Writing About Technology: A Reporter's View

Writing about technology is not "technical writing." Also, it's not like writing a novel. When we think or imagine technology, we often think of computers. For some, it is all about code or using the web for shopping. The idea and application of technology are in our everyday life. From driving our cars to shopping in the super market.

Little could I have ever known in 1991 that in 1994 I'd be reporting on something called electronic data interchange (EDI)? Never heard of it, but boy did I learn. In short, EDI is a process by which business information, or inventory, is exchanged electronically from one company to another without the use of paper. EDI was the first "iteration" of electronic commerce.

By diving in head and foot, I became the editor of EDI News, published by Philips Business Information in Washington, D.C.

As the technology boom spread throughout the world, long time journalists like me had to twist ourselves into pretzel shape to change the way we reported news and experience via a vertical learning curve. Not only did we need to get a handle of what was going on outside the newsroom, we also had to master the new mechanisms by which we were to submit our stories.

Plethora of applications

The decade from 1991 to 2000 saw a breakthrough of developments like Linux, a new operating system developed by Linus Torvalds, the Mp3 player and the publication of Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau's "WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project," (HTP). The HTP proposal laid out the bases for "the most transformative medium of our times." Within a year, the web made its public debut. Then the Mosaic web browser, the program that retrieves information off the web, exploded in 1993.

Writing for a Non-technical Audience

The phrase, "explain it to me as if I were a 12 year-old child" did not originate with me, but I did use it a lot. Too often, experts in their field use jargon they think everyone understands. In some cases, experts just can't explain what they are doing without the use of "jargon." That is when I wondered if they really understood what they were doing at all? Quite a challenge when you are writing for a broad audience. How can I explain something I don't know? In the early days of exploding technology, there were not the numbers of tech expert journalists that there are today. The experts were making the product, not reporting on it.

A few tips I learned along the way to help me write clearly:

• Use solid, basic words. People understand concrete things they can imagine. Because a lot of technology is about new ways of doing something, it helps to explain with an example.
• Use background information. By giving a little history readers can put the story into a context.
• If possible, use illustrations. It was not easy to do with EDI, but a graphic of a conveyor belt with products lined up helped get the message of ordering systems quite well.

Writing robots

So far I've escaped being replaced by a robot. Who knows when writing robots will begin to roll into the newsroom? At this time, the Associated Press uses a robotic process to help with complex technology stories. As well, Fox "auto-generates" some of the sports recaps that they run on its Big Ten Network site. Yahoo uses similar technology to create fantasy sports reports custom-made for each of its users.

Automated Insights
writing robot, Wordsmith, will take data and turn it into readable articles. The more data, the better the article. It is one way of taking complex material and letting the robot sort it out. It works well for real estate when certain data is used to describe a house or lot. Not so much for the latest app.

Leveraging my skills

The good news for me was not being replaced by a robot. I moved up from writing about EDI to the next level of electronic commerce, EDI being the first step. With the explosion of the Web, electronic commerce became "the next big thing" and everyone wanted to get on board.

That was great for me, as it landed me a job as an analyst at Gartner. The next best part is that the job got me back to California. Life was very sweet in the late 1990's in Silicon Valley.

It is still sweet, although the learning curve has not gotten any more lateral.

Geri Spieler is a Silicon Valley Freelance Writer - www.gerispieler.com