It's all geek to me: Writing about technology

From the blogosphere to Silicon Valley and back, technology impacts both the way we write and the topics we can cover as science writers. In a session called "Geeks, Freaks and Deadlines: Writing about Technology and the Humans Who Love It" at ScienceWriters 2008 in October in Palo Alto, panelists advised, admonished and cajoled the science writing audience to be creative in their use of technology — as both topic and medium.

 

From the blogosphere to Silicon Valley and back, technology impacts both the way we write and the topics we can cover as science writers. In a session called "Geeks, Freaks and Deadlines: Writing about Technology and the Humans Who Love It" at ScienceWriters 2008 in October in Palo Alto, panelists advised, admonished and cajoled the science writing audience to be creative in their use of technology — as both topic and medium.

The session began with comments from Tom Abate, technology reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and writer of the popular "Tech Chronicles" blog. Abate recommends journalists writing about technology think about commenting on what happens rather than just telling. "Extra, extra ... read all about it is dead," says Abate. "Stick a fork in it. We have to be the people in the world who give context."

Abate gave some examples of how writers can approach stories with an eye for context and meaning. In writing about technology, there is a myth that people do their best work young — like Mark Zuckerberg who started Facebook as a Harvard undergraduate, or Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google. Playing with this stereotype can be interesting. Abate also told the audience to think about new ways to present information. He recently created an infographic to put the cost of the $700 billion economic bailout in perspective. "The challenge is to take huge concepts," he advises, "and make them into pie charts."

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the science-meets-science fiction blog io9 from Gawker Media, told the audience that she had been writing about technology long before she was aware of it. "I have a weird job I didn't even know existed 10 years ago," she said.

Newitz sees what she does — writing about the culture of technology — as something slightly different from traditional science writing. While traditional science writing is focused on published research, technology is a broader base. "Technology writing can be a lot of different things, because technology pervades our lives." Stories that involve technology can also be stories about business, culture, crime or even parenting. Though io9 is a blog, Newitz says there are only minimal differences in the approach to journalism on the web — where sites like Gawker are paid by advertisers depending on the number of page views. "Online writing does involve interaction, so you are concerned about what people think."

Adam Rogers, senior editor of Wired magazine, edits features about technology, and has seen the market for these stories change from a time when Wired was one of the only places publishing long-form stories about technology — and that opens up tech writing to many new writers. "There's a fear that tech stories require some special knowledge," said Rogers. "But I don't think that's true. We're looking for good stories with conflict, characters, and a tale about human beings in their world." A good place to start might be looking at the personal stories behind inventions — and the inventions behind personal stories.

In closing, Annalee Newitz predicted the future of journalism. "If you're not writing on the web now, you will be in the future," she said. "All that being a blogger means is that you're using blogging software. Don't worry, it's very different from the girl down the street who writes about her cat."

Katharine Gammon is a freelancer based in Santa Monica, California who writes about science and technology for Wired, ABCNews.com, and Tom's Guide.

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