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Wisdom of the Herd: What to Study in College for a Future in Tech Writing

Guide to Choosing a College MajorWe get a lot of questions from readers about various subjects, and due to that we decided to start an occasional series called Wisdom of the Herd where the team sits down and offers up different takes on the advice that might help.  For this installment we’re taking a look at what college courses you could take to help you get into the tech journalism field.  The question comes from Patrick T., and he asks:

Hi Jon,
I’m from Australia and I’m currently doing my HSC this year (Year 12). I have to pick the courses I want to do in university soon. I’m not sure how your education system works there but I was wondering if you would share some light for me on what you did during University. I’m am currently deciding to do B Engineering (electrical) (telecommunications, electrical, computer). I am interested in the things you are doing in your career and i wish to take the same pathway. I hope you can tell me more about the course you did at university and the courses your fellow colleagues did. Hope to hear from you soon.

Thanks
Patrick T.

Jon Rettinger – President

Unfortunately most schools don’t offer ‘Geek 101’ so your best bet is to pursue a writing intensive course of study. Even if you’d like to go the video route, learning how to write will better help you organize your thoughts. There isn’t one set path that will best prepare you, but I can say get as much education as possible. Go to College/University and study hard…and learn from me, think carefully before you pick a YouTube name!

Noah Kravitz – Editor-at-Large

Dear Patrick

Very interesting question and one we get a lot. I’ll tell you about my own educational history, and also what I’d recommend now.

I graduated high school then got a B.A. in English at a small liberal arts university. My “training” was more about critical thinking and literary theory than about writing, specifically, but I did a lot of writing during college. I was also lucky to go to a high school with a great English department. So I worked a lot on my writing skills during school. I took some computer science classes during high school, and one introductory course during college, but that was it. A few years later I wound up going back to graduate school to get an M.A. in Technology in Education. That was not at all a computer science program, but more about basic computer skills (which, being a geek, I already had!) and how to apply technology to teaching and learning.

My advice to you as far as what courses to take if you want to be a tech blogger/reviewer? Take what interests you whether it’s technology related or not. So long as you’re working on your writing skills and stay interested in technology, I really don’t think there’s a particular course of study to better prepare you to cover gadgets for a living. You could go to journalism school, you could take Web development classes (graphic design, programming, etc). and you could go to business school – at different points in my career I’ve had to do work in all three of those fields, since most tech sites are small and we wind up wearing different work hats all the time. But mainly I’d say to develop strong writing skills and study what interests you. Writing for a tech site is something I really learned to do by doing it, reading other sites, and doing it more.

Good luck!
Noah

Sean P. Aune – Editor-in-Chief

I’m the odd man out of the herd as I didn’t finish college due to other things I needed to go off and do. What I can tell you, in this day and age, you need to decide which route you’re going to go, and you need to get in there and follow it. Do you want to write about tech? Take journalism and writing courses for sure. Do you want to make videos about tech? Take communications class and get comfortable with your onscreen persona as quickly as possible.  As for the tech side of things, I’d say some web design couldn’t hurt.

For the actual tech you’d work with, just keep an eye on the industry as you go through school.  Do keep in mind that the industry changes on a dime, so anything you study now could very well be outdated by the time you graduate.  Concentrate on your school work, practice the basic skills and get set for a lot of long, hard hours once you get out into the world.

Good luck!

Emily Price – Senior Editor

School-wise, I have an undergraduate degree in Film (with a concentration in moving image and sound) and a degree in English, I also went back to school for graduate classes in Journalism. Looking back, the biggest help getting me where I am today came from a part-time job I had during college at Best Buy. I was a “Digital Imaging Specialist” for the company when digital cameras and camcorders were brand new. That job put me in a unique position to get my hands on all the newest cameras and camcorders (as well as tons of other gadgets) and made me more knowledgeable (particularly about digital video and photos) than the majority of the population AND I was used to explaining that technology to people, and knew what questions/concerns they were going to have.

I got my first tech writing job right out of college as the Camcorder Guide for About.com (which is owned by the NYTimes). At the time (2003ish) I was probably one of five or six people on the web who actually had used all the digital cameras and camcorders on the market (most people were still rocking film) and could talk about them intelligently, serious +1 for my employment prospects. The NY Times paycheck made me feel pretty snazzy, and that job took me to CES a year later where I made some friends and picked up some high-profile new side gigs with people I still find myself talking to/working with today (I actually met Mike at one of those jobs a few years later).

