Reflections on two decades of tech writing

I’ve been doing this writing thing for two decades now. Two DECADES. Sometimes it feels like more.

Twenty years ago this week, a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young man strode confidently into the foyer of Australian Consolidated Press at 54 Park Street Sydney.

I know this, because I was nervously walking behind him.

That guy seemed to know where he was going and what he was doing, whereas I was simply heading into a job that I fervently hoped was better than the technical support role I was leaving.

Then again, that technical support role gave me years worth of PTSD when it came to the simple expedient of answering the phone, because nobody ever calls technical support to tell you how happy they were with the product. So it was already ahead on that score.

Little did I know that I was about to embark on what would become my career, because at that point I’d been (variously) a test monkey for an audio lab, an administrative assistant for a particularly “interesting” builder and a tech support representative for a company that also produced squishy cows that we used to torture during the worst weekend shifts. But no more!

I was coming on board as the “Web Manager” at Australian Personal Computer, at that time the country’s biggest-selling computer magazine by quite a wide margin, back when APC got the kinds of sales numbers that I suspect The Women’s Weekly would kill for these days. Probably means that APC is still number one in the tech magazine category, even though relatively few folks buy computer mags these days.

I still have my ACP pass. If this thing still works, somebody's getting fired.
I still have my ACP pass. If this thing still works, somebody’s getting fired.

As a total aside, I just realised that I started in the same week that my partner in Vertical Hold, Adam Turner did. We’ve often joked that we shared the same career, but I never realised it was quite that closely matched….

Anyway, I was there to be the Web Manager back in the days when the idea of any magazine being on the Internet was a wild kind of idea that might not work. I mean, the Internet. Crazy, newfangled Internet. That’ll never take off, right?

Since then I’ve done a little bit of everything, including freelancing for more titles than I can count, having the title of “editor” everywhere from CNET to Gizmodo to ZDNet to PC Mag to finder (amongst others). I’ve flown to many interesting parts of the world (and also Las Vegas), interviewed folks who earn WAY more than I ever will and somehow survived the journey back.

In that time, I’ve written what would have to amount to billions of words along the way. They’d probably stretch an arbitrary number of times from here to Mars if anyone could be bothered to count them. I don’t know that I could, or that I’d have time, but if you fancy the gig, knock yourself out.

I’ve started to be described as a “Veteran Journalist” along the way, which is equal parts a badge of honour and a worrying pointer to the fact that I’m getting much older. That younger, nervous me wouldn’t really recognise me after two decades, if only because he’d wonder where all his hair was going to go.

Still, along the way, I’ve also had the opportunity to learn a few things about this whole writing craft, and I thought it might be interesting to put them down here. I’m not going to pretend that these are unique insights that you won’t get anywhere else, and indeed, you may find them obvious. Or not. I can’t tell what’s going on inside your head, you loony. Only mine.

