Want to become a great technology writer? Someone who can bend the written word to their will to explain and persuade in the high-value realms of computing and telecommunications?
Or perhaps you cover another topic, such as business, cars or even home improvement, where technology is becoming increasingly important. Or you’re an editor or content producer who has to decipher and improve tech-related copy.
The fundamentals of good writing apply no matter what the topic is, but you’ll need other skills and knowledge to be able to write or edit accurate, compelling technology articles. Here are seven tips that will help.
1. Know who you’re writing for
It’s the first rule of any type of writing, but knowing your readers is arguably even more important when writing about technology. Your target audience will have a big bearing on what you write and how you write it. For example, there is a big difference between writing about tech gadgets for consumers and about information technology (IT) for enterprises.
If you’re writing for a high-level business audience, you need to understand not only what the C-suite acronyms stand for, but also the executives’ interest in and knowledge of technology.
Are you writing for chief information officers (CIOs), chief technical officers (CTOs) or chief information security officers (CISOs)? Do you also need to target second-tier IT managers?
Increasingly, tech writers are asked to write for other lines of business, as technology becomes more important to chief financial officers (CFOs), chief marketing officers (CMOs) and chief operations officers (COOs).
Knowing the target audience will help you write with the right tone of voice and level of assumed knowledge. For example, CIOs are usually focused on how technology can help with the running of a business, while CTOs are often more technical and interested in innovation.
Non-IT executives want to know how technology can help their lines of business. IT managers, developers and other IT workers, however, tend to be interested in how a technology works, as well as how it helps them.
2. Understand the technology you’re writing about
If you don’t understand a technology, there’s no way you can write well about it. You won’t be able to explain complex concepts, write with the right tone for your target readers, make it interesting or be persuasive. What’s worse, you’re likely to make mistakes and possibly alienate readers.
The trouble is many technologies can seem highly abstract and complex. The solution? ‘Google is your friend’ as the old tech industry saying goes. You can learn a lot about a technology just by searching the web.
Even then, it can all seem overwhelming. But breaking it down into the following steps will help.
- What does it mean? Search “what is [the technology]”.
- How does it work? For some technologies, you’d have to be a computer engineer or data scientist to really understand it, but as a writer you may only need to grasp how the technology works at a conceptual level.
- How do people or organisations use it? This step is crucial. Once you see how people use the technology, it becomes much more meaningful. Searching for case studies about and ‘use cases’ for the technology should help.
- What are its benefits for individuals or businesses? The above three steps should help you understand not only the technology’s benefits but also, importantly, how it provides those benefits.
- Does it transform businesses, jobs or communities? There’s no doubt technologies such as artificial intelligence are changing how we live and work, but it’s vital to understand how they are doing this.
Of course, some sources are better than others. For example, Webopedia and the PCMag Computer Glossary provide simple explanations. Wikipedia, HowStuffWorks and Quora, along with tech media articles, include more detail.
Technology vendors often provide useful case studies, while industry specialists such as IDC and Gartner offer in-depth white papers on technologies.
You can learn even more by going straight to the source and interviewing subject matter experts. However, we recommend doing your research and getting an understanding of a technology first, so that you can ask the right questions.
Reading tech articles regularly will also help increase your base level of knowledge, so the research phase of your tech writing jobs becomes quicker over time.
A good case study will help you understand how a technology works, its
benefits and how it can transform an organisation or society in general.
3. Use tech terms the right way, but avoid jargon
Reading technology articles will also help you use technical terms the right way, so you don’t sound like a tech novice. For example, the cloud can be singular or plural, but the trick is knowing how to use each one. ‘The cloud’ is the generic collective of all cloud services, while an organisation can use multiple clouds. On the other hand, a company uses a ‘cloud service’ or a ‘cloud provider’, not ‘a cloud’.
While some tech terms are necessary, avoid using industry jargon as much as possible. Terms such as ‘seamless’ and ‘sunsetting’ can make your copy vague or clichéd. Use simpler, more precise terms instead.
The following sentence may sound cool but what does it mean?
The product consolidates all your data on a single pane of glass.
By contrast, this is more accurate and easier to understand:
The product allows you to quickly access all your data from the one dashboard.
Unfortunately, some overused words are difficult to replace. ‘Platform’ is one such word, because it can refer to any group of technologies that have a particular purpose. A platform can also be ‘built on’, or added to, with technologies such as application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow organisations to develop applications more quickly.
