J.D. Biersdorfer, known primarily as a technology writer for the New York Times, as well as a contributor to the Times’ Sunday Book Review section, was the latest in a line of accomplished journalists to visit this semester’s feature writing class.
Biersdorfer visited the journalism students on Nov. 7, during a point in their curriculum focusing on writing “explainer” stories. She spoke to the class about her specialty in the related genre of “how-to” features, which range from answering readers’ questions to explaining how technology works — using clear and concise language, without jargon, in a way that appeals to both Luddites and hardcore techies.
As Biersdorfer pointed out to the class, entry-level writing jobs at both online and print publications frequently come with assignments for young writers to craft short explainers and how-to features. And as Professor Alden noted, “Assigning those pieces to new, young writers is a standard way for editors to get a sense of how well — how quickly, concisely and clearly — you are able to craft a piece.”
Biersdorfer started with the Times as a member of its technology staff after a brief career working as a technician in regional theaters across the country. Over the next couple of years, she segued from writing internal technical documentation to becoming one of the Times first tech writers, when the newspaper launched its Circuits section in 1998.
Biersdorfer is still simplifying the complicated, in clear and concise language, that explains to readers both how things work and how to make them work.
For many years she wrote the paper’s Q&A tech column, answering viewers questions ranging from “How do I transfer my vinyl records to a digital format?” (back before vinyl records became cool, again) to “How do I upgrade my Windows operating system?” (back when Microsoft was so dominant over Apple that Steve Jobs needed Bill Gates to financially bail out Apple to save it from dying).
The Times tech Q&A column has expired — “in no small part because of these,” Biersdorfer said, pointing to a mobile phone and talking about how technology now is far more integrated into our lives than it was when she was writing the column. Biersdorfer is now writing fuller “how-to” features, still simplifying the complicated, in clear and concise language, that explains to readers both how things work and how to make them work.
Other guests for this semester’s feature writing class are the New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante, legendary photographer Neil Leifer, bestselling authors and journalists Jonathan Eig and Jonathan Alter (see our writeup of his October visit), in addition to Ed Zuckerman, a longtime journalist who’s also been the head writer of multiple network television primetime series, including “Law & Order” and “Bluebloods.”