Welcome to the first installment of an ongoing series on highly specialized content creators. Highly sought after as writers, presenters and project managers in their field, they have deep knowledge of a difficult niche. More than that, they’re able to make complex topics into digestible content for consumer or business audiences.
Our first article in The Niche Freelancer series highlights tech writers — a somewhat generalized label that covers research results documentation, fintech, technical manuals, feasibility studies, and of course marcom for tech companies. Not every tech writer can handle everything in this broad category, but we spoke with one who does.
Erik Sherman became a technology and business journalist after leaving a high-level corporate communications job at a tech company. He continues to write for consumer and trade publications (including Fortune, Forbes, and Inc.), while also consulting in all aspects of tech writing for all kinds of businesses. His well-rounded resume features a heavy technical background in math, engineering and science, but he also has run small businesses and written 10 non-fiction books. When a marketing team needs a professional with decades of experience, expertise in tech-related topics, and a good sense of humor, Erik is the man to call.
What are the different types of tech writers?
Tech is a pretty broad topic. Is it computer technology? Other types of engineering, like mechanical, chemical, aero-astro, electrical, materials science? Some combination? Even software can vary greatly, whether intended for consumers or business users (which can be a whole range of different types). There’s a specific category of software called enterprise, for example, and yet there are types that will provide the same functions but for smaller companies. Then there’s the question of whether the audience is laypeople, technical people, a business audience, or something else.
Then you have an additional complication, in that there are interactions between various types of technology and business activities. So, do you treat something like fintech as technology or the type of industry (financial services) that it’s supposed to support? Cloud computing can have a broad set of applications. One of them is manufacturing, but knowing cloud systems isn’t enough, because there are specialized networks, hardware like industrial controllers, and communications protocols specific to the types of applications. Even in manufacturing, there are different types with different needs, like process (which can include petroleum processing, chemical manufacturing, or food) and discrete (making specific items, whether a pair of sunglasses or a smartphone).
Now add the type of communication. Maybe it’s content marketing, in which case you want a journalistic background. Or perhaps it’s direct marketing, or collateral. Or technical writing in the sense of manuals or technical specifications or something else directed toward engineers or scientists.
Is it accurate to assume that someone who is one kind of tech writer can perform any kind of tech writing?
There are skills and understanding that can be brought from one area to another. Depending on the writer’s abilities, it may happen more or less quickly, but there will be some learning curve, usually. However, it depends on the specifics. Sometimes a range of backgrounds can provide perspective and improve the result.
Beyond the technology and industry aspects, there are also the writing skills. I’ve done many types, but am a bit unusual in the breadth. In some of the more technical types of writing, clarity and comprehension are the most important, and that can blend into types of marketing writing, where you need to persuade but have to with specific acumen. In some types, an ability to tell a story might be a critical part, like in some types of content marketing. Direct response requires a different touch. Being good at one doesn’t mean you’re good at others.
What other specialty areas of writing are often confused, or often overlap, with tech writing?
The biggest confusion I see is when people — including the marketers, frankly — get myopic and see only the particular technology in question. But you need to understand the issues of the customers (whether consumers or corporations). That means a sense not only of what someone needs, but why and how it fits in to everything else, as well as the context of the industry, which shapes decisions and strategies.
What are the hottest topics in tech writing — at this moment? Blockchain? Cloud computing?
Another tricky area, because technology propagates more slowly than many marketers realize. Blockchain is a hot topic, certainly in editorial, but once you break it out from cryptocurrencies, it’s not necessarily hot in a practical sense. An example: You could make use of blockchain in financial services, but the area is heavily regulated, so introducing it will be something that will happen over time.
Cloud computing and big data are both big, because they’re useful. I’d say 3D printing, as it’s becoming commercially viable in some types of manufacturing. Materials science is always important and doing interesting things, but often not seen on its own. A lot of work in making smaller and smaller semiconductors happens in materials science. Self-assembling devices, uses in medicine, and applications in energy will also be hot. Security is hot because it has to be on almost any front, like Internet of Things, another percolating area.
What are the characteristics of a good tech writer?
It’s like the characteristics of anyone who is good at something. Certainly the ability to tell a story, but also to grasp technical details and know how to use them with control, to outline the story without making it too complicated for a given audience. Professional practices are critical. I’ve run projects at times and have found dealing with many writers to be incredibly frustrating. Someone should be timely, and also keep in touch with the clients enough to warn in advance if there’s a developing problem (which sometimes happens beyond prevention). You also want the writer to be good at dealing with people, and understanding of how corporate work often goes.
If you are hiring a tech writer for a super-specialized subject area, how do you verify their ability? Writing samples?
There should always be some type of sample, even if it’s not exactly what you’d looking for. However, samples can have limited value. You don’t know what someone else did to the copy. See if they have any early drafts they’re willing to show. Check full references (not short blurbs) on LinkedIn and you can ask to talk to previous or current customers.
As a freelancer, how do you gauge whether your skills are a match for the project?
A combination of experience and talking with the client. Some writers like to say yes to anything, assuming they can pull it off. I like to focus on things I know I can do or where I’m willing to invest the time to expand into an area. Even then, I will look for translatable skills. If someone asked me to do something in pharma, I’d probably pass; although if the question was computer systems for pharma, I’d consider it more as a possibility.
How did you start out in tech writing?
I had done some freelance journalism while studying math and electrical engineering in college, so doing traditional technical writing seemed like a good potential match. Then I studied marketing and direct response writing and expanded beyond things like computer manuals.
Did you have any specialized training in the subject matter?
Yes — I studied math and electrical engineering [at MIT]. It makes it easier to talk to engineers and understand the material.
How did you create your portfolio, in an arena where many things are under NDA, or once published, likely to disappear within a couple years?
I have links to items and also obtain or make PDFs of pieces, so I can get them to clients.
How do you keep yourself updated on new technologies and areas of interest?
I read widely and will take on assignments early in a given technology and industry when it’s possible to reasonably build up experience. As I’m additionally a working journalist, I get my nose put into many things.
What skills really set a great tech writer apart from the pack?
Understanding of the materials, business understanding, writing skills, and solid professional practices.
Why do you think you specifically have been successful in this arena?
Technical skills, curiosity, good work ethic, wide range of experiences and knowledge, and good people skills.
What is your ideal project?
There isn’t one type of project. I do like something where the pay is good enough and the deadlines far enough out to enable spending more time on a project and developing something that works better. I also like it when clients are willing to listen to suggestions. I bring understanding from many, many projects and multiple millions of published words (literally); and I am good at understanding and solving problems.