Just be sure you use the term the right way. For example, applications run ‘on’ a platform, while APIs are ‘in’ the platform.
4. Keep it simple – without dumbing it down
One of your most important jobs as a technology writer is to simplify technical topics and make them easy to read. However, talking down to readers can be a big turn-off, especially when writing for a business or technical audience.
Here are some techniques to make your copy easy to read without dumbing it down.
- Use straightforward words and short sentences. Replace words like ‘utilise’ and ‘demonstrate’ with ‘use’ and ‘show’, respectively. Your copy can still be thought-provoking and compelling by keeping it simple, particularly if readers already have to grapple with a technical topic and acronyms.
- Follow a style guide and rules, such as spelling out acronyms when first mentioned. Consistency will make your copy easier to follow.
- Use examples or analogies. An analogy can help readers understand a complex concept, while examples are a great way to explain a term succinctly and subtly – such as “channels” in the following case.
“Organisations are also struggling to maintain clear and connected communications with their customers across all the channels that they offer, such as voice, email, web chats and in-person interactions.”
- Add short descriptions in context. Here we’ve included a description just before the term “Five Nines”:
“Hyperscale data centres need to use at least four submarine cables along each international route to achieve the much sought-after 99.999 percent uptime. ‘Five Nines’ availability is no longer just a target for data centres – it’s an expectation for many organisations seeking fast, reliable access to critical business applications and data.”
- Remember your readers. You don’t necessarily have to write for tech novices – just those target readers with the lowest level of knowledge about the topic.
5. Use active voice to write clearly
Active sentences are typically shorter, punchier, clearer and more engaging than their passive counterparts. This is even more important when writing about technology, because passive sentences often lack clarity – and that’s a big problem when it’s a technical topic.
Consider the following sentence.
“Developments and advancements in technology, automation and networking [by whom?] have allowed for improved capacity [of what and for whom?], enabling critical infrastructure assets to be managed 24x7x365 [by whom?], resulting in increased productivity [by whom?] and more effective management [by whom and of what?].”
The above sentence is vague and forces the reader to make a lot of assumptions or guesses (as you can see by our additions in square brackets).
“Global advances in technology, automation and networking have allowed critical infrastructure companies to improve their productivity and their production capacity. Those advances have also helped the companies manage their infrastructure assets 24x7x365 and make more effective business decisions.”
The above rewrite doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions readers may have, but it does at least clarify who is doing what. Splitting the sentence in two also makes it easier to comprehend.
6. Be careful when making assumptions
Take care when working with technical but vague source material. You may be tempted to make assumptions, but if you do, you could change the intended meaning of the copy.
In the above example, making the following assumption would introduce an inaccuracy:
Critical infrastructure companies have made advances in technology, automation and networking, allowing them to improve their productivity and their production capacity…
But in this example, various third-party tech companies have made the advances. Explaining this would only complicate the sentence further, which is why we simply used “global advances in technology” in the previous rewrite.
Reading the whole piece or other related material may help clarify what a hard-to-understand sentence means. But if in doubt, check with the author or another subject matter expert.
7. Get the structure right
Structuring your piece the right way is vital to create a convincing argument or help readers comprehend complex topics. At Editor Group, we are big fans of Barbara Minto’s The Pyramid Principle. The aim is to ensure you have clearly defined sections and to build your arguments in layers, so the piece has a logical flow.
How do you know if you have the right structure? Well, it’s probably not right if there’s repetition between sections.
The structure probably is right if you can scan the heading and subheads and get the gist of the story or argument. You can do this by using heading styles to ensure you can see the outline using Microsoft Word’s Navigation pane or Google Doc’s Document Outline.
If needed, tweak the heading and subheads to make your piece more ‘scannable’. By doing this, you are also more likely to spark people’s interest and encourage them to read.
Scanning the outline will also make it easier for you to see if you need to restructure the piece for a more logical flow. Word’s Navigation pane is a big help here, allowing you to drag and drop subheads and accompanying copy. You will then need to re-edit the copy to ensure it flows from section to section.
How we can help
Editor Group’s team of experienced tech writers can create your content for you. Or we can help train your writers – or edit and proofread their work. Why not contact us to see how we can help you create compelling, accurate technology content.
Glenn Rees has been a technology and business journalist, editor and writer for more than two decades. Glenn heads up Editor Group’s writing team and has written everything from blog posts to white papers and speeches for leading global technology and telecommunications companies. He has also held senior editorial roles at top Australian tech titles, including iTnews, PC User and APC.