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 10 tips for writing about technology

While marketing for technology companies can be tricky, writing about a company's technology can be downright painful. Here are 10 tips to help make these projects less painful and more successful.

Tip 1. Know your readers

If you don’t know your readers and their level of understanding, you can’t make sound decisions about style, terminology, examples, tone, perspective and more.

How can you come to know your readers? Find three well written pieces targeted at your audience, then analyze the style, terminology, examples, etc. You can even try writing a few paragraphs that imitate one of the samples. This form of "modeling" is the best exercise for learning what assumptions successful writers have made about the readers.

Once you understand your audience, keep an imaginary typical reader peeking over your shoulder at what you write. When the reader goes "huh?" you know you have more editing to do.

Tip 2. Don’t try to be an expert

Can you write effectively about technology without throwing five acronyms and a couple of completely made up words into every sentence? Yes. Just because the topic is technology, don’t forget about clear, simple writing, and don’t try to sound like an engineer. In fact, becoming too comfortable with jargon is dangerous. If you forget what the uninitiated don’t know, you won’t be able to communicate with them.

Your goal is to explain complex ideas clearly and precisely. Sometimes it helps to think of yourself as a translator. Ask yourself this: if my readers are advanced enough to understand all this complex terminology, is my story actually telling them anything they haven’t already learned?

Tip 3. Decide how to define terms

In addition to making definitions part of the text, several methods exist for defining terms: an opening chapter or section of definitions, a glossary, footnotes, endnotes, parenthetical expressions, and column annotation. The method you choose depends on several factors including length and complexity of the definitions, number of terms to be defined, total length of the piece, conventions adopted by the publisher, and the readers’ level of knowledge

For example, if the piece is long and contains many complex terms, try a glossary or endnotes. If the terms can be defined using short phrases, embed the definitions in the text or in parenthetical expressions. If your readers have varying levels of knowledge, consider an opening section that the knowledgeable reader can skip or a glossary that the uninitiated reader can consult.

If you have many definitions of moderate length, try placing them in a column beside the main text at approximately the same line level as the term to be defined. This column annotation is increasingly popular because readers can easily scan the definitions without major interruption, or they can ignore them completely.

Tip 4. Be accurate

One factual error can be enough to make a reader doubt everything you say. Even worse, the reader may simply stop. Promote accuracy by taking careful notes before beginning to write. Ensure accuracy by being in control of every word you write. Most of us write as we speak, using ready-made phrases. When editing, however, we must check every word to make sure that it is meaningful, necessary, and correct.

Tip 5. Be clear.

A lack of clarity causes confusion, irritation, and boredom. It also causes readers to draw erroneous conclusions.

Clarity is embedded in the structure of sentences. It doesn’t matter how complex the technology is. Your sentences are still made up of very simple structures. At the heart of every sentence is a subject-verb relationship, a who or what doing something. If the who or what is always clear, and the what’s being done is always clear, then your sentences will be clear.

Tip 6. Be concise

Don’t waste your readers’ time.

Tip 7. Be consistent

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." This Emerson quote is often abused to suggest that being consistent is bad. Wrong. The key word here is foolish. A foolish consistency is the attempt to force sameness or regularity when a situation demands diversity or flexibility. While creating new technologies may require significant flexible thinking, writing about technology requires consistency: structure, perspective, terminology, grammar, attitude, tone. Only when these remain consistent can readers understand complex ideas.

Tip 8. Use appropriate style

Technically complex material is already difficult to grasp – even for those knowledgeable in the field. When the writing is equally complex, the whole piece can become a great mystery. Keep your writing as simple, as personal, as friendly, as the situation allows.

Here’s a mini-guide to staying formal without become stuffy:

Avoid slang, colloquialisms, and non-standard words and phrases – dictionaries label such words.

•   Limit the use of new constructions, such as "anything-oriented" and "anything-wise."

•   Use the passive voice (e.g, "the product was introduced yesterday") only when emphasis or the irrelevance of the subject demands it.

•   Avoid long, convoluted, and indirect sentences.

•   Avoid using a fancy or uncommon word when a simple or common word would do.

Tip 9. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it

Reading aloud is a very useful editing technique. To develop a good "ear" for writing, read well written texts aloud. Then read your own writing aloud and listen for phrases that are so awkward, so tortured, or so convoluted that you couldn’t possible say them without laughing or giving up. Now spend more time editing.

Tip 10. Fall in love with grammar all over again

Obvious grammar errors kill your credibility. But not all grammars errors are obvious. Keep this in mind: readers read for information. If valuable information is presented clearly, readers won’t notice a whole host of minor errors.

The real value in the study of grammar is the way it contributes to your ability to express yourself in a variety of sentence structures and to find the most suitable structure for a particle idea.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if only you master grammar, then you’ll be a great writer. Remember, grammar errors hurt your writing, but the absence of grammar errors doesn’t ensure that you have presented valuable information clearly.

Bonus Tip: Take your editor to lunch

Even the most experienced writers write bad sentences (and fail to catch their own errors when proofreading). If you are lucky enough to have a good editor, give thanks. Even if the editor sometimes makes revisions you think are unnecessary, smile, pay for lunch, and think of all the embarrassment you're being saved over the years.

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  Copyright 2009 Stuart Froman

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