So, in no particular order…

Twenty things about tech writing I’ve learned in twenty years

  • You need to love writing: I’ve had the benefit of working with some immensely talented folks throughout the years, many of whom were passionate about writing. I’ve also worked with people who really wanted to get into production, or TV, or simply wanted to be rich but didn’t care about writing at all. I don’t care if you write technology, movie reviews, financial analysis or a history of the Dutch carrot industry for a living, if you’re not passionate about it, do something else.
  • Love your subs (if you’ve got them): The art of sub-editing is a tough one, and while I’ve only intermittently had to sub the work of others, I have a lot of respect for folks who have done it full time. You might be a good writer, but a good sub can make your good writing into something great. Hat tip there to Gail Lipscombe, who more or less had to beat that into me. I was young and stupid, but not for long.
  • Touch typing is a hell of a skill: Years before I became a writer, I did a TAFE touch typing course when I was still at high school. To give you an idea of how old I am, this was on an actual typewriter, although it was at least of the electric variety. I do know working journalists who hunt and peck with two fingers, but they’re always outpaced by those who can type with all their fingers. Being able to touch type won’t make you a better writer automatically, but it will help you create copy much more rapidly, as well as kill a few keyboards along the way. I’ve been told I sound like a machine gun when I’m in full flow, and that’s rarely gentle on the keys.
  • You should never stop learning about writing: I’ve got to credit the late, great, Cass Warneminde with this one. He pointed that out on day one when I was reviews editor at ZDNet Australia, and he was absolutely spot on. My skillset these days has equals parts of presenting, doing ad-hoc radio interviews (which I really love, even though I’m less happy doing TV), editing, mentoring, poring over spreadsheets… and learning about writing. Even when I’m busy pointing out to the increasingly-younger folks I work with today, I’m learning about my own writing process.
  • Technology dates fast: I can recall the excitement when the first 1GHz CPU came into the labs at APC. 1GHz! That’s an INSANE speed! These days, you wouldn’t even bother with something that slow. Why does that matter for writing? Because it’s all too easy to get caught up in the hype and miss the big picture, although…
  • Knowledge accumulates: The benefit of experience is that when I do get hit with a hype wave, I can usually recall the last time somebody tried a version of that particular trick, and how it ended up. For writers (and especially tech writers) it’s really useful to not only understand the new topics, but also where they’ve come from.
  • It’s possible to work with your close family: I’ve worked in no fewer than three workplaces with Angus Kidman by now. As brothers we’ll fight over the smallest, stupidest things, but as professionals, it’s insanely easy to get stuff done. That one might be just the two of us though. If you hate your siblings anyway, I don’t know what to say to you.
  • Always check the power: I’ve only ever blown up one 110V review product in 20 years because I didn’t check before plugging it in. I can still recall the noise it made, not to mention the smell of charred plastic that lingered for ages afterwards.
  • Always be ready to write: It’s easier now, because in a pinch I could write and publish and entire article on a smartphone, but if all you’ve got is one of those stubby pencils they give you at elections and the back of a press release, you’ve got enough to go on. I have (shamefully) walked into events not ready to write, and as a result had to scramble where I should have been prepared. There’s a story in everything if you’re ready to make it happen.
  • Sometimes, a good walk is better than a cup of coffee: It took me a long while to glom onto the idea that escaping my work for 20 minutes was much better overall than grinding my way through it. That change of perspective and stopping sometimes can be invaluable, not just for your sanity but also the quality of the finished work.
  • The Fish PC still deserved to be mocked: I’ve reviewed hundreds if not thousands of products, apps and assorted technological doodads along the way, but some stood out from their sheer weirdness. The Fish PC still sits in my head for the simple, stupid fact that it was a PC whose main selling point was… .wait for it… that it was shaped like a fish.
  • Shorter sentences are better: Just like this one.
  • You can say as much in 10 words as a thousand: No, this isn’t just the point above restated. One semi-casualty of the internet age is that there are no word limits. That’s great if you have something detailed to say. It also means that there’s no barrier to waffle. Conversely, I’ve had to write many product reviews in 50 words or less. That’s a tough gig, both from a pay proposition if it’s per word, but mostly because that kind of brevity is tricky.
  • Burnout is real and really painful: I’ve written a lot, and often had folks ask how I manage it. The reality is that sometimes I don’t. As I’ve gotten older, I’m better at spotting the signs of burnout and taking breaks when needed. But not always. If you stress out that soggy chunk of meat in your head, you won’t be writing anything decent, so step away from time to time.
  • It’s OK to walk away from a writing job: I’ve held plenty of positions, and freelanced for more titles than I can remember. That also means I’ve resigned from plenty of positions (I’m yet to be fired from any), for a variety of reasons. Some I left on personal grounds, some I walked on pay issues, and some for company culture reasons. That’s OK. If you want to write, then write, and let the quality talk for itself, but don’t feel as though the writing gig you’ve got right now is the only writing gig you’ll ever have.
  • Production matters: There’s a famous quote about writing being easy — you just sit down at a typewriter and bleed, or words to that effect. You shouldn’t actually suffer to write, but if you can’t produce to a deadline (whatever it is) on a regular basis, you’re not working professionally. No, just because Douglas Adams got away with it doesn’t mean you should try that on. His editor used to lock him in hotel rooms in order to get stories out of him, and who needs that?
  • Remember the reader: Somebody didn’t get what you were pitching at in a story? Sure, maybe they’re trolling, but just maybe, your language wasn’t clear enough, or you didn’t know enough about the topic. Maybe they did. Either way, without readers, you don’t have anything, so always keep the reader (relative to the publication) in mind. I’ve written variously for hard tech types, developers, full on soft consumer tech… heck, I even once wrote (briefly) for a baby magazine because I turned up to a roundtable with one of my kids (as an infant) in a sling! Knowing the audience and remembering you’re writing for them, not for you, is paramount.
  • PR isn’t automatically evil: Sure, I might joke about PR being the “dark side” of journalism, and in some contexts, it is. But I’ve also had the pleasure and privilege to work with some intensely skilled PR folk over the years. It’s not a job I could easily do, if only because I’d push certain phantom hackers out the window on day one, and I’m told that’s a no-no.
  • Plagiarism hurts: I’ve had my stuff copied verbatim more than once, and it’s not flattering. It makes a joke of the hard work that I’ve put into a feature, and often I’m not going to have been the only person working on it. So what’s to learn here? Simple. Do your own damned writing. You’ll be both a better writer and a better person as a result.
  • The job does not have to be your life: Seriously. Stop, smell the roses, do something that isn’t writing for a while. It should be your passion, but not your only passion. If it is, the setbacks (and they will happen), and the way that sometimes others will unfairly get ahead while you feel like you’re treading water will eat away at you. The solution is simple enough, and it’s rewarding too. Love writing and when it’s good it won’t feel like work, but live a full life (whatever that might mean to you) and you’re making the most of your time. Even over two decades.

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