- Tech

Thinking Visually

The vast majority of what most tech writers produce is words. Words can tell nearly everything you need to convey. Someone sees your words. They read them, and they understand. Very often, of course, you’ll add graphics to illustrate or emphasize the words. More often than not, though, in a well written document, the words can carry the message even without the illustrations.

But visuals are necessary, too. Just as it’s unlikely that you’d try to write a report or business communication without words, it’s just as unlikely that you’d write a training manual or a user guide without illustrations. It a normal part of a writer’s job to use graphics to support words. Sometimes, there is more space on the page taken up by graphics than words. Still, the normal approach of a writer is to start with words because so often that’s all that’s necessary.

But not always.

There’s a large market in tech writing for people who write scripts. I’m not referring to movie, TV, or theatre scripts. Those are normally the venue of professionals in one of those particular media. But, closely related to them are scripts for non-entertainment-oriented live and video presentations. These can include speeches, training, product presentation, demonstrations, and any other type of information that needs to be presented to an audience either live or on film – or tape, depending on the medium. While this is a specialized type of tech writing, it’s something that nearly any good writer can do. It just means that you need to learn some specific techniques and vocabulary associated with the visual media.

The first thing a scriptwriter has to do is get good at thinking in images as well as words – sometimes even before the words. You’re creating a combination of words and pictures, and it’s basic to good script development to know when to let one or the other carry the program’s message. There may be important sections or even whole scripts that contain very little spoken copy. The visuals will convey the message alone or in combination with appropriate audio.

Seeing and Hearing

It’s in the nature of learning that most people who have normal senses of sight and hearing learn faster through seeing something than they do by through hearing. Consider a typical situation. You’re explaining something to another person. It may be directions to another part of the building or an event that took place somewhere else. As you speak, the chances are almost certain that you’re using your hands to gesture. You’ll naturally draw pictures in the air as you explain. People even do this when they’re talking to someone who can’t see them. The illustrative gestures make the words clear even to the person speaking them. If you’re giving somewhat complicated directions, it’s not unlikely that you’ll use paper and pencil to draw a map – or even draw it in the air with your finger. It’s simply easier to tell someone something if you can also show it. Someone is reading and says to you, “What does s-c-i-s-s-o-r spell?” You think for a moment and then say, “Let me write it down.” The word you didn’t recognize when you only heard the letters becomes obvious when you see it.

Pictures First

The most important question in this genre is, “Why am I writing a video or live presentation script instead of a document?” The reason is because the audience will see first and hear second. Remember in elementary school, it was show and tell, not tell and show. Developing a “performance” sequence means thinking pictures first.

It’s not just a matter of thinking of appropriate visuals to go with the words. It’s thinking of the visuals before you think of the words. Because, as writers, we’re so used to putting our thoughts and ideas into words on paper, we’re inclined to begin that way with a visual presentation. First, we think, we’ll write the “script” and then put the pictures with it, pretty much the way you would writing a brochure, travelogue, or user manual. And that’s the wrong way round. The idea is not to add visual to words, but to add words to visuals.

General to Specific

You write that someone is sitting in a chair, and the image in your mind and the picture in another other person’s mind are likely to be totally different. When you write ‘chair,’ you have an image in your mind of a chair. But it will be only one specific chair. You can’t picture chairs in general or visualize the ‘concept’ of a chair. Even if you say ‘throne,’ that narrows it down only a little. You want to limit what the other person ‘sees’ as you explain in the shortest, simplest way. When your work begins by developing images, you translate your ideas from the general to the specific. It’s difficult to generalize in pictures. You are forced to be specific.


A popular technique when a visual presentation is being developed is for someone to create a storyboard. A storyboard is actually a simplified visual representation of what the finished presentation is going to look like. It usually consists of a series of rough sketches arranged in sequence so the ‘flow’ of the presentation can be displayed in visual terms. There’s also some descriptive comments, narration, or dialogue with each sketch. It often looks a lot like a comic strip.

You won’t always need a storyboard. There’s no reason, for example, to draw a picture of a narrator talking to the camera. But there are some reasons that it’s worth it to work up a storyboard. For one thing, it makes it easier to convey your ideas and vision for presentation to a client or someone who might have trouble visualizing the action from the words alone. It can also save time trying to explain a complex image or series of events to a stage manager, director, or camera operator. Even the narrator talking to the camera may have on a costume, it’s easier to show than describe. And, as a bonus, it’s a very effective way of training yourself to think visually since it forces you to show precisely what you want instead of talking about it.

Picture a Wide Shot

As a professional tech writer, you want to broaden the services you can offer. Imagine that you’re asked to write a brief report on the need for a training manual. After you do that, because you have a good idea of what needs to be in the manual, you’re asked to create the manual. Now you’ve shown and described every aspect of the procedure. When it’s decided to make a training video or prepare a live demonstration on the subject, you’re the logical choice to write the script. Picture this: There’s you cashing another check for writing about the same content again and again.