Creative problem solving for tech writers

How much problem solving do you do in your role as a tech writer? I used to do quite a lot. The company I was working at had a start-up mentality and culture. New ideas were encouraged and we usually had little to no budget.

One day the new boss came in and didn’t like our release notes. Apparently they were “too dry and boring”. I took that as a compliment 🙂 It meant we were doing our job—accurately describing the changes in functionality from one version release to the next.

Anyway, we needed to reinvent a lot of things when the new management came in. And that meant we had to think of a lot of new ideas. Which can be hard sometimes.

Tech writers are problem solvers

I never thought of myself as an “ideas man”. But in a short period of time we were re-designing release notes and thinking up new ways to engage with clients to improve our service and value offering.

We had to come up with technical solutions, too, for delivering our content in regional centres.

With no Marketing department at the company, the Tech Comms team had to create launch plans and project comms plan to engage with staff and clients.

So we not only had to improve the look and feel of our content (the word sexy was used), we also had to come up with elegant technical solutions—to reduce maintenance overhead for our team as well as ensure a great experience for users across the globe.

The fun part

Tech writers often work in an orderly and structured way, and can sometimes find creative problem solving difficult.

Here’s my tip: try Zentangle.

Zentangle is a form of meditative doodling. Don’t worry too much about the science but apparently it taps into a part of your brain that helps you zone out, like meditation or yoga. Zentangles are usually quite small – so you don’t have to commit to anything big. It can be addictive and is a really quick way to relax; and at the end you have a piece of artwork!


Get a bit of paper and a pen. Mark out a shape first (square, circle, whatever) then divide it up and fill in each section with a repetitive design. Sounds simple, but it’s very effective.  And you feel like you’ve made something really cool at the end even though you’ve just been drawing lines and squiggles.

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When you’re doing it, don’t focus on the problem you’re trying to solve, just enjoy the doodling. You’ll feel pretty chilled out afterward and you’ll find that new ideas will come to you pretty easily. You’ll become a natural problem solver!

Go on, I dare you. If you have to think up 5 ideas by tomorrow, give Zentangle a go.

Creativity begets creativity.


Zentangle graphic instructions

A cool example of instructions without words:

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Zentangle is a meditative form of doodling. I recently got into it as a really quick way to relax. (Bonus: you end up with piece of artwork!)

In the Zentangle book I use, the instructions for the different doodle designs are represented in comic strip style.

Each new step is shown in red.

No words

The method of this instruction style is never explained in writing. The graphic is not preceded by the heading “Instructions”. The authors don’t say, “Each new bit of the doodle is shown in red”.

Here it is in context on the page:

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Elegant simplicity.

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Watch out for colour

Using colour is a risk I usually avoid as a tech writer. Not everyone can see colour, or they see colour differently.

I think these Zentangle instructions would lose some of their punch without the colour, but the clarity of the design means they would probably still work as instructions.

Could you use it?

I’d love to be able to incorporate this instruction style in tech writing. I could see it working with any sort of progressive task where each step builds on the previous step.

This technique might work as an alternative to numbered steps in a user guide for:

  • assembling a product
  • filling in a complex form
  • playing a game
  • using an app.