J. TECHNICAL WRITING A N D COMMUNICATION, Vol. 15(1), 1985
TECHNICAL WRITING AND THE RECREATION OF REALITY
MARILYN SCHAUER SAMUELS Case Western Reserve University
Technical writing is one kind of creative writing. Using knowledge of facts, audience, and situation, the technical writer recreates reality in a technical report. Concepts of reality and creativity currently operative in philosophy, the physical sciences, cognitive and developmental psychology, history of science, rhetoric, and linguistics provide a theoretical basis for this creative approach to technical writing and confirm that imagining and reasoning are related rather than mutually exclusive thought processes.
It has been traditional to distinguish between two kinds of writing: fictional, or literature, and factual, or expository, media, business, and technical writing. Supposedly, one feature that separates the two is how each approaches reality. Fiction is creative: the writer’s reaction to the real world and its stimuli is imaginative, fanciful, impressionistic. Non-fiction is reasonable: the writer observes reality and reports what he observes accurately and objectively. Sometimes, an attempt is made in one of these two categories to borrow a distinction from its opposite. Examples are the New Journalism’s appropriation of a subjective narrator and 19th-Century Naturalism’s attempt t o approximate empirical science. Even in cases like these, however, it is understood that the genre in question is borrowing attributes not customarily its own. I propose that to discover a theoretical basis for the discipline of Technical Writing we need to put aside these familiar distinctions and try out new ones: there is no such thing as creative versus non-creative writing. All writers are creative; and everything written is a creation or recreation of reality. Accepting these premises allows us t o develop a rhetoric that categorizes each kind of writing as a separate creative act. In this context, technical writing is one special kind of creativity, different from other kinds, but neither more nor less accurate in its depiction of reality than a poem or play. 3
0 1985, Baywood Publishing Co., Inc. doi: 10.2 190/V6M7-43G5-9PT7-C5BH
MARILYN SCHAUER SAMUELS
To truly benefit from operating on such premises, however, we need to wrench free from the connotations of the term creative. The suggestion here is not that technical writing is diminished by being labeled creative, i.e., unscientific or incapable of a truth claim. Neither is my thesis that technical writing is upgraded by being considered creative, i.e., that a software manual is asgood as a Keats poem because it displays an equally vivid imagination. Rather, what I wish to demonstrate, using concepts of reality and of creativity from philosophy, the physical sciences, cognitive and developmental psychology, history of science, rhetoric, and linguistics, is how viewing technical writing as one kind of creative writing offers a theoretical understanding of our discipline that substantiates what we see in practice.
THEORETICAL OVERVIEW There is a growing tendency in contemporary theory to see creativity as a logical or problem-solving process based on reality. There is a corresponding trend to view reality more and more as a creation and less and less as an objective truth. In Science and the Humanities, present inclination is to rely less on objectivity as a truth claim, but also to discover in the more subjective thought processes of creativity and imagination a greater correlation with logic. In other words, if, in fact, it is not possible to be objective, there may be other, creative ways to be accurate.
THEORIES OF REALITY The classical philosopher saw reality as something that exists in the mind. Abstract theories are real, and their reality is independent of external fact. Toward the end of the Renaissance, however, movement begins in the opposite extreme: the scientist emerges as passive observer/recorder of external reality, and anything t5at cannot be experienced through the senses cannot be real. The post-positivist view of reality that Carolyn R. Miller discusses in “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing” is an attempted middle ground between two absolutes: abstract reality, on the one hand, and empirical reality on the other [ 11 .
0bjective Reality The post-positivist scientist, the pluralist philosopher, and many contemporary historians and sociologists now share the view that there is no such thing as objective reality. As H. F. Hallett declares, rather than objectivity being “equivalent to reality,” it is “essentially disqualified by its externality.” [2, p. 1771 Since the essence of anything real is its internal flow of energy, and since empiricism is based on external observation, true knowledge of an “other” is possible only in subjective terns: that is, we can know something only
TECHNICAL WRITING A N D RECREATING R E A LI TY
subjectively, only in terms of the effect on us: we can never know it as an ens en sk or thing in itself [2, pp. 177-1801 .
