Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Technical Manuals Can Teach Novelists

Technical manuals are an interesting style of writing. Not so much in the material, but in the way that they need to be composed. Every step must be enumerated to the nth degree, even one so small as "replace the screw you took out in step 5." During the course of my master's degree, a fellow student told a story about someone messing up an expensive piece of machinery because that particular step wasn't included in the order of operations.

Many of the best technical manuals, in fact, enumerate every action you have to take in the order the writers believe you should take them. Full disclosure: I don't always follow the steps in the order they're given. Bad Matthew, yes I know.

My point, as it relates to fiction, is that there are times where detail is good and times where detail is bad. One of the places detail is good is in the creation of the new world your characters populate. One that's bad is when you describe the specific actions characters take in a given setting.

Let me give you an example: "Moriah climbed up the ladder and pushed the trapdoor open."

Now, that sentence isn't bad per se, but it is a little more detailed than it needs to be.

A possible rewrite is "Moriah opened the trapdoor at the top of the ladder."

See how four words were cut without sacrificing any of the needed detail in the sentence? That's roughly the level of detail we should probably have in our writing -- just enough so you understand what happened, but not so much that you're overwhelmed with things you really don't need to know.

The technical writing background is beneficial because I tend to overwrite description in a lot of cases (as I was reminded in a recent critique), and thus I can better see where things need to be cut because of that. Or at least I think I can. That all remains to be seen.


Rick Daley said...

Good point. To offer a counter-point, you can add words and description to elevate the tension (in this case the potential for the ladder to break):

The splintered rungs creaked under her weight, threatening to snap as Moriah climbed the ladder. She squared her feet against the frame of the ladder as she pushed to open the trapdoor above her.

Stephanie Damore said...

Yeah, my bachelors is in technical writing, but I still overwrite descriptions :) Thanks for the reminder to go back through my work and be on the lookout for such traps.

L. T. Host said...

I've noticed game walkthroughs do this too.

Yes, I cheat. I'm not very good at games... I need help, ok?

Anyway, word count is an easy way to play with the pace and tension of your scene. More words= slower pace, which is good if you're trying to build tension, but if you're smack in the middle of action you probably want to write "technically" so you don't slow the reader down.

Joshua McCune said...

Arg, I hate technical writing... whether manuals or papers, they all suck.

Rick's point about adding words to elevate a scene is good, too, but if the ladder's sturdy, just get up it, I say (after all, she's got bullets zipping by her head. Doesn't she have enough stress in her life without shoddy craftsmanship :)

Ultimately, it's a fine balancing act to provide enough detail w/o becoming bogged down, or, to use my 7th grade English teacher's mini-skirt analogy -- long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting (he was applying it to stories in general, but I think it applies to description, too).

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I use my technical reading skills to read technical writing - skipping about 5 out of every 7 words usually gets the job done, without all the pain.

It was a revelation to me, as I started writing kidlit, that using fewer words could actually be more descriptive. More work, and you have to vary it with the tempo, but I almost always found less words=more impact (as long as it's not too spare).

My favorite of all time: The door dilated.

Three words and a whole paragraph of visual and meaning.

Concord Carpenter said...


Did you hear about or know about the Sci-fi / Fantasy convention this past weekend at the Hyatt in

dolorah said...

I fall into the too much detail trap sometimes, but when my crit partners tell me to pare down, I slide right into too bare.

Sometimes, it's hard to know when to add and when to subtract. I like your example though. Very effective.

Thanks for the info.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I've fallen into the detail trap too- I'm annihilating much of that from Hatshepsut as we speak. It's brutal!