My advice to you is to find out a way to get hands-on experience with whatever aspect of technology you’re interested in. Make yourself an expert. Do you love phones? Go get a job at a mobile phone store and learn everything you can about them. Love apps? Try to get an internship somewhere where you can watch development from the ground up. The same can be said for coursework at school, find classes that are going to help you become an expert in what you’re interested in, and help you get to know people you’re going to want to work with later on.

If you’re interested in specifically writing like we do, take some journalism classes as well (or even go to for a double major/minor in journalism). Far too many people consider themselves “journalists” and have no concept of how a news organization should work, news judgement, how to deal with sources, or how to write an accurate/decent news story. All the tech knowledge in the world isn’t worth anything if you can’t write stories in such a way that people want to read them. Posts filled with bad grammar, spelling, and inaccuracies are all over the web (and drive me insane). Some journalism training can be invaluable, and will make you stand out against competition when it comes time for you to look for a job.

Adriana Lee – Lifestyle Editor

I was an English major, which for me was code for “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I dabbled in advertising and marketing after college before deciding on an editorial career. If I had it to do over again, in this day and age, I would take more journalism and e-journalism courses. (They didn’t have the latter when I was in school.) The knowledge and, yes, connections would’ve been invaluable. As it was, I had to learn everything on my own as I went, which isn’t easy.

I was writing and editing for print magazines before I went into blogging, which happened by accident. My best friend met a blogger on a cross country flight (someone you know quite well, in fact). I had his business card for months before I contacted him. Why? I don’t know. I was busy, sure. Or maybe I was reticent. Or more likely, I simply had a colossal brain fail. To be totally honest, I probably just didn’t truly believe that real opportunities could happen that way. (Turns out, it happens like this more often than anyone realizes.) For whatever reason, I almost squandered the opportunity.

There’s no single “right path” to follow for blogging. Even at TechnoBuffalo, we all got here by different routes. It’s a pretty competitive space, but if you have a voice, a point of view, and can communicate that well, then that will get you noticed. So learn the nuts and bolts (grammar, syntax and vocabulary), and combine it with some finesse (i.e., your unique perspective on things). You can learn the former, but you can’t teach the latter. If you keep on that, maybe someday we could be toasting together in the bloggers’ lounge at CES, CTIA or some other tech show — even as we try to scoop each other! And therein lies the fun…

Joey Davidson – Gaming Editor

Great Jobs for English MajorsI knew I wanted to write about games and the world of gaming as a career during my sophomore year in college. I switched majors to English and started an absolutely abysmal blog. Rather than practice writing about just games, I figured I’d write about games, comics and film. To bolster my education and experience, I decided to minor in Film Theory and Studies. So, I earned my degree in English and Film and graduated out into an awful economy. I visited Japan, worked in a factory and hiked the desert.

Then I got a job doing something I hate. I moonlighted as a freelance writer for exceptionally low pay. I worked my way up through sites at a quick rate until I landed here at TechnoBuffalo. I’ve recently been able to quit my day job and switch to writing as a full time gig.

My advice? Get ready to sweat. The thing about today’s critical world is that everyone can do it. Everyone can self-publish and everyone can voice their opinions. It takes hard work, strong writing skills, networking and luck to make it work as a job. Bury your head and push.

Best of luck!

Mike Perlman – Editor

Hey Patrick, I was a theater major at Emerson College in Boston. Most of my time was spent creating and editing madcap videos and learning improvisation at the Improv Asylum theater in the North End. I also took education classes, but nearly all of my tech experience emanated from years of growing up with technology, beginning with Nintendo and Windows machines. My mom was a writer for a newspaper, and a fantastic one at that, so I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house festooned with books and oodles of pens and paper. It wasn’t until I wrote a consumer review on the Archos Jukebox 20 MP3 player that I realized how enthralling tech reviews could be.

I snagged my first tech journalism job writing about camcorders back in February of 2007. As I like to say, I used my BA in Theater to BS my way through the interview, taking a crash course on every single aspect of the camcorder field the night before the interview. Of course, editing and producing videos since I was a teen helped acquire that job, but writing skills are imperative if you want to work in this field. A good writer can write about any topic, so if you are well versed in the literary realms necessary to tackle any kind of journalism, then you will succeed. I wish you the best of luck!

Would you like to see the TechnoBuffalo team answer a question of yours?  Leave them on the TechnoBuffalo Facebook page!


Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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