Einstein: Changing Physical Reality Albert Einstein makes parallel comments on the limits of objectivity in physics: the reality of the thing observed is relative to the observer . Significantly, however, he adds that theoretical science is equally subjective: in formulating a theory the scientist draws neither from external reality nor from a priori principles. Instead, the development of a scientific theory is a creative act of imagination. For Einstein the highest “creative principle lies in mathematics.” [3, p. 1361 Mathematics will enable us eventually to grasp a reality of “pure thought” which will be independent of but not inconsistent with experience. At the core of Einstein’s views is a historical approach to how physical reality, or rather, man’s perception of it, changes. A similar perspective is central to Karl Popper’s falsifiability theory of reality, and Thomas Kuhn’s depiction of community- or peer-approved realities. In ‘‘Maxwell’s Influence on the Evolution of the Idea of Physical Reality,” Einstein claims that “our notions of physical reality can never be final. We must always be ready to change these notions-. . . the axiomatic basis of physics-in order to do justice to perceived facts in the most perfect way logically.” [4, p. 2661 The physicist’s view of physical reality, for example, has changed significantly since the time of Newton. Before James Clerk Maxwell’s creation of the system of double equations,
. . . people conceived of physical reality-in so far as it is supposed to represent events in nature-as material points whose changes consist exclusively of motions which are subject to total differential equations. After Maxwell they conceived physical reality as represented by continuous fields, not mechanically explicable, which are subject to partial differential equations [ 4, p. 2691. Both the Newtonian and the Maxwellian explanations of reality have been revised by attempted compromises between the two such as Einstein’s own theory of relativity, and even more significantly by “the most successful creation of theoretical physics, namely quantum mechanics,” which “makes no claim to describe physical reality itself, but only the probabilities of the occurrence of a physical reality.” [4, p. 2701 Based on the example of past history and on the fact that there are still unanswered questions, Einstein predicts that science’s perception of physical reality will and should continue to change in the future. Karl Popper: The Falsifiabilityof Reality Similarly, Karl Popper argues that “the study of our theories or ideas should make us d pluralists”:
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Theories and ideas are our products and yet are not fully understood by us, just as our children are our products and yet not fully understood by us,. . .just as honey is a product of the bee-yet not fully understood by any bee [ S ] . All observation of reality is interpretation in the light of ideas and theories many of which are “old-fashioned and primitive.” [S, p. 2951 Therefore, the history of science demonstrates not only that our theories of reality change, but that we have a responsibility to change these theories by constantly challenging the correspondence between ideas and facts. Relying heavily on Alfred Tarski’s ‘Truth’ theory-that a statement is true if (and only if) it corresponds to the facts, Popper advocates on-going revisions of reality as the aim of science: It is through the falsification of our suppositions that we actually get in touch with ‘reality.’ It is the discovery and elimination of our errors which alone constitute the ‘positive’experience which we gain from reality . . . the aim of the scientist is not to discover absolute certainty, but to discover better and better theories . . . capable of being put to . . . severe tests. . . . But this means that these theories must be falsified: it is through their falsification that science progresses [ 5 , pp. 360-36 1 ] .
Kuhn: Peer-Approved Reality To Einstein’s and Popper’s history of an evolving scientific reality that is continually changed and recreated, Thomas Kuhn adds the dimension of the ‘paradigm.’  Once a scientific group or school of thinking exists, the only way to produce a revolutionary idea within the group is to come up with a theory that simultaneously answers questions which in the opinion of the group cannot be answered by the current explanation, and introduces new problems that the group approves of as worth pursuing. This transformation in acceptable scientific reality is created in part by the peer group’s expectations. It is what Barry Brummett describes as an “advocacy of realities.”  The common ground of Einstein, Popper, Kuhn and their like is the dismissal of objectivity and the substitution of creativity as an acceptable response to reality. Scientists attempt to imitate or approximate a reality that is suited to their environmental andfor their theoretical milieu. Adherence to fact is still a goal in the ideal, but in practice no one has been able to produce a satisfactory criteria for proving what is fact and what is not. In consequence, writes Alvin Thalheimer, the meaning given to the word ‘real’ and to the “content of the real world” results from an “act of choice.” In a sense, we “make the real world.” 
