Reading outside the tech writing box

Can reading around improve your technical writing? Many writers recommend to read a lot, but discriminately: Margaret Atwood, P.D. James and A.L. Kennedy do,  Annie Proulx, Zadie Smith and Sarah Waters do too, when the The Guardian asked them for “Ten rules for writing fiction”. But does this apply to technical writing, too?

It took me a while to figure it out, but I think reading “outside the tech writing box” helps my tech writing. By “outside the box”, I mean reading beyond an immediate purpose, so I’m excluding writings about tech writing, such as books or blogs, specifications and style guides.

Technology journalism

Most effective for me is well-researched, well-written technology journalism:

  • It emphasizes stories and the people behind them and reminds me they are more important in my writing than the latest feature bonanza.
  • It helps me to focus on personas and my audience and reminds me where other people in the industry are at – or where they may be headed.
  • And with some luck, it’s fun to read and well argued and remind me to try and be engaging in my writing where appropriate.

The kind of writing I mean can be found in print and online in Wired, Slate and Salon, in the New York Times and the New Yorker, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Columbia Journalism Review, in other blogs and magazines and newspapers.

If you like books, the annual anthology The Best of Technology Writing 2007, 2008, 2009 collects about two dozen articles each year that are frequently worth your while – especially since the first two volumes can be read online for free.

Let me give you a few examples which I think stand out above the majority of magazine articles and blog posts:

  • Jeff Howe’s “The Rise of Crowdsourcing(Wired,  June 2006) first explained to me how off-shoring and outsourcing got a new twist with crowdsourcing of stock photography (such as seen in this blog), serious R&D and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program.
  • John Seabrook’s “Game Master” (New Yorker, 6 Nov 2006) tells the story of Will Wright, the creator of video games such as Sims and Spore.
  • Emily Nussbaum’s “Say Everything” (New York Magazine, February 2007) showed me how people who are ten years younger than me have a completely different concept of privacy.
  • Dana Goodyear’s “I [Heart] Novels” (New Yorker, 22 Dec 2008) introduced me to cell-phone novels originating in Japan.
  • Clive Thompson’s “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” (New York Times Magazine, 5 Sep 2008) provides an in-depth look at Facebook and portrays its founder Mark Zuckerberg.

What else?

If you’re focusing on a specific industry, you can probably also find outstanding journalism there which is worth hunting down. I’m in financial and banking software. So trying to find good articles with an expiration date beyond the next quarter has been especially interesting… A good starting point for me was an anthology by Michael Lewis and McSweeney’s called Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity with pieces written between 1987 and 2008.

Beyond that, I find my reading cannot inform my tech writing much. Recently, I really liked Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel for its insights what motivates both travel and art and its concise arguments backed up by well-written examples.

I’m also fond of E.M. Forster’s style and handling of plot and character in A Room with a View. These books, as well as many others, engage me and enrich my life – and remind me that there’s a reading life outside of my job… 😉

What do you think? Can reading help to improve your technical writing? What books, stories or articles have you found inspiring or helpful?

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5 Responses

  1. I tend to read many books at once. Some next to the bed are:
    Plato, Georgias
    Stephen King, Duma Keys
    Graham Greene, Man in Havana
    Charlene Li, Groundswell
    Built to Last and Blue Ocean Strategy

  2. Thanks, Kai. These are good recommendations. I’d also recommend anything by John McPhee. He can take the most arcane technical subject and tell a story that’s both interesting and informative.

    • Thanks for reminding me of McPhee, Larry, I’ve always meant to check him out, but he keeps falling off my radar…

  3. […] about this in the techcomm/writing blogosphere lately. Ivan Walsh blogged about it. Our pal Kai Weber blogged about it. So did some other […]

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