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Publications > Dateline Houston > October 2002 > Feature Article

Volume 42, Issue 3

November 2002

Communication Similarities and Differences:
A Look at Technical Writing and Journalism

by Margaret Gorham, Freelance Writer

There has been some discussion on the STC Houston mailing list regarding the differences between the worlds of journalism and technical communication. I have found it very interesting because my degree is in journalism, and I have done a little work in the field. Yet, with all the differences between the two fields, similarities exist between journalism and technical writing.

Both require utmost accuracy

Any inaccuracy of information in the medical world could mean a patient’s life, especially in the operation of lifesaving medical equipment or in information on the latest medications. One pill may be fine; two may be toxic. Inaccuracies in instructions on how to use the latest computer software could cost company dollars.

It’s so irritating to read a newspaper article about a fire that gives the location of the tragedy as 1501 Anywhere Street when you know that it is 1301 Anywhere Street. Or you are one of the fortunate victims that survived that fire; your name is Joan Doe, and that infernal newspaper has your name as Joanne Doe. You are going to call that editor and give him a piece of your mind.

Needless to say, accuracy is important in any form of writing. One can imagine the kink in human politics, cost, and even potential loss of lives that might be caused by inaccuracies.

Both require interviewing and research skills

In technical writing, SMEs (subject matter experts) are a source for knowledge of the latest software or medical facts. Our job as technical communicators is to try to squeeze information out of these experts without appearing to do so. This requires knowing the right questions to ask and how to ask them to these oracles of information.

Sometimes the inventor of a product may be so intimately involved with his or her invention that the process is second nature. It may seem similar to thinking of the steps of how to get dressed in the morning or, perhaps, breathe. One needs to know what buttons to push.

In the journalistic world, it often is not that difficult, because sometimes the persons interviewed may not necessarily be experts in the subject covered; they might be witnesses who saw the fire and were scared out of their wits.

Of course, a reporter may need to ask a medical examiner whether the cause of a victim’s death was merely asphyxiation from smoke or whether there was actually a primary cause and the asphyxiation would not have been enough to actually cause the death.

Maybe there was not enough smoke in the area the person was rescued from to justify death in a normally healthy human being.

Both require top-notch writing skills

The quality of information is as good as its writing. The main purpose of writing is communication, even if entertainment is involved, such as writing a paperback novel. Even so, there is a level of communication in the fact that the author must communicate with his or her readers.

Technical writing and journalism require that the practitioners of the respective arts have knowledge of spelling, grammar, organization, and other writing issues.

A certain amount of creativity is needed for both forms of writing to be able to generate audience interest in the subjects covered. Nothing bores the layman more than dry reading. It may make the operator of a home computer want to send that latest Dell back.

Both require specialized knowledge and education

Journalism jobs usually require a college degree. Of course there are exceptions, especially for small start-up newspapers or stations. And if Larry, who has a high-school education but possesses a creative flair, knows Uncle Tony, who is the news producer at Channel 32, or if Sid, who led the neighborhood kids when he was five but dropped out of college, grew up knowing Myrna Goldstein, who is editor of the Daily Review, they may have special opportunities.

A degree in technical communication or an expertise in some technical area is needed. In fact, technical communication requires enough knowledge to understand a technical or scientific subject, talk to experts in a given field, and communicate it to the average layman.

Both require consideration of readership

Consideration of the audience or readership is important in any communication field. This is true in technical communication and journalism.

In journalism, the readership or audience is usually the public at large. Company newsletters and newspapers are generally written for employees or managers. But there are exceptions to the rule. It is important to reach a general audience without “dumbing down” the information. I have heard that the general readership reads at an eighth-grade level. (Please don’t accept that as fact until you research that yourself.)

In technical communication, one has to reach a target audience of users of a product and, sometimes, experts in a field. Technical writers act as a liaison between the users of a product, who are on various levels of education and knowledge, and the inventors or developers of that product. That liaison might require diplomatic skills, which brings us to the next subject.

Both require people skills

People are creatures of moods, needs, and idiosyncrasies. We need to know how to deal with each other. Both journalism and technical writing require knowing the right word to say in due season or the correct word that will get a point across without ruffling feathers or insulting intelligence.

In journalism, one needs to know the language of the subject that is being covered in an article and to learn to speak it fluently. It may mean schmoozing with the mayor or talking to neighborhood locals. The sky is the limit, actually. Technical writing may require that one learn more “geek-speak” to be able to communicate with Gerald, the software engineer at ABC Company. But meeting the needs of people within a company who use that software is necessary, as well. One has to deal with fellow writers and editors. People have egos, and they need to be stroked, on occasion.

Next month: Differences between journalism and technical writing.

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