Thursday, February 10, 2011

Writing well about computing - What does it take?

For the past 10 days or so I have been following a conversation in the LinkedIn group Science Writers. The conversation started when someone asked for opinions about whether or not it was necessary to have a science background to succeed as a science journalist. Her exact words were "to be a good science journalist". Oddly enough, the woman who asked the question has had a successful career as a science journalist for 20 years. The question turned out to be more about whether or not people felt that she should follow her interest in gaining additional education in environmental journalism. By most standards she would no doubt be considered "good" already as she is publishing in widely read science magazines.

The comments back to her were interesting though from the point of view of perceptions and marketing of computer science. Many of the respondents were people without a science background so they predictably replied that no, you don't need a science background. Yes, it was a self selected respondent group. However, they had some points worth considering. One that stood out was the claim that it was more important to be a good writer than to have a science background and that it was easier to obtain "scientific literacy" than the "fundamental craft of writing".

Now, I would take some issue with that comment. I do believe that at least in computer science, given the widespread misconceptions about what we are, what we do, what we don't do, and the frequency of journalism articles that are off target in one area or another - it IS important to have a background in some area closely related to computing if you want to tackle head on the public perceptions of what who how etc. That takes more than "scientific literacy" or in this case the more narrow "digital or computing literacy", terms that we are currently wrestling to define.

There are no doubt writers who are so darned good that they can do the background research, talk to the computer scientists and write an article that is accurate, digestible, interesting and has solid content for public consumption. But as with any other interdisciplinary situation those cross over professionals are a rare breed.

That said, I agree that a writer has to be a "good" writer to get across the computing points so that the general public is interested and gets the correct information. An academic writing style flops with the general public. Writing well is as much a creative and technical endeavor as computing. Thus I would argue that neither the computing background nor the writing background trumps the other.

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