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Volume 42, Issue 3
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
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.