Writing When Information is Scarce

I’ve written about research when there are plenty of sources to be had (here and here, for example), but occasionally I run into situations where publicly available information is hard to come by. What then?

The biggest problem with not having enough information is that it can make your writing feel vague, long on “vision,” short on details. There might be any number of reasons for this. Businesses might have any number of reasons for not sharing everything there is to be said about their particular hardware could include restrictions based on competitive, regulatory, or proprietary concerns (a.k.a., giving away their “secret sauce”).

I don’t begrudge the companies for not sharing everything. All three of the reasons listed above are valid, even if I’ve asked politely for the data. Still, I have a product to put out–what are my options?

  • Admit and explain the gaps. This would be my first choice. In the case of real-time journalism, I’m sometimes required to include, “This reporter contacted [Company X], but they have not responded by the time of publication,” or some such language. Another thing I’ve had to do on tables of information is include a big “N/A” (for “not available” rather than “not applicable”). Other blank-fillers I don’t like but will accept include “Not publicly available,” “Classified,” or “Proprietary.”
  • Not include or explain the information. I’m a pretty voracious data collector and will gladly fill in the blanks whenever I have facts to fit them. If the answer is “N/A,” I’ve sometimes just deleted that row of the table rather than show a blank. In this case, you just work with the data you have and say nothing about any gaps. With any luck, you can always go back and add it later.
  • Use what you  know. Awhile back, I was writing about a classified satellite and the mass (weight for folks who don’t leave Earth’s gravity) of the spacecraft was simply not publicly available. That doesn’t mean the answer is “unknown.” For example, while the spacecraft’s mass was a blank, I did have information on the payload capabilities of the rocket it was launching on, so I could say it weighed “up to X pounds/kilograms.”
  • Guess. Don’t do this one. An editor of mine and I strongly recommend against it. One might wing it when it comes to marketing language if you have a general idea of how an organization talks about their product, but I don’t guess about facts because someone just a little (or a whole lot) more observant or knowledgeable will catch me on my error and call me on my BS, privately or–more likely–publicly. At that point, I have to make a correction and note the error publicly. That always goes over well (not).

Mind you, all of these guidelines are for journalistic activities. If you have a report to publish inside an organization, some of them still work, but if you’re working within an organization where classified information is known and can be shared, there shouldn’t be any call for incomplete answers. This is especially true of engineering organizations where data is often critical to engineers understanding a product or situation. Something to consider if you find yourself facing a big blank spot in your content.


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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