What I've learned in one year of tech writing

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 28, 2012

From The News Desk

Just a few weeks from now marks my first anniversary as a full-time writer. After leaving college early to avoid crippling student debt, working at a local grocery store, freelancing for a network of app-centric sites, and almost nine months at PandoDaily, I'll be able to blow out the candle on my dream's birthday.

Unlike some people, who find themselves writing almost by accident, I've always wanted to string words together and tell stories. The format has changed over time – I started dreaming of becoming a novelist, shifted to poetry and short stories, and finally landed on journalism – but the words have never stopped coming.

I've learned a lot over the last year. I learned how to leave a job on good terms with my employer not once but twice. I learned how to cut unnecessary words (well, most of 'em, anyway) and get to the point, and I learned how to interview people and write about them and their work.

Still, there are plenty of things I have yet to grok. I'm still learning how to report and research stories. I've yet to figure out how to write a headline. And I'm pretty sure I'll never learn how to stop my heart from aching every time I read Kurt Vonnegut, bitter and ecstatic and relieved all at once every time I read the words, "So it goes."

Perhaps the hardest thing to learn is how we define "technology." Some people lean towards hardware and apps and shiny things that promise to make our lives better, if only until the next thing is released. Others love the business aspect, the hunt for revenue models and stretching budgets and finding out who raised money from which firm. Still others love the people, the network more pervasive than any Web service could ever hope to be.

In the same way that I've learned when not to use a semicolon (read: rarely, according to my editors) and when to use a full stop and how many times it's appropriate to swear or joke in an article, I've learned that the hardware can't be separated from the business or the people who built it. That was a revelation to me.

Previously I just cared about the hardware, the shine. But as I've gotten to know the people who work in this field and as I've learned more about revenues and venture capital and how those fancy toys are paid for, I've realized that it's all connected. You can't have one without the other – a cool tool without a business model is a feature, not a product, and the best tools are built by people who have a problem they want solved and the know-how to do it themselves or find someone who can.

I'm sure that that seems like a silly revelation to many of you, the people who live in this ecosystem, who eat Ramen noodles and hope Google doesn't change its search algorithms or Apple doesn't change its App Store guidelines. Many "normal" people – a demographic I belonged to until just a year ago – might not consider where their products come from, or who had to go without sleep to ship an app that crashes due to an unforeseeable bug. Others might imagine that the Valley (by which I mean the technology ecosystem, not the physical valley) is dominated by 20-somethings who party with tigers and burn money and other such bullshit.

Learning how to write good (Ha! Get it?) has been important. I've learned lessons this last year that I can apply directly to my craft for the rest of my life – or until they pull the keyboard, or however we will "write" in the future, from my cold, dead hands. But those lessons haven't shaped this year as much as getting to know technology beyond the app icon or shiny new toy.

That was my 2012. 10-year-old me would be proud. Not because I'm learning how to tell stories, but because I'm finally realizing which stories are worth telling.

[Image courtesy Kristine Vintervold]