The Context of Reality According to William Gerber, we select the context of reality: a thing is real if it functions in a particular context; but the same thing may be unreal in another context in which it fails to function. The three possible contexts for reality are
TECHNICAL WRITING AND RECREATING REALITY
physical, empirical, and logical. A thing is physically real if it “can be recorded by a spatial instrument of observation such as a camera, a radar screen, a scale.” A thbg is empirically real if it “makes a difference to a living aspect . . . of an animal or animals.” A thing is logically real “in so far as it can enter the context of discourse.” [9,pp. 5 1,54,58]
Reality in Industrial Contexts The nature of fact and reality in the industrial environment where most technical writing takes place is also a choice of contexts. Views of reality such as the most efficient way to run an assembly line, whether to repair or replace equipment, when and how to add new products, also change with the introduction of new technology, new management techniques, and new personnel. New paradigms are created, and new peer groups arise, often conflicting peer groups at that. The technical writer becomes a rhetorician who must design in the appropriate context what Carolyn R.Miller describes as a “persuasive version of experience.” [ 1, p. 6 161
The Rhetorical View of Reality As S. Michael Halloran and James Berlin note, rhetoric and science exhibit significant parallels in their changing perception of objectivity and reality [lo, 111. In rhetoric also the movement is away from the Aristotelian view of the speakerlwriter as passive observer and transmitter of given truths to the current perception of speaker/writer as active creator of the reality that will convince the audience. The newer rhetoric is reflected in communications and linguistics, also. For example, in Jack Searle’s Speech-Act theory, the primary reality is the act of communication itself [ 121 . Fearing preoccupation with context and community at the expense of fact, Ben F. and Marthalee S. Barton have called on technical writing researchers t o seek out “a more balanced treatment” that gives equal attention to characteristics that technical writing shares with fiction and to features that distinguish it from fiction. Technical writing should be viewed, they suggest, “not as a set of unique specialized skills practiced by a professional elite, but as a series of discursive possibilities for perceiving and organizing reality.” [ 131 In my view, exploring Technical Writing as one or more than one kind of creativity is a way to achieve this compromise: to recognize that neither the real world nor the scientific and technical writing which represents that world is absolute, while developing and supporting new distinctions between exposition and fiction as different kinds of creative writing.
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THEORIES OF CREATIVITY Studies of the creative process in philosophy, developmental psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics provide two important impetuses to a view of technical writing as a kind of creative writing. First, they link the concept of creativity to the current scientific view of reality and its relation to the observer; and, second, by both theory and observation they discover that the process of creating is not sublime mystique or undisciplined fancy, but rather an extension of the logical processes of thinking and problem-solving that obtain in all mental pursuits-general, literary, and scientific.
The Dialectical Phenomenology of Creativity The link between creativity theory and current views of reality in relation to the observer is demonstrated in Albert Hofstadter’s article, “On the Dialectical Phenomenology of Creativity.” [ 141 In the philosophy of Kant and his immediate successors, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, Hofstadter explains, the “essential nature of reality” is a result of the “shaping power” or “creative functioning of the mind.” [ 14, p. 1181 For Kant,
. . . everywhere in perception there is a fundamental feature of spontaneity, not mere receptivity, so that the perceptual process is a formation and interpretation, a creation and not merely a photographic copying of external reality [ 14, p. 1201. In Heidigger’s more contemporary version of this view, the “actuality theory of imagination,” imagination is “the function by which precepts, concepts, and their combinations are invented and formed, including the formation of all structures,” and ultimately, “the formation of the world structure that pervades experience:” By imagination, sensory material is given form and meaning. . . so as to become perceptual object. Whether realistic or illusory;. . . by imagination external forms are given inner significance so that the communicative process becomes possible [ 14, p. 1211.
Hofstadter and the Phenomenologists view the interaction of reality and the observer as a creative act of “appropriation.” Each time man comes in contact with something other than himself, his goal is to establish a suitable relationship between it and him, thereby appropriating it into his reality.
Example: The Realities of Creating a Paper Clip An example in the Age of Technology is man’s appropriation of the paper clip. The idea of sheets of paper staying together and being held together by the force of a clip-a piece of bendable wire, is an image produced by the creative imagination which projects a desired context for a perceived reality. When the
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invention is produced, an alien object has been appropriated into the observer’s context as a meaningful reality [ 14, p. 1251 . Both fact and fancy are at work here. Using the terms of Gerber’s context theory  ,the piece of wire capable of being bent is real in a physical context: its existence independent of the observer can be measured. When the observer imagines the wire as something that could hold papers together, it becomes reaZ in a Z ~ g i context d because it can be discussed in theoretical discourse. When the imagined paper clip is actually produced, it becomes real in an empirical context because it now has a direct effect on the life of the observer. Throughout, the wire capable of being bent is real-it is a fact. But at different stages the nature of its reality and the nature of the creative process acting on it both change and are changed by each other. Put another way, the truth claim is consistent, but the contexts in which it obtains vary.
