For the final section of our spring workshop, my students and I explored the topic of creative technical writing.
We defined what technical writing is, how it is used and identified examples of it in our everyday lives. Consequentially, we also discussed examples of ineffective technical writing, see “How Ikea Instructions Could Go from Worst to Best”.
We delved into how technical writing can and, in some cases, has to be creative in order to convey complex information, elicit certain behaviors or aid in the performance of a task. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Zombie Preparedness campaign is one the best examples of creative technical writing. Capitalizing on the popularity of the zombie horror genre, it is a tongue-in cheek ploy to engage new followers with preparedness messages for cold and flu season.
I encouraged my students to experiment with technical writing by immersing themselves into a historical event and writing a technical guide or memo for safely covering it as a journalist. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which fell on the day of this assignment, the event chosen was the Chicago Freedom Movement (1965-7). Also known as the Chicago open housing movement, it was a two year campaign against housing discrimination led by Dr. Martin Luther King.
Though the movement employed the use of rallies and marches as forms of nonviolent protests, I asked my students to zero in on the marches where journalists were often out in front interviewing participants. Journalist and marchers in these situations were vulnerable to being shot at, attacked or hit with projectiles. How does one, who is simply doing a job, prepare for such an event?
In preparation for this assignment, the class viewed the HBO documentary, King in the Wilderness. Afterwards they were allowed 45 minutes to write two pages.
Because technical writers have to be detail specific in their work, I asked that each student pay special attention to the surrounding conditions and changing dynamics of the marches. At the end of the session, each student presented their work.
During their closing presentations, some of my students expressed profound gratitude for having had the opportunity participate in the exercise but noted some difficulty in mastering the writing style due to its departure from other writing styles that they more familiar with and had easily excelled in. Their works demonstrated each author’s unique approach to the same scenario. Some focused solely on getting the story at all costs while others were concerned with possible clashes between opposing groups. Without realizing it, they were engaging with the material in a way that forced them to think more critically about how events are portrayed.
The highlight of the class came from Tony, a student who struggled to keep up with the fiction and non-fiction sections of the course. Because of his profession, he didn’t believe he had what it took to be a creative writer but was delighted to tackle this assignment. Surprise, surprise he is a professional technical writer. He honed in details about individual preparedness that encouraged readers to be more environmentally aware of sights, sounds, and smells.
My goal with this workshop has always been to encourage the type of out-of-the-box thinking that would allow individuals grow as writers and free them from their respective literary loops and ruts. I sincerely hope you can join us for this summer’s Urban Literature Workshop where the class will write and publish a collection of works as a group.