I sat down with Christina Czeschik to discuss her recently published book, Write About IT, Less Badly. As technology becomes more relevant to our daily lives, it’s becoming equally more important to bridge the gap between those who understand technology, and those who don’t. Czeschik and her co-author, Matthias Lindhorst, lay out a set of guidelines for how to write about technology in a way that is both understandable and engaging.
This interview kicks off a four-part series that will address different strategies both writers and techies can use to write about technology (less badly).
Congratulations on finishing your book, Write About IT, Less Badly. What made you want to write this book?
My co-author Matthias and I started writing our first technology book in 2014, which was then published in 2015 at Wiley VCH. It focused on encryption, information security on the web and digital privacy, and was explicitly written for a non-technical audience.
Since then, we – and more recently my team at Intellicore Press – have been continuing to think about how to convey technological ideas to a non-tech audience… writing, reading, accepting criticism, writing again… And then we started thinking… is it possible to lay down rules for writing about technology? This is the new challenge we’re tackling. I think the answer is yes – this book is only the first try.
How would you define “bad writing about technology”? Can you give any examples?
Personally, I think Wikipedia is full of them. You’ll see articles in which extraneous details appear in the first sentence or two, or you’ll find acronyms and technical terms that appear without any explanation, or appear alongside other technical terms equally confusing to your average reader.
If you look up a topic like Server (Computing) on Wikipedia, you’ll see exactly what I mean. I think this is due to the collaborative nature of Wikipedia, in which he (and it usually is a he) always wants to add in superfluous details – which are usually correct, but just not necessary.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, what would “less bad” writing about technology look like?
Generally, the more a writer thinks about their audience – their knowledge, ideas and goals– the less awful the writing becomes. There are plenty of positive examples in O’Reilly’s “Head First” books, but also on Medium. This is because many startups have recognized the importance of well-written content as part of their marketing and PR plans.
Incidentally, and contrary to the cliché of the geek who can’t express himself, many hackers are also excellent writers. Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, is a good example. He even wrote an essay addressing the issue of how to write more naturally.
Why do you think it’s important to be able to write about technology in a way that’s clear and easy to understand?
Because otherwise there will be an even more pronounced gap between people who understand technology and those who don’t. We don’t want non-technical people to become second-class citizens who have to rely on the mercy of developers to tell them what they can and cannot do, and be forced to accept any technological development – for example, with regards to privacy.
Better communication between tech and non-tech people may even save lives. I began my career as a physician and have seen enough badly designed IT interfaces for a lifetime, and then some. Studies have shown that people actually die because of bad usability – and bad usability happens because tech and non-tech professionals don’t talk to each other enough.
In your book, you say that before you can write clearly, you need to understand yourself. What are some steps a writer can take to better understand themselves?
Ask yourself: what topic do I know more about than most people around me? Most likely, if you write about that topic, you will subconsciously assume that everyone knows what you know. In other words, you’ll suffer from the curse of knowledge.
So your explanations will be too high-level for your readers to understand. The curse of knowledge is hard to beat on one’s own because our knowledge feels so natural that we hardly even stop to ask ourselves, does everyone know that? It really helps to have a few honest people who are non-experts in the field giving feedback.
You also mentioned that it’s important to understand your readers – what should a writer do to better understand their readers?
If at all possible, try to get your hands on a living specimen. For example, if you are writing about a cryptocurrency application, discuss the topic with people of appropriate, but different, backgrounds: someone who is computer-savvy, someone who knows about encryption, someone with a banking background, and someone who has no background at all. If that’s not possible, try to find what your audience is reading online. For example, check Amazon book reviews that have an audience similar to that of your article or book.
If I’m someone who is really excited about technology, but struggles to communicate my ideas without boring people, what tips can you give me?
Everyone who writes about technology for diverse audiences needs to find a balance between taking knowledge and familiarity with the subject for granted – so that the text becomes too high-level and leaves the reader confused – and between assuming the reader is completely ignorant, starting with the absolute basics and thus boring the reader. This is really a matter of judgment in which all of us can sometimes err on one side or the other. But to decrease your failure rate, you really need to understand your readers.
Apart from that, there are certain ingredients that make a text less boring, but they should be used with good judgment.
- Humor, of course – but be aware that some kinds of humor are difficult or even impossible to understand in written form, as readers can’t see your facial expression. You may end up confusing readers, or even offending them.
- Analogies and metaphors are great ways to make a text come alive. In fact, they have been a staple of tech communication since the dawn of personal computing (for example “mouse”, “trash”, “desktop”). We have some good examples of these in the book (and some that should be avoided too).
- If the purpose of the text allows it, don’t be too technically precise. If, for example, you discuss a certain principle in a programming language for an introductory article, don’t bore the readers with all the possible exceptions. If the audience of the text are beginners, don’t show off knowledge that will impress your peers, but confuse your actual audience.
What about for professional writers who don’t have a technological background — can they make the leap into technical writing?
Yes, absolutely – if they are willing to put the time in to learn. It helps to have a basic understanding, but even that can be learned. At Intellicore Press, we have written about the most cutting-edge technologies without being involved in actual research ourselves.
Our clients or their technical team members will give us all the technical information we need – they have to because we are not involved in any technical development. We then take this information and use it to write about the technology in a way that’s attractive and understandable for non-technical users or investors, or for technical people that don’t have a background in this specific technology.
Often, it is even advantageous not to be an expert because you don’t fall prey to the curse of knowledge as easily, and you immediately see which parts of a concept need more explanation to appeal to a non-expert audience.
Who else might be able to benefit from being able to write about technology?
Anyone who works with technology – especially in a business context. If you can clearly explain your work to a non-tech businessperson, your work will be more valued (all other factors being equal).
If you’re able to explain your technology to them in a way that they can easily understand – maybe even understand the first time they hear it – you’ll make a long-lasting positive impression. Nowadays, so many people feel insecure when faced with technology, and if you can help them easily understand what you’re doing, you can help them relieve this inner tension.
If a reader remembers only one thing from your book, what is the most important thing to remember?
Thank you so much, Christina, for taking the time to sit down and talk with me! I’m certainly looking forward to seeing much more less-bad writing about technology begin to appear…. Or should I say, I look forward to seeing much less bad writing about technology?
Hopefully it’s a combination of both! Here’s hoping for a general positive trend towards writing that is on the whole less bad.
Find more free resources for technology writers, techies, and entrepreneurs at intellicore.press/blog.