Translation needs and content strategy often require us to reuse phrases across documents. More than once, I’ve heard people argue that this stifles the “creative” side of technical writing. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that writers require a certain level of freedom in order to express complex ideas in the most effective way: if I only have checkboxes for white and black, I can’t very well use them to describe something blue. Rigidness for rigidness’s sake adds absolutely nothing to a writer’s toolbox. At the same time, though, the idea that stylistic rules or content reuse hinders creativity doesn’t ring true for me.

I’m hardly the first person in the world to argue that constraints breed creativity.

Have you ever found yourself completely unable to decide on a restaurant because there are just too many choices? More often than not, if you’re like me, you go to the same places over and over, not because there aren’t other choices, but because the massive number of possibilities leaves you unable to pick one.

If, though, you narrow yourself down stylistically, whittling at the possibilities with a set of parameters, you can find the elegant — or at least the most appetizing — solution:

I’m really only in the mood for Vietnamese food…
…but I don’t want to go someplace loud…
…I was on my feet all day, so I don’t want to deal with counter service…
…and I’ve had parking problems at so and so place…
…I’ll try this place tonight.

Suddenly the options left aren’t as daunting. Adding limitations makes the process easier, and might make you step out of your self-imposed shell and into something new.

Of course, writing has far more possibilities for expression than Houston has for good pho.

Finding a way to produce documentation that goes beyond the bare minimum of requirements and becomes insightful and helpful to the user, despite the sometimes-stringent requirements of modern content strategy and globalization, IS creativity. To say that you can’t have both is to sell yourself short as a writer. More often than not, in trying to solve an issue caused by imposed limitations, I find a solution that’s far better than whatever I would have written if I hadn’t stopped to think.

Content reuse, of course, has additional benefits. I think we can all agree that we have better things to do than to actually think about how we write that “For more information about this subject” link at the bottom of the page.

Prewritten syntactical choices on those boring, utilitarian sentences that have to be there free up more time to hack away at the interesting parts of the document. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day when you (or someone on your team) already invented it once.

For a single writer, those types of guidelines can make the difference between sanity and burnout. Multiply those same guidelines by more than one writer on a project, and you have a massive savings of time and energy.

The secret is to know when to have those guidelines, and when to bend them. Computer programs can log exceptions and keep on running, and so should we. Passive voice is far more forgiveable than sacrificing correctness for the sake of a rule. That doesn’t mean, though, that you shouldn’t be ruthless with your own work. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you can flip that sentence into something better. If you shrug after two seconds and decide to bend the rules, you might just be having a lazy day. Close the window, get a cup of coffee, and try again later.

So, are we — technical writers reusing content and working within constraints — robots? Absolutely not. We might, however, be the mad scientists who program them.