Digital and Personal Tech: Writing for The Next Generation of Technical Magazines
by Mridu Khullar

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Do you find yourself eyeing every new cellphone in town and guessing (usually correctly) what operating system it runs on? Have you visited every digital camera showroom in the city? Do you prefer digital stores to clothes shops? Well then, you've got what it takes to ride the new wave of digital lifestyle.

A new breed of magazines has entered the technical space: Digital lifestyle magazines that claim to be friends of the user provide buying advice, user tips and product and price information. From cellphones, digital cameras, PDAs, MP3 players to televisions, camcorders and printers, these magazines seem to have it all.

When readers pick up such a magazine, they're looking for price, information and buying advice. They want information on the latest gadgets so that they can stay on top of trends. They are also looking for things that can make their life easier or let them do things on the run.

And that's the key. Digital products are no longer meant for techno-geeks. They're now about providing ease, entertainment and time-saving. They're not about the technology, they're about fashion.

That's why now, more than ever, editors need writers who can write about emerging technologies in an authoritative, yet humorous, me-to-you manner. Throw in a little attitude, and you're a hot favorite! And since there aren't too many writers competing for this space, right now is about the best time to be targeting these markets.

Get Your Basics Right

If you're constantly thrown out of Sony showrooms and are known for bringing home the what's-its-name technology that no one's ever heard of, you've got what it takes. Being a techno nerd isn't necessary, but a passion to learn and report the latest technologies is.

You should be able to talk intelligently about technology. If you don't know what GSM is or why video editing is being talked about, you can always go online and find out. And you don't have to be an expert at everything either. In fact, it can get quite tough to stay current with everything going on. Develop a niche, so that you can stay informed without being overwhelmed.

Make it a point to keep yourself constantly updated though. Subscribe to magazines, newsletters, mailing lists and discussion groups so that you can correctly judge what's hot and happening, and what's over-hyped litter. If you propose an article right when an editor wants it (or even before), you're in for the good.

Breaking In, Without Breaking Down

The good thing is that each magazine has readers with different knowledge levels. So you can sell "How to transfer files from your laptop to PC" to one publication, "Accessories for your notebook" to another, and "Is your notebook giving you the best performance?" to yet another. The bad thing is, it's one heck of a task remembering how much knowledge each set of readers has.

Request a copy of the editorial calendar before you pitch ideas. Most digital magazines maintain them. "Generally article topics are often defined far in advance," says Susan Daffron, editor of Computor Companion. "So the standard query letter is often a huge waste of time. After you've read the writer's guidelines, it's more effective to write a letter asking for an editorial calendar and explaining your expertise."

When coming up with ideas, try to focus on the benefit and not the technology. Think of the technology as a tool. Most people don't care about the technology itself, but they do want to know how it can make their work easier. Keep in mind that you're not talking to corporate giants, or managers in their offices. You're talking to a person at home, wondering whether he should buy a camera cellphone or a separate digital camera and cellphone. You'll have to anticipate questions and provide answers for them in an intelligent fashion.

Pieces bought usually include new technology reports (Is spim really going to beat spam's damage level?), buying guides (how to choose a camera cellphone), user tips (how to make digital camera batteries last longer), reviews, user-friendly commentary (ten lies companies get away with) and sometimes even humor.

Decoding the Geek-Speak

You'll possibly need to humanize your stories with commentaries by experts or user experiences. Possible sources would include company representatives, professors, analysts, etc.

"A simple way to find experts is to look at press releases and get in touch with the marketing contact person for the product," says Daffron. "Vendors are often more than happy to give you names of people who love their hardware or software. Many include case studies or white papers on their websites, which you can download."

But be aware--a vendor will usually only provide names of people who'll say good things about the product. So, while you may want to talk to experts and product executives for up-to-date information, get your user feedback from independent sources. Local chambers of commerce and PR companies often provide good leads.

When you've secured the interview, go prepared. Even if you're familiar with the technology, ask questions. And don't get taken in by all the hype. Almost every product in the market claims to "change the way we live." Don't insult your reader's intelligence by overselling it. In fact, the chances are, the technology might not be fully developed, may need more investment, or have hidden costs. These factors may be unknown to you.

Writing for digital magazines is neither geeky, nor boring. In fact, some of these magazines make for quite an enjoyable read. Their payment rates are on the higher scale too. And as your experience increases, so will your paycheck. So hook up your laptop. It's going to be a wireless· err, tireless ride.

Writing for a New-Age Audience

Clever analogies and humor always work. Try to make a dull subject interesting by making known connections with books and movies. Don't overdo it though. The language of PR is immediately recognizable. Be careful, or your piece may end up sounding like promotional material instead of smart reporting. "Writing it like you're writing it for your mother, unless of course your mother is a technical whiz. Then write it like you're writing it for my mother," says Howard Rothman. Technology readers are smart and savvy. So avoid baby-talk, which is likely to sound condescending. Use short punchy sentences. Take up a unique or different angle. Hot gadgets for your bachelor pad or a short quiz on whether you're a cellphone addict might work in some publications. Write like you'd talk to a friend. Avoid formal, legal style, but don't go to the point of party-slang either. You don't want to assume that your readers are technical wizards. But don't treat them like morons either.

Copyright © 2005 Mridu Khullar
Reprinted from Freelance Market News

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Freelance journalist Mridu Khullar loves to travel to new and interesting places, meet fascinating people and hear their stories, and in the process, find some of her own. Her work appears in several national and international publications including ELLE, Yahoo.com, Chicken Soup for the soul, Writer's Digest, World & I, and the Times of India. She lives and works out of New Delhi and has the mandatory writer's coffee addiction and temperamental muse. Visit her online home at http://www.mridukhullar.com.

 

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