writing. I’ve always been a creative writer and, uh, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that the creative part of this is in the organization and the presentation of the material as opposed to using my imagination to come up with creative prose. Things like “the ocean formed a beautiful lace surf [laughs].” I had to learn how to be to the point and, you know, cut out all of the trivia.

John B. Martin, PhD

Instead of finding the perfect metaphor, one must find the simplest way to explain a concept that is understandable to anyone, regardless of education level or prior knowledge. Many inexperienced technical writers often fall into certain pitfalls, such as using the passive voice instead of the active voice or using a two-dollar word instead of a fifty-cent word. John was able to hone his craft by studying books on technical writing and by learning from his editor who explained different tricks that helped keep his writing clear and understandable. For example, instead of capitalizing just the B in blue, one should capitalize the entire word, BLUE, so it easily stands out in the text. “Press the BLUE button,” is much easier to immediately see and understand than “press the Blue button.” Within two years with the company, John was put in charge of the Industry Curriculum Services. He worked with company from 1980 until he retired in 2002.

How to How-To

I asked him if he knew much about technical writing before taking the position. He replied:

No, I didn’t really know much about it at all. It was a big learning curve. I knew you were supposed to keep it simple, but it was uh, um, there was more of a science to it that I learned, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just happened to take the job at a time where they were desperate, there uh, wasn’t a lot of people, uh… It was an entry level job for people who had a doctorate.

John B. Martin, PhD

He grew to love the job and very much enjoyed being able to bring his own unique creativity into his work. Because he was often contracted to write curriculum on a wide variety of products, every day was a new challenge for him to face. The process for writing the curriculum began with reading the vendor materials, which were usually very difficult to read as they were written by engineers. Then, the writer had to research the product and interview the company’s personnel to gain an insight into how actual people used the product. Next, the writer would write the manual, referring to the resource materials and research gathered, taking care to keep the information as understandable as possible. Finally, the writer would check the work by having the company personnel read over it. Once it was approved, it would be turned over to the client.

John (right) and his husband, Toby (left).

He grew to love the job…every day was a new challenge for him to face.

John (right) and his husband, Toby (left).

John cautioned that technical writing is a very difficult job that requires a professional that either is good at writing or really enjoys this type of work. According to him, “it is a job in the language arts that isn’t easily understood by people that are poets or novelists, you know, creative people.” One must be able to take a lot of complex information and make it understandable in a cohesive way, which takes a lot of creativity and patience. Personally, I have a much greater understanding and appreciation for technical writing now. It combines my passion for learning, my skills in writing, and my love of helping others. Before this interview, I had considered technical writing, but I was not sure if I would be happy in a position where I could not use my imagination. Now I realize that technical writing requires both imagination and intelligence. Hopefully, other new professionals will give technical writing a chance as well.

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Martin, John B. (2020, April 14). Personal interview.

Images provided by John B. Martin.

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