5 Tips for Writing About Something Technical

06092019 Writing Club witty nib

Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at something I personally have struggled to get better at: writing about technical things.

Do you want to write a book in which cars take a central role? A fighting style? A complex system of magic? All of those things can get technical, and there’s a fine line between not enough and too much information!

5. Do Some Research

Unless you are already an expert on the subject, you’re going to want to bone up on what you’re writing. Let’s say your main character uses a bow to hunt or, like Katniss from The Hunger Games, kill people. You might, then, want to know words like “fletching” or “nock” and what that means. And there’s two ways to do your research.

One is to experience it yourself. Go to a shooting range and get someone to teach you about bowhunting. Your experience will sharply deepen your ability to understand your characters. It will also help you speak with some authority on your subject.

Unfortunately, gaining real life experience is often expensive, time consuming, or completely unavailable. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to read as much as you can, look at pictures and – most definitely – watch YouTube. There’s tons of videos of people doing sword fighting, bow hunting, almost anything that ordinary people won’t be experts on. Keep a list of resources, and follow some of the tips in my Research post.

If you’re doing a fantasy or hard science fiction system, of course no one else knows what you’re doing; the difficulty of this research is looking into yourself and establishing the rules of your world’s system. This can be hard because you’re inventing the knowledge yourself!

4. Establish the Limits of Your Knowledge

Unless you’re an expert who can’t be easily questioned or pressed about their knowledge, you want to better understand where you are and how much you know. There are two main reasons you should do this: one, and the most obvious, is to see if you’re ready to write extensively about a technical subject.

Another, and the more devious, is to avoid the Dunning Kreuger effect. This is when a person who doesn’t have any expertise considers themselves to have more knowledge than they really do. Think about the last time you talked with someone about driving, and you’ll realize almost everyone says they’re an above-average driver. That statistically can’t be true. And, what’s worse, I believe I’m an above-average driver and there’s no reason for me to think that.

We tend to over-inflate our skills when we think about things we’re just ok at or even just dabbling in. When we’re talking about our driving skills, it probably won’t affect us much (as it never has). When we’re writing a book, though, it does matter. Establishing how much you know and how much is possible for you to know will help you avoid saying incorrect things, help you establish a path forward, and decide when your research stopping point will be.

3. Figure Out Your Target Audience’s Typical Knowledge

Most fans aren’t going to be like the Game of Thrones superfans who know more about the setting than the author. You really can’t write for those people because you’ll always be wrong. But, if you’re writing any specific genre (which, let’s be honest, you’re inevitably writing some genre), fans of those books have an idea of what to expect. If you’re writing a steampunk story and put your characters in polyester, the fans are going to call you out on that. If you have a medieval fantasy and your character uses a steam engine, your readers won’t stand for it.

One way you can do this is be familiar with your genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, how do other authors handle the information about the time period? How do other people review this author’s book, especially when it comes to analysis of the period pieces? How do people of that time period write about themselves?

Another wonderful thing the internet and modern technology is extreme connectivity. You can look up forums in which people discuss the topic or books relevant to your interests. Connect with people and figure out what other people know.

2. Less > More

If there’s anything I can’t stress enough in this article, it’s this one:

Don’t. Over. Do. It.

Yes, you just gained all this information and have thought critically for untold hours. You’ve just decided exactly why your plot will work given the constraints you’ve researched. You’ve established where your readers’ knowledge ends and yours begins.

And now, I swear to you, you don’t want to go much further than your average readers’ knowledge – if at all.

When one is reading a novel, we’re reading for characters and plot. We’re reading for themes, symbols, metaphors. Technical information gets in the way very easily.

If your reader wanted to know the extra tech, historical, or other info that you’ve gathered, they’d have done the research themselves. And, you know, there will be readers who know that info. You don’t need to tell them about it as long as you’re self consistent. Consistency is what you do your research for, not for your writing.

What I’ve experienced happening with runaway explanations of technical information is that they either bore a reader or they make them feel stupid. Use the most common terms as you can without being incorrect. Don’t talk about numbers if you can avoid it. Even if you’re talking about cars, it’s probably best to avoid things like horsepower or torque unless essential to the plot.

Most of all: don’t brag or act like you’re bragging. There’s nothing worse than feeling debased by reading a book.

1. BETA READERS

You’ve done all of the above. You think you’re spot-on. But it’s not over!

All sorts of guesstimates about your average reader can be off. Once you do enough research, it’s hard to go back to where you were before. For example, I recently wrote a story that includes 19th century cannons, and I used cannon terminology like “caisson” and “limber”. Both these words are common in books about the Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars, but when I tested it with a purely fantasy audience, I got a lot of “wtf” and “this is confusing – I’m going to ignore this word.”

That means I estimated using the wrong standard! I shouldn’t have chosen a Civil War buff as my standard audience. The people willing to read the book showed me that. A test audience will help you figure out just how technical you need to be – and it’s almost never as technical as you believe it should.

What obstacles have you come across when reading or writing technical things? Have any opinions about info dumps? Let me know in the comments!

12 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing About Something Technical

  1. D. Wallace Peach says:

    Great tips! And right on the mark, HRR. Getting the “just right” amount of detail is sometimes hard, and “less is more” definitely applies. I love the recommendation to get some hands on experience, even if it’s the bare minimum. And it can be fun too. I took a sailing trip on a tall ship for one book and pestered the crew endlessly. I look sword-fighting lessons and couldn’t stop laughing (it was so hard!). Have a great weekend. 🙂

  2. fictionspawn Aak says:

    Great post, very interesting. Over my years of flashfiction writing I use less and less explainations. Less is more indeed.
    I have a fantasy world as well, meant for a comic. I worked for it for years before really starting on the comic… A lesson was learned. There’s just so much info in my head, I don’t know how to attack. I will, though, I will, but I’m realising it will be very different from what I initially planned.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      There’s this thing about pantsers where you know all these details and just want to share them rather than hoard them. I’ve never done comics (can’t draw terribly well – not the worst, but I can’t draw the same face twice), but I assume the beta reading part is hard because once it’s drawn, it’s drawn. Is there a way to do beta reading for comics, though? That might help give the confidence to just go for it.

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