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13 Tips on How to Tech-talk to Non-techies

by Hasmita Chander

Despite the current market situation, computers and computing technology are here to stay. Experts say that the market will get up, brush off its bruises, and start running in a year or two at the most.

Looking at the way digital technology is penetrating every field, it appears that nearly everyone in the world will have to learn to use computers if they haven't already, and those who are using them need to constantly upgrade their knowledge and skills. Most of these people turn to technical publications appropriate to their interest, and these publications are always eager to work with writers who can communicate technical information effectively.

Writing for technical publications is not very different from writing for others--simple, clear language, good spelling and grammar, and writing in an organized manner are the main ingredients of a well-written article.

Here are some tips to keep in mind while constructing articles for the beginner to intermediate user of computing technology:

1. Title and leaders. Study the magazine and observe the titles. Are they witty and light, or serious and direct? Write your title and leaders in keeping with the style of the magazine. The leader is a sentence or two written below the title, before the actual article begins. This sums up what the article is trying to say. By reading the leader, readers can decide if the article is of interest and if they'd like to read it.

2. First paragraph. This is the attention grabber. It has to call out from the page, flutter its eyelashes at the reader, and when he begins to read, hold him. At the same time, don't give false starts--the text should deal with the subject in question.

3. Take organized steps. When we teach somebody while sitting with them, we tend to go from one thing to another, realize there's something we should have explained earlier--explain it, go back to where we left off, break for a joke, and continue.

Writing a tutorial or explaining a concept in an article form is a little different--it should be easy to read, and flow uninterrupted. Organize what you have to say into steps so that the reader does not have to go back and forth for unexplained words. Write a draft of the points you want to cover. Go over it, looking for repetitions as well as things left unsaid. If there's a step that's much longer than the others, break it into two points or paragraphs. It's easier to read that way.

4. Explain the big words. Several technical magazine editors are so exasperated of unexplained jargon in writers' submissions that they mention it in their Writer's Guidelines. For example, Smart Computing, USA says, "We stress the use of plain English over techno-speak. In your article, explain ALL acronyms and abbreviations. Some terms appear numerous times in each issue, so the editors will probably remove some of the definitions in your article--but leave those decisions to the editors."

Don't give in to the temptation of trying to impress the editor or readers with your knowledge. Instead, convey what you chose to write about simply and clearly--that will make a better impact.

5. Keep the target in mind. Think of the reader and write accordingly. Don't bore the average reader with lengthy descriptions of basics, and don't put in things that are too technical for the target reader to make yourself look like a whiz. If the sub-editor doesn't know what you're talking about, she may either chop it or let it be. If she chops it, there goes your tech-talk. If she leaves it, you could end up with either few takers for your article, or a set of confused, dissatisfied readers, some of who will take the time to write to the editor.

6. Watch your tone. Just because the reader is new to the software or topic you're writing about, it doesn't mean he is stupid. He might be an expert at something that you are a complete beginner at. The tone that you use is important--let it be a journey that you make together. Show the readers how to do things by explaining clearly, but don't talk down to them. Write as if you're talking to an intelligent person who is new to your subject.

7. Say everything. We've heard that chefs don't give away special touches in their recipes--using mint leaves instead of mint essence--that make the dish exactly so. In the same way some tech people don't like to give out everything for fear of creating competition.

Remember that you're not a stationary, full-to-the-brim barrel. As people learn and move ahead, so do you. Students or readers always remember who taught them--they not only respect you for giving away your tips, they're also sure that you know much more than they do (even if this isn't true!).

8. Stop when you're done. Some people, on the other hand, love teaching and giving away their knowledge, so much and so generously that they don't know when to stop. If your article is about 3D animation, the subject is a wide one. Don't take off from 3D animation and then go on and on right into video editing and post-production. Say all that is to be said to the target audience about pure 3D animation, at a comfortable pace, then stop. A beginner cannot digest more than that, and the intermediate person may not be interested in video editing at all. Besides, if you talked about so many extra topics within the word-limit allotted, maybe you forgot or left out some important basics?

9. Use sub-heads. An editor once told me, "You must write the leader, sub-heads and captions so that a busy reader can look just at these and understand what the article is trying to say." Always read recent issues of the publication you're writing for and study the style. One publication may use direct phrases for sub-heads like 'Create textures' while another prefers clever or cute ones like 'Textures for all seasons.'

10. Cut out the small talk. You can find an inundation of technical tutorials on the Internet with a real friendly voice--so friendly that at times you forget just what it is the writer is trying to say about the software.

There's a difference between being friendly and being chatty. Chatty is talking irrelevant things by trying to be friendly: "You know, like when you go to the supermarket and see your old classmate from high school, you meet and chat, and she wants to give you her number but neither of you has a pen or a sheet of paper on you. That's when an Organizer comes in handy."

Instead, you could say, "An Organizer lets you jot down addresses, telephone numbers, birthdays, and helps you organize your schedule. It comes in especially handy when you bump into a friend when you're out, and want to exchange telephone numbers."

Avoid making irrelevant jokes, sounds (Ahhh, umm, we·ll!) and using too many exclamations--it gets noisy. The best voice is a friendly one that sticks to the topic.

11. Snip off the extras. As with any writing, after you've gone over the article for technical errors, grammatical and spelling mistakes, and checked if everything has been explained, check once more for fluff. See what you can cut out and still convey the message. This makes for crisper writing--and reading.

12. Illustrate. Pictures do speak better and more than words. If one good illustration can explain something clearly instead of a whole paragraph, use the illustration. At the same time, don't overdo the pictures by giving one for every tool you use unless it has been specifically asked for. Keep with the magazine's requirements and style.

While creating the illustrations, keep in mind the format the publication needs them in. If they are for Web use, they may need 72 dpi images in JPG or GIF format, while print publications may need 300 or 600 dpi images in TIF format. Provide captions for them. These captions shouldn't state the obvious like "Select the Paint tool" for a picture showing the toolbar with the Paint tool selected. They should be informative: "Using the Paint tool you can fill a selection or the area you click in."

13. Margin material. If there is any information that doesn't quite fit into the article but is relevant and useful, send it in as a sidebar or margin material. Sidebars are not long--check with the magazine's guidelines for the acceptable length. This is a good place to put in links to related Web sites, explain jargon, or Did-you-knows. It also makes for an attractive layout.

You don't have to hold a post-graduate degree in the subject to write for technology publications of this audience. Perhaps you're an expert at using Microsoft Word, being a writer. You are then "qualified" to offer an article or tips on using the software.

On the other hand, if you're technically qualified but are not very comfortable with writing, don't despair. A large number of technical publications, especially those for the professional or advanced user, say that you don't have to be a great writer--you just need to know your stuff, and they will edit and shape your work to fit their requirements. Still, if you keep the above tips in mind when you write, the editorial department won't have to work too hard!

Copyright © 2002 Hasmita Chander
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Hasmita Chander is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India. She has had close to 200 articles and a dozen children's stories published in India and five other countries. She has been a contributing writer for Computers@Home (India), The Grapevine (USA) and The Star (Malaysia). She runs a list for writers called Writing in India (http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/writingindia/).

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