Dave Johnson is the Tech Editorial Director at eHow and editor-in-chief of a new site he just launched called, Techwalla.com. He is a long-time tech journalist and author of about three dozen books on tech and photography. Techwalla is a review site, like Rotten Tomatoes, but for tech gadgets and products.
What inspired you to launch Techwalla?
Techwalla was born out of my love of product reviews – I enjoy reading them, and I enjoy writing them. A lot of my writing career has been spent reviewing all manner of tech for magazines like PC World, Windows Magazine, and Home Office Computing (this shows how old I am). When I research something I want to buy, I spend a lot of time rounding up product reviews from competing sites in different browser tabs, and thought it would be cool to have a site do that automatically for me. Like Rotten Tomatoes, only for gadgets.
What was your favorite part of creating the site? The greatest challenge?
A few weeks into starting to develop Techwalla – back around May – we did a little user research and were surprised to find that a huge number of people (around 80% of respondents) said they like to ask friends and family for buying advice in addition to research online. Which led us to think: Wouldn’t it be cool if we created an easy and fun way to poll your friends to get buying advice?
So we created Techwalla Polls. This turned into both the most fun and most challenging part of building the site. The poll is a surprisingly complicated feature. We built a version of it months ago, and were not satisfied with it. It’s a relatively unique concept and we were really concerned that people wouldn’t understand how to use it and wouldn’t really get what it’s about. So we re-designed it – from scratch – very late in Techwalla’s development. It took us weeks and weeks to agree on a design that was elegant, satisfying, and user friendly. That process was extremely gratifying, especially when we built it and it turned out to be as cool as we had hoped. But that one feature is more complicated and requires more lines of code than the entire rest of the site combined. It’s really a monster.
How much of the content do you write yourself vs. editorial assignments?
Currently, we have about 400 product pages on the site – these are the Rotten Tomatoes-style pages with aggregated reviews and videos. There’s also some original editorial on these pages. I’ve written about a half dozen of them, and I have about a dozen great contributors who have done the rest. We will continue to add about 50 product pages a month and almost all of that will come from my team of freelancers.
We also publish features – long form original content, such as comparative reviews, product roundups, and buyers guides. So far I’ve written about a third of the features we’ve published, but as time goes on I’ll step back a little from that and rely mostly on freelancers.
For the most part, the content I’ve written for Techwalla has been to help set the voice and style for the site.
Do you have a writing ritual? And if so what is it?
Not really. I’m usually pretty diligent about writing and once I’m focused, I have little trouble getting engaged and staying on task. I write better early in the day and I need to nail the lede before I do anything else. I know people who jump in and start writing the mainbar, and come back to their intro last. I need to set the tone of the article first, even if I later go back and rewrite it entirely. But without that first draft of an intro, I can’t move forward.
Advice for people looking to break into tech writing?
There’s a lot of different kinds of “tech writing” out there, and you might consider this pedantic, but it’s a huge distinction for me: I’m not a tech writer. I’m a tech journalist. My specialty has always been writing product reviews and reported stories for consumer and trade magazines and websites. In that context, the best advice to getting into the biz is to write. A lot. Blog for yourself or write for some really small, niche sites that are willing to publish writers who don’t already have a track record. Then take those clips to editors at bigger sites.
Advice for freelancers?
Two things, and they’re related. First, always hit your deadlines. Always. If you absolutely cannot hit as deadline, don’t go dark and hope your editor doesn’t notice. If you become known as someone who can’t hit a deadline, or who communicates poorly about their progress, you might as well go get a job in food service now.
Second, it’s all about your network. Make friends with other writers in the same space you’re in. Get to know some editors. Looking back over the years, it’s astounding how many assignments and gigs I have gotten through friends who couldn’t take an assignment and recommended me instead. And you know what? I got those assignments because I had a reputation for, among other things, hitting deadlines. Likewise, if an editor asks me to recommend someone for a gig, I’ll suggest the folks whom I knew turn their stuff in on time. If I recommend someone who misses deadlines, it’s a reflection on me.
Advice for people aiming to launch a website?
Put the emphasis on design. Be sure you work with someone who knows UI and user experience and nail the design before you start writing a line of code. It doesn’t matter how great your idea is, you want the site to be usable, beautiful, and modern.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started this project?
The hard part isn’t designing, building, or launching a web site. It’s building an audience and growing traffic. It’s about marketing – content marketing, SEM, partnerships, and advertising. And you should bake all of these ideas into your site from day one.