Mention Walt Mossberg and a sort of reverence descend upon most of the tech community. And with good reason. The man has been synonymous with tech writing for more than a couple of decades now – his legendary Personal Technology column in the Wall Street Journal started in 1991, remember – and is one of the first writers most companies contact before launching any product or service. Yes, he has his detractors (including some who insist he has been too partial to Apple – they really need to read him more, I think), but I think all of us in the tech writer community owe Mossberg a debt of gratitude for putting writing about technology on the map. Before Mossberg, there were tech writers aplenty but none quite wrote about gadgetry and hi-tech the way he did. So what made Mossberg special? I could write volumes on the subject but will restrict myself to six notable points that I think made him a special writer and journalist. These are the six lessons that I have learned from Walt Mossberg. And I really think most tech writers would benefit from them:
1. Writing for the general user
Before Mossberg emerged on the horizon in the early nineties, writing on tech writing was the kingdom of the geeks, for the geeks and by the geeks. A general user would have struggled to make sense of most of the articles that appeared in tech publications those days, so laden were they with jargon and tech-ese. This was a result of a trend in the seventies when most of the writing on technology was done by engineers who could not be blamed for resorting to jargon because most tech readings were done by other engineers who had to make purchases for enterprises. However, in the eighties, computers were slowly going mainstream, and there were “normal” people who wanted to understand what they were interacting with and investing in. Mossberg was not the first tech writer to address the mainstream reader but he was certainly the most effective. He wrote about technology in a manner that made it understandable to a person who had no idea of circuitry or coding. It remains the most difficult kind of writing to do even today.
2. Focusing on consumer experience
Which brings us to the second point: HOW did Mossberg make his writing so accessible to the mainstream tech user rather than the geek? Well, he did so by focusing on consumer experience, by talking of how the product was used and what the whole experience was like rather than what was inside the product. He kept jargon to a minimum level and kept pointing out how the product did the different things a consumer would buy it for – and did it do them adequately or not. Not for him talk of benchmarks and the importance of processor speeds – he often referred readers to more detailed tech reviews by his colleagues, but he largely kept himself focused on the consumer experience, rather than the geek one.
3. Keeping it simple… and direct
A keyboard was “clicky”, battery tests were done by routine tasks (which he kept pointing out would be affected by connectivity and network issues) and the performance of a device was smooth in terms of handling tasks rather than a benchmark figure – that was Mossberg at his best. He kept his language direct and simple, ensuring that what he wrote was accessible by the reader. He somehow never lapsed into the abstract and even when he did, he took the time to actually walk the reader through an explanation, which would always be a dumbed down to relatively simple terms. Simplicity and directness in language were what worked for him. Not for him the fancy wordplay that some authors (guilty!) pride themselves on. Understanding came first.
4. Criticize with caution, and offer solutions
This was one of the hallmarks of Mossberg’s writing. Contrary to what some of his critics would have us believe, he did get critical of products and companies. However, unlike some of the tech community that revels in abuse and brutal criticism, Mossberg was always careful in pointing out what he felt was wrong, and whenever possible, actually offered alternative solutions. So he would not say a product was bad but would point out that he preferred another, and give the reason for the same. Of course, it involved both research and restraint but it also gave the reader a more complete picture than a torrent of abuse or criticism ever would.
5. Build relationships with PR and manufacturers
There are some tech writers who ensconce themselves behind walls that keep out anything they consider comes from the communications team of a product manufacturer, subscribing to the belief that the purpose of these worthies is to dupe them or make them write favorably about their products and services. Mossberg, however, came from a different cut of cloth – he built close relationships with public relations agencies and manufacturers and yet did so without ever compromising on his core integrity. The result? A series of relationships built on respect and need rather than transactions. Manufacturers came to trust his opinions and often showed him products well in advance, trusting him. And he never betrayed their trust. Or just as significantly, his readers. And yes, when he said “Steve” he meant Jobs, and “Bill” was Gates.
6. Stay grounded
Humility. In an age where bloggers still in school strut around conferences, Mossberg was remarkably grounded. He was by all accounts was easy to contact and talk to, with a keen sense of humor and almost never patronizing. It enabled to mingle easily with people and get a feeling of their “pulse” and requirements – hey, that’s how he wrote for them. Shafi Saxena, formerly of NewsRepublic, and a close friend described him best a few weeks ago:
“When I met him, I was surprised at how much he resembled a brilliant but mischievous Santa who drops names and weaves stories with both charm and aplomb. I saw him in action with a large group of students at Berkeley and he was both the sagest and youngest person in the room.”
I still remember when I started out in tech writing in 1997. I told the editor who wanted me to review a computer that I did not know enough about the technology inside it (I was a humble Commerce graduate with a diploma in management). His answer has always stayed with me:
“Just try to write like Walt Mossberg. “
I try. I try. Sometimes, I get a line or two right.
Thank you, Mossie.