Creativity and Intellectual Development Creativity and imagination will seem like odd terms t o utter in connection with reality and truth, only if we are unaware of current studies that connect creativity with the normal development of reasoning and problem-solving skills. Two representative examples are David Feldman’s essay, The Developmental Approach t o Creativity [ 15 J , and Robert-Alain de Beaugrande’s linguistic approach [ 161 . Feldman’s thesis is that Piaget’s stage theory of intellectual development and the creative process of scientists “share common attributes.” [ 15, p. 571 The crux of Piaget’s theory is that at each stage of intellectual development the child “constructs new systems of operations or rules of thinking” based on his having reached a new level of awareness, and that these rules reorganize and expand existing modes of thought.” Feldman refers t o educator, Eleanor Duckworth’s essay, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas,” to explain the correspondence between child development and adult invention:
. . . the nature of creative intellectual acts remains the same, whether in an infant who for the first time makes the connection between seeing things and reaching for them . . . o r an astronomer who develops a new theory of the creation of the universe. In each case, it is a matter of making new connections between things already mastered f 171. Significantly, Fel dman’ s developmental view of creativity resembles Einstein’s, Popper’s, and Kuhn’s view of changes in the scientific approach to reality: a new Piagetian structure
. . . reorganizes previously unrelated elements through a new set of rules. The reorganized whole functions in ways quite different from those that it replaces. . . . each structure is more stable, inclusive and encompasses more possibilities than the previous one. [ 15, p. 60J
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Creativity as the Logical Linking of Semantic Structures Combining his knowledge of cognitive science and linguistics, Robert-Main de Beaugrande proposes an independent but related theory of creativity. Here too the emphasis is on placing creativity in the range of routine cognitive processes. Creativity, argues de Beaugrande, “like many other aspects of language use, is a logic-based activity, if we envision logic as a general methodology for systematically organizing and connecting semantic entities in all kinds of systems and structures.” [ 16, p. 3011 To explain the context of systems and structures, de Beaugrande refers to Wolfgang Iser’s statement that “the model of reality is composed of systems of meaning, and that text is itself a meaning-creating system that both stabilizes and interferes with the established systems of meaning.” [16, p. 3001 In a person’s reasonable interaction with reality,
. . . experience with objects and events as entities of both language and cognition is processed and stored in network form. Understanding a word or concept means knowing the minimal data in the core network of features and properties conventionally associated with it. . . . Objects and events in cognition are stored in the form of such a minimal core network plus any of the additional associations specific to actual occurrences. The processing of words/concepts and objects/events actually encountered is therefore an act of pattern-matching. As soon as a reasonable number of nodes of the actual entity have been successfully matched, the mental network is activated and used to create expectations about data not yet perceived specifically [ 16, p. 2791. The basic act of creativity occurs when the thinker forms links “between nodes which are not given either in language or in the standard organization of the real world.” Once a “new link is created, all of the nodes conventionally accessible from the two nodes just connected become possible.” [ 16, p. 2791 In other words, the creator does not invent his own reality. Instead, beginning with the patterns of language and experience that are the basis of all thought and communication, he extends their possibilities by imagining additional patterns and thereby extends his own and his readers’ perceptions of possible truths. In the words of de Beaugrande, “creativity mediates between systems upheld by convention and the needs of a special communicative situation.” 116, p. 2851
NEW PERCEPTIONS OF CREATIVITY IN TECHNICAL WRITING In Science and the Humanities fresh distinctions are being drawn between what is real or true and what is created or made up. The emerging pattern based on our increasing ability to accurately measure the thought process, is a tendency to minimize and even reject the traditional separation between fiction and fact. In its extreme, as the Bartons have cautioned, this could become a
