Common Principles of Writing in Journalism and Technical Communication

By, Sanjivani Iyer

I was at a restaurant last week when I heard (rather overheard) the following argument between a technical writer (TW) and a journalist (JO). They were friends from college and had chosen different career paths eventually.
TW – You know how tight the deadlines are! Terrible; they are breathing down our necks. A release every quarter – what the hell?

JO – Really? My life is no better. Ever since these 24/7 news channels have come, print media is having to really struggle to keep up its circulation. And online journalism is only making matters worse. We had hourly deadlines earlier. Now they have made it per minute. There is just no time to even think.

As they kept lamenting on whose life is worse off, one of them uttered this.

TW – Your kind of writing is different. You write for the masses. We write technical content for a specific audience. They are all techies. You have no idea how tough it is to write for them.

This line made me think. Is it really so different – journalistic writing vis-à-vis technical writing? Devoid of the glamour and paraphernalia surrounding either of these clans, the basic connect is always between a writer and a reader. These following five principles usually govern any writing:

  • Know your audience
  • Use good grammar
  • Write concisely
  • Use correct punctuation
  • Read between the lines to fill up the gaps

Know Your Audience

We all have studied the Indian history. In class 3 we would have studied a 2-page chapter on the Mughal dynasty. The same topic is spread across a semester in class 8. Yet again, the same topic emerges as a 100-mark paper at the undergraduate level.

The topic remains the same. But, the depth and the language change based on the level of the reader/student. Similarly, a technical article needs to be worded suitably depending on the technical knowledge of the readers. Elaborating on the architecture of Kubernetes for a banker makes no sense.

Use Good Grammar

This is quite self-explanatory. The core skill that gives professional writers an edge over subject-matter experts is the command over language. Good grammar makes a document readable and, thereby, more usable. In any English medium school, the English grammar concepts are covered from class 4 till class 8. However, most writers struggle with the basic grammatical concepts like articles, subject-verb agreement, and number agreement. Sustained use of correct grammar in all written and oral communication is the only way to go for all writers.

Several online grammar tutorials and tests are available. For example: https://www.englishgrammar.org/exercises/

Writers can use them regularly to brush up their grammar.  Note that some grammar rules are different between the British English and the American English. Apart from the spellings, even use of articles can vary. For example, the words “hospital” and “university” invariably take the definite article in the American English. However, in the British English, they may be used without an article.

Write Concisely

Conciseness means expressing something with the least number of words. Writers must remove unnecessary words from every sentence. For the print media journalists, paper space is always a constraint. Articles have to fit in the defined slot. In technical communication, too, rambling documents drive readers away. Readers will find it easier to raise a support call than to dig through a voluminous documentation. Writers in both cases have to write concisely to retain and help readers. Some effective tips to write and edit concisely are on this webpage: http://web.ku.edu/~edit/concise.html   

Use Correct Punctuation

Punctuation creates sense, clarity, and emphasis in your sentences. Incorrect use can alter the meaning of sentences or phrases. Take a simple example:

Woman without her man is nothing

Woman without her man, is nothing.

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The same set of words convey contrasting thoughts, when the punctuation is modified.

Read Between the Lines to Fill up the Gaps

Be it journalism or technical writing, the subject matter experts often provide only those details that they want the readers to know. In reality, there is a huge gap between what readers are given and what they need to know. Journalists, like technical writers, need to find these gaps between what is written and what readers actually need. They both need to play the devil’s advocate to find out if critical information is missed.

While all five principles are important, the first four principles determine whether a person is fit to be a writer and the last one differentiates a mediocre writer from a good one.

Happy writing!

About the Author

Sanjivani Iyer has over 15 years of experience in writing & editing for print media; software documentation & people management. She is currently the Manager for Information Engineering at Hewlett Packard Enterprise – Software (HPE).

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