From Scientist to Storyteller: Writing Because You Have To

Photo credit: The Odyssey Online

There are creative and literary types and there are science and math types, and never the twain shall meet…or so we’re often told. But in my neck of the woods, many of the best tales are centered around technology disciplines more heavily populated by those who fall on the less-literary side of that type line. Further, conveying a compelling story about technology without thoroughly understanding how it works or why it’s important is, at best, an exercise in triviality. And there’s the rub. The only people capable of communicating with any depth or authority on the subject are those who are purportedly ill-suited to delivering the message.

As the former managing editor for a publication written by and for software developers and a current editorial coach to numerous Silicon Valley technologists, my experience has shown that those supposed science and math types are also often passionate and talented writers, contrary to popular belief. Still, there are an awful lot of tech-types who really are not natural raconteurs, struggle under the burden of stereotype, or lack confidence in their ability to communicate in mediums more associated with the arts than the sciences. Nowadays, even these reticent folk are called upon to become storytellers, and that is going to involve writing.

Authoring technical papers, commenting in forums, contributing bylines, posting on LinkedIn or Medium or the company blog—these are the current standards for establishing a professional persona in the technology world. Everyone is expected to provide peers, potential employers, and would-be investors with something tangible to surface when Googling. It doesn’t matter whether you’re comfortable with producing content, it has to be done. So how does the non-writer conquer the task?

First off, the ability to write does not flow from some fanciful font of imagination accessible to a select creative set. The truth is that crafting a great blog post, presentation, or paper is not so different from formulating a rudimentary proof or equation: a+b+c=d. Breaking the task down into a simple process of laying out blocks of evidence to produce a result makes it less a matter of art and more a performance of logic. That being said, there are techniques that can make execution much less arduous.

  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: Pick up a technical paper or an article that you enjoyed reading and use it as a template to draft your own paper. Do not copy what it says (plagiarism), but feel free to mimic how it says it (homage). It can be something written on a subject totally unrelated to your area of focus; the point is to use it as scaffolding to build your own presentation of ideas or findings. How did the authors introduce their thesis? How is the information segmented and transitioned? How does the conclusion cement the main points? The subtext here is that you must READ to WRITE. The more you read, the better your writing naturally becomes.
  • Talk it out: For those who are really convinced they can’t possibly create a decent presentation or punch out a post for the company blog, try speaking it instead. Record yourself simply explaining what you want to say or briefly discussing the topic with a friend, and then transcribe the recording. Now the act of creation becomes a mere matter of editing and moving blocks of captured information around on the page until it makes sense. This technique has the added benefit of ensuring your personal voice is conveyed in the final product, which always makes for more engaging written material.
  • Practice makes perfect: Much of the trepidation that non-writers feel when forced to produce content has to do with fear of an unfamiliar task. Try committing 10 minutes every day for two weeks to just sitting at a keyboard and writing something. It doesn’t have to be related to any “real” paper or proposal, and you don’t have to actually share it with anyone else—it just has to be ten solid minutes of writing down something every day. You may not turn into Stephen King, but I promise that by the 14th day, the act of writing will no longer feel so daunting.

If the whole endeavor gives you anxiety, know that you are in good company. Writing and posting or publishing makes most people feel at least a little exposed and vulnerable. It’s always a good idea to ask a friend or colleague to review before sharing anything publicly. If you’re working with an editor, rest assured that he/she is there to help and has a vested interest in ensuring your writing is well received.

If you require further motivation to inspire production, remember that engineers, scientists, and tech-minded folks are the motors collectively powering the advancement of human capability. The importance of producing stories and sharing information in that capacity really cannot be overstated. Besides, writing can be a lot of fun, and we can all do with a little more of that!

Deirdre Blake is the senior content manager for Silicon Valley tech PR agency Sterling Communications. Previously, she served as Managing Editor at Dr. Dobb’s Journal and website for nearly 20 years, covering software development, programming languages, and all manner of coding-related tools and technologies. Follow her on Twitter at @PingYourBrain.