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skeptical or reductivist approach in which everything and nothing is true; everything and nothing is imagined. But handled responsibly, the re-examination of formerly rigid distinctions between external reality, the objective observer, and the creative imagination is an opportunity for the field of Technical Writing. People who have been technical writers or taught technical writing in industry know that technical writing is creative, A manager writing a monthly report in the shipbuilding industry, for example, must integrate several realities in order to produce an effective communication. First, there are the facts-what in terms of labor, materials, and phases of construction has actually been accomplished and whether it matches what was supposed to have been accomplished by the closing date of the report. Then, there is a second reality, the tacit understanding in the industry that hull production is almost never up-to-date from month to month. In fact, the only thing the production supervisor really wants to know is whether there are any problems or delays occurring that might actually impede final launching date. Answering this question requires combining facts, precedents, and personal judgment. A third reality the report writer has t o face is that the party contracting the ship, often the U.S. Navy, also reads these reports. ConsequentIy , there is another tacit understanding that serious delays or projected delays must be indicated in the report so that they will alert the production manager without also alarming the customer. The highhght report that results from the juggling of these several perspectives on reality will be a creative balancing of accuracy with the demands imposed by the specialized communicative situation. Practice indicates, in other words, that technical writing is a recreation of reality for special purposes. Interdisciplinary theory, on the other hand, offers us the means of analyzing this recreation process, and even more important, the means of confirming that technical writing can be an act of creation without becoming a departure from truth. REFERENCES 1. C . R. Miller, A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing, College EngZish, 40, pp, 610-617, February 1979. 2. H. F. Hallett, Knowledge, Reality, and Objectivity, Mind, 49, pp. 170-188, April 1940. 3. A. Einstein, The World as I See I t , Alan Harris (trans.), John Lane (ed.), Western Printing Services, Ltd., Bristol, pp. 133-136, 139-140, 180, 1935. Maxwell’s Influence on the Evolution of the Idea of Physical 4. ~, Reality, Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishing, New York, p. 265, 193 1 ; 1954. 5. K . Popper, Objective Knowledge, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 299-300, 1973. 6. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
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7. B. Brummett, Some Implications of ‘Process’ or ‘Intersubjectivity’: Postmodem Rhetoric, Philosophy and Rhetoric, 9 , pp. 21-5 1, Winter 1976. 8. A, Thalheimer, The Meaning of the Terms: ‘Existence’ and ‘Reality,’ Princeton University Press, pp. 100-101,1920. 9. W. Gerber, The Domain ofReaZity, King’s Crown Press, New York, pp. 5 1, 54, 58, 1946. 10. S. M. Halloran, Technical Writing and the Rhetoric of Science, Journal of TechnicaZ Writing and Communication, 8, pp. 77-88, 1978. 1 1. J. A. Berlin, Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories, College English, 44, pp. 765-777, December, 1982. 12. 1. R. Searle, Speech Acts, Cambridge University Press, London, 1969. 13. B. F. Barton and M. S. Barton, How Not t o Theorize about Technical Discourse: The Lesson of Literary Theory, CPTSC Proceedings, pp. 137-1 38, 1982. 14, A. Hofstadter, On the Dialectical Phenomenology of Creativity, Essays in Creativity, Stanley Rosner and Lawrence Edwin Abt (eds.), North River Press, Inc., New York, p. 118, 1974. 15. D. Feldman, The Developmental Approach to Creativity, Essays in Creativity, Stanley Rosner and Lawrence Abt (eds.), pp. 45-86, 1974. 16. R.-A. de Beaugrande, Toward a General Theory of Creativity, Poetics, 8, pp. 269-306, 1979. 17. E. Duckworth, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, Harvard EducationaZ Review, 42, p. 231, 1972.
Selected Publications on Communication by Marilyn Schauer Samuels Books
The Technical Writing Process, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985. Writing the Research Paper: A Step-By-Step Guide, Amsco College Publications, Inc., New York, 1978.
The Future of Techriical Writing Programs: How Academics and Professionals Can Help Each Other, Proceedings, 31st ZTCC, Seattle, Washington, May, 1984. Possible Applications of Cognitive Science and Problem-Solving to Technical Writing,Proceedings of CPTSC, pp. 117-126, March, 1983. Scientific Logic: A Reader-Oriented Approach to Technical Writing, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 1214,pp. 307-328, 1982. Winner of the NCTE Award for Best Research Article in Technical Writing, 1983. Using Logic to Increase Readability, boceedings, 29th ITCC,E103-105,1982.
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Educational T.V. Script
Business and Technical Writing, five half-hourvideo-tapes produced by the hstructiond T.V. Network of CWRU, Spring, 1979.
Direct reprint requests to: Marilyn Schauer Samuels Department of English Case Western Reserve University Cleveland, OH 44106