How to create a Universe of Tech

Three years ago on 08 June 2010 I wrote my first Tech Universe column for the NZ Herald Online. It was, shall we say, brief. Over time though the column has grown to average more like 500 words per day, and is published every weekday, except for public holidays or if I’m on leave for some reason.

In 2012 I wrote 226 columns — around 113,000 words. That almost as much as two average length novels.

Tech Universe screenshot.

Tech Universe screenshot.

A Tech Universe column consists of 5 brief items that effectively summarise articles published elsewhere about a specific topic in technology. Each item links to the source material.

The topics cover a huge and diverse range: robotics, ecology, alternative energy, medical advances that involve technology, transport, space travel, chemistry, architecture, inventions, sewage treatment, bionics, physics, networking, machinery, engineering … If technology is involved, the list is actually infinite.

How I write Tech Universe

Every day, sometimes twice a day, I scan through several hundred items in the RSS Feeds I subscribe to. When I find an item that may potentially be useful for Tech Universe I save it to Instapaper. Once I’ve scanned all the items — a process that can take between 45 minutes and more than an hour I mark all the items read. I prefer to do this step on my iPad.

A few items also come to me via my Twitter feed, or on very rare occasions from an email I receive.

The next step is to work through my saved items. I open Instapaper in my browser and open an item in a new browser tab. I read the item and decide whether or not to use it. Some items just aren’t interesting, or they’re silly, or they’re vague, or they’re so poorly written they annoy me, or they’re so full of jargon and so badly expressed that I have no idea what they’re about.

A few I abandon because the science is very complex, or because I simply don’t understand it.

My secret confession

Now I need to share a secret: guess what! I’m not actually an expert in any of those things. I’m a writer with a deep interest in technology and science. I also like to think I’m a reasonably intelligent person, with a decent but general education, and who has read widely, both fiction and non-fiction.

In that way, I probably represent a fairly large proportion of my readers.

My research process

It’s not my job to research the technology itself, verify findings, check the science or anything of that sort. My job is to write about interesting things others have written about. What I do usually do is try to track down to the source of an item.

For example, I often read items on Inhabitat. They have generally sourced their item from somewhere else, so I go to their source. That source in turn may link to another, and from there to another, and so on. I usually try to track down to the origin, but can’t always do that. Sometimes the ultimate source is written in a language I don’t read or speak, such as Korean.

This can take quite a while.

Crafting the words

Then I need to take the gist of the item and express it in my own words, summarising as I go. To do this I have to actually understand the important parts of the article — not always easy with some of the more scientific items.

I often incorporate phrases from an item though, usually via copy and paste. After all, if I’m quoting the specifications of a building, for example, I can’t be very original with The New Century is 500 metres long, 400 metres wide and 100 metres high. There’s a line between plagiarism, copyright infringement and referring to another article that I have to pay attention to.

I do this part of the work in my favourite text editor, BBEdit. I often refer to the same sources over and over again, so TextExpander helps me out, with abbreviations that expand into phrases such as Technology Review or Fraunhofer Institute.

Also helpful are the multiple clipboards Launchbar makes available to me, so I can go back and paste again something I copied several copies ago.

Once I’ve written a plain language summary that aims to be true to the original, and accurate, within a tight word count, I need to add a closing ‘remark’ and an appropriate ‘headline’. Those are often the hardest parts of each item and can take a while to produce.

The actual writing part of any one day’s Tech Universe generally takes between one and three hours. Some days everything flows. Others grind along with lumps and bumps and hurdles every step of the way.

What I really hate is crafting an item only to decide afterwards that it’s not ‘right’, so I delete it and write another.

Preparing the text

Once I have 5 items, with catchy headlines and closing remarks I reread them and fix typos, edit a few words to tighten things up, perhaps change the sequence of items.

This script sets up an email for Tech Universe.

This script sets up an email for Tech Universe.

Then I run half a dozen Applescripts and Keyboard Maestro macros that prepare the column to email the editor, to save in a file of all the columns I write, to add it to the weekly digest I publish on this blog, to set up a tweet for each day. Those scripts save me a heap of time.

I save the email for sending early in the morning of the day the column will be published, and then go about whatever other work I have on for the day.

How Tech Universe is published

Any time from about 5.30 am onwards I send the email I’ve prepared the previous day. Someone at the Herald then processes the column, finds an image to illustrate it, and finally publishes it around 8.15 am, but sometimes later.

I check the Technology page until I see the article has been published. I’m commonly eating breakfast between 8 and 9 so I may not see it for a while. I have a Google Alert set up though that emails me, usually within minutes, once the item is live.

I make a PDF of the published page and save it in Evernote, along with the URL. Again, TextExpander and Keyboard Maestro speed things up here. I also paste the URL into my file of all the columns, and add it to the file which will become the Digest of the week’s columns.

I tweet the Tech Universe items.

I tweet the Tech Universe items.

Finally I add the URL to the tweet I prepared the day before and send it out on Twitter.

What next

Generally that complete’s a day’s cycle of Tech Universe, though sometimes, occasionally, a reader or someone whose product I’ve linked to, sends me a comment. But that’s another story all together …

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