Write Like a Pro, Not Like a Bro
Well-researched cybersecurity pieces that are easy to read and a joy to understand require a great deal of care and attention to create.
I was recently researching an article about DNS poisoning. DNS (Doman Name Server) poisoning involves hackers breaking into domain records to redirect users to websites of the criminals' choosing, black hats can also insert themselves into corporate email streams to read correspondences and impersonate staff.
A long-time network infrastructure client based in Manhattan had given the go-ahead to write the piece. The audience for the work was department managers and executives of big-name corporations. While my client is pretty relaxed to work with, their standards for publication are, well, corporate.
One of the articles I came upon in my research was published in a technology magazine for executives. One sentence jarred me:
"Imagine the confusion—and frustration—the redirect must have caused in their coiffed little heads—not to mention the wear and tear on their manicured nails as they typed and retyped coach.com and coachfactory.com into their browser windows."
Interestingly, a woman — and former senior editor at the magazine — wrote the piece. She wrote like a "bro" or brogrammer. "Brogrammers" is a label that journalists outside Silicon Valley have applied to the male-dominated company cultures that are slightly more evolved than college fraternities.
There's even a book about it. Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley.
Now I'm not sure if the author of the piece wanted to be seen as "one of the guys" or that she thought CIOs want to hear that sort of talk. Nevertheless, I found the description of Coach customers distracting and, frankly, offensive.
The few times I've been in a Coach shop, I found the customers (men and women alike) sophisticated and the service levels excellent.
No one "coiffed" in those locations that I could detect.
You Don't Have to Be a Hemingway, but ...
The CIO article example bared some considerations every writer should keep in mind when they write for a corporation or a publication. The points may help you as a cybersecurity writer project yourself as a seasoned professional who really knows their stuff. These tips may also help you avoid social and corporate landmines that you may not even know exist.
Try to keep in mind:
Know Your audience
If there is any hard-and-fast rule in writing, it's that a writer should know their audience before they begin writing. That's true even before you start outlining the piece if that's your approach. Knowing your audience is like knowing where the bulls eye is on a target. Archers know where the bulls eye is before they draw back the arrow on a bow; you should, too.
Is your audience young? Is it seasoned? Is it casual? Is it harried? Is it a consumer? Is it corporate? It helps to use your imagination to envision the single person in the world who you want to read the entire piece and feel enriched at the end.
Most audiences for cybersecurity pieces are business people and technically-minded engineers. Though there is almost always some technical aspect to cybersecurity writing, be sure you gauge just how deep you should go into technical details to keep your audience engaged.
If you are writing for non-technical audiences, take a sentence or two to write a plainly-worded description of the technology concept you will be writing about.
While very few writers would even dream of making up anything to put in print, it's best not to let your imagination (or confidence) get the best of you. If you are not sure of anything at all while you are writing, annotate the section and come back later to verify the text. I use a convention like [????] next to what I've written to maintain the creative flow of the work.
Occasionally, facts will slip past.
(As was the case once when I wrote how immigrants to the United States historically had passed through Staten Island; an editor friend caught the fact it was Ellis Island through which immigrants traditionally passed. And he was a Brit!)
That's why I adhere to what I call my "4 Eyes" approach to writing: the two eyes that write the material passing it on to another pair of eyes that check through it.
Another kind of accuracy is relevant to the Coach example. In addition to being condescending, the description of Coach customers was inaccurate.
I wondered if the writer of the piece had actually ever been in a Coach.
The gaffe made me wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the article.
Don't give cause to readers to doubt your words.
Be a Professional
Though you may not be writing in a hoody (with the hood up) about cybersecurity issues, it's a good bet you are writing in very comfortable clothing. It's easy, then, to forget that most business managers and executives are not in their pajamas running their organizations. If your audience is business people, imagine you are sitting in one of those conference rooms walled off with glass.
See the people passing by the table at which you're working dressed in their best business casual. If you are targeting enterprises with your work, imagine some of your readers might be wearing more formal attire.
Though mainstream and social media platforms have become saturated with sophomoric expression and sometimes even profanity, elevate your writing to support the importance and urgency of your topic.
You want to draw attention to your writing, not to yourself.
Imagine you’ve been invited to deliver a presentation in front of the very group for which you had written an article. The presentation is about the article. Just as the first rule of writing is Know Your Audience, the first rule of delivering a presentation is Be Yourself. The true personality you use to deliver the presentation can also serve as the “voice” you use to write your piece.
In other words, try to write like you talk; that is, naturally.
If you don’t know what you’re talking about, then maybe you shouldn’t be writing the piece, just as you probably shouldn’t be giving the talk. Write naturally, let your genuine, constructive self shine through, and readers will embrace your work.
Respect Your Reader
I find smarmy writers off-putting. Most serious readers will put down a piece of writing after a time because the author comes across as smarter than the person they are attempting to inform. A disrespectful tone does not inspire a reader.
If you are copywriting, you'll certainly not have made any sales by being condescending. I think that's why I found the Coach reference so off-putting: even though I don't shop at the store, the cooler-than-thou stance the writer took with the piece diminished the work's importance to me.
Technology writing in general and cybersecurity writing specifically have a lot of considerations to take into account that popular writing does not.
Well-researched cybersecurity pieces that are easy to read, a joy to understand, and are inspiring require a great deal of care and attention to create. It's a tough subject for any writer to undertake. But incredibly rewarding for audiences to read.
Also, keep in mind that what you write for the Internet, stays on the Internet.
Be proud of every seed you plant there.
Wim is Creative Director and Chief Technology Editor at Skeptical Robot Studios, which provides creative copywriting solutions to technology companies. His most recent book is China Fast Forward: The Technologies, Green Industries and Innovations Driving the Mainland's Future (John Wiley and Sons). Give him a holler at [email protected].