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The elegant skeleton: writing and structure (and technical documentation)

I’ve been crazy-busy at work, and in the limited amount of time that is not-work I’ve been working on a short story, which I just submitted (sans ending, which I still haven’t thunk up) to my writing workshop.

I haven’t written fiction since a high school creative writing class in 1974. I was initially inspired to work on this story by some axes I wanted to grind, but as often happens in writing projects, it developed a life of its own. The people I wanted to mock weren’t that interesting on paper, and a character emerged whose motivations and life-roundedness became at least mildly interesting to me, at least as a problem to solve.

I’m not entirely sure I want to write fiction on a regular basis, and since I don’t earn a living from my literary writing, I certainly don’t have to keep doing it. But it’s educational to force my brain around the problems of fiction — particularly short fiction, with its myriad conventions. I find myself sneaking back to favorite books to reassure myself that there is life beyond the short story.

“Say, Mum, let’s not open in scene this time!”

“But Buffy, we’re supposed to.”

In Cold Blood didn’t open in scene!”

“And Capote died a miserable alcoholic. Is that how you want to end up?”

Perhaps that was a little unfair…

But what I really wanted to say (really, how can we not love blogging, with its subway-conversation bagginess) is that a few months back I heard someone at a conference talk about the characteristics of good technical documentation writers, which included people who knew how to do really good structured writing, “Not like those creative writing types.”

I began snickering and quickly trotted away, since I didn’t want to be rude to this colleague. But I began wondering, does anyone read any more? Because you can’t talk about good writing without noticing how something as distinctive and memorable as voice is nothing without an impeccably correct structure. By correct, I mean, right and inevitable and seamless, a structure that appears self-evident, and is as discrete and omnipresent as a good butler.

Maybe that too is unfair, because if we’re writing well, a good reader should assume it’s easy. Nothing spells junior effort like a work where the skeleton pokes out all over the place, like a skinny kid in too-small clothes. Yet structure is hard.  Many writers go through several drafts just finding the right structure for their work. It’s a discipline and it’s a slog. But puzzling through structure is a great way to exercise the writing muscle — and I am sure it has produced more than a few people whose day jobs include dazzlingly well-wrought technical documentation.

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