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Writing skills in tech

An old Favorit typewriter

Writing well opens doors in your professional life. By writing, I mean written communication, not writing a work of fiction. I firmly believe that communication is a critical component for business success and that written communication plays a significant role.

We write a lot these days: emails, proposals, design briefs, pitches, project requirements, presentations, user interface or marketing copy, performance reviews, specifications, legal documents. The list is endless. Clients and colleagues don’t sit next to us as often as before. Distributed work locations and time zones make real-time communication impossible. More and more context has to be written down as companies grow. To make things harder, we often write in foreign languages.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this lately. If writing skills are so needed and useful, why aren’t they taught more? Many professional authors say how vital writing is for improving critical thinking, expression, and clarity. I expect that argument from people who write books for a living, but it’s a pleasant surprise when it comes from programmers. Michael “Rands” Lopp, a software engineering manager, thinks you should learn to write to have a broader impact.

I believe there are essential skills you learn as an engineer who codes. […] However, there is a language you could master that teaches many of the same lessons, appears far more forgiving in terms of syntax, and has immediate broader appeal. The language you can learn is your own. I argue that there is an essential set of skills that intersect both with writing words and writing code.

Writing is the connective tissue that creates understanding. We, as social creatures, often better perform rituals to form understanding one on one, but good writing enables us to understand each other at scale.

Please learn to write, Rands

Grammar and clarity are essential in writing, but in a different way. Imagine a fancy dinner party. Grammar is like wearing formal clothes—it will get you in and give you an opportunity. Clarity is how you behave—the skill that leaves a lasting impression.

If your writing is semi-literate, ungrammatical, and riddled with misspellings, many hackers (including myself) will tend to ignore you. While sloppy writing does not invariably mean sloppy thinking, we’ve generally found the correlation to be strong—and we have no use for sloppy thinkers. If you can’t yet write competently, learn to.

To Become A Hacker, Eric Steven Raymond

Paul Graham writes about the differences between speaking and writing in terms of idea generation and presentation.

Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you’re talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you’ll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker. […] Occasionally the stimulation of talking to a live audience makes you think of new things, but in general this is not going to generate ideas as well as writing does, where you can spend as long on each sentence as you want.

Writing and Speaking, Paul Graham

And even if we think we’re writing for machines, we’re actually writing for other humans.

The longer you write programs and the older you get, eventually you come to realize that in order to truly succeed, you have to write programs that can be understood by both the computer and your fellow programmers.

Of all the cruel tricks in software engineering, this has to be the cruelest. Most of us entered this field because the machines are so much more logical than people. And yet, even when you’re writing code explicitly intended for the machine, you’re still writing. For other people. Fallible, flawed, distracted human beings just like you. And that’s the truly difficult part.

Coding: It’s Just Writing, Jeff Atwood

Nowhere is the need to write well so evident as in the design of digital applications and services. The old world of paper forms, knobs, and physical buttons is dwarfed by a screen that connects to an entirely new universe. Digital interfaces are fluid and complex, requiring clear instructions to navigate. The line between delighting people and making them frustrated is thin.

I’ve been working as a designer for years now. I can come up with a narrative and write solid user interface copy. Despite that, I’m humbled every time I work with professional copywriters, UX writers, or content strategists. They take my words, throw out half of them, rearrange the rest, and make everything twice as clear. It’s always so obvious when I read the results that I wonder why I didn’t write it like that in the first place. The answer is simple—years of practice and experience. Or maybe just pure magic.

If you want to brush up your skills, I can recommend two resources:

As with any other skill, writing can only improve through practice. When I read my early blog posts, I immediately want to hide in the closet. But, embarrassing as it is, it also shows progress; I wouldn’t notice otherwise. It’s like reading your old code and wondering what incompetent person wrote this. I hope the same will happen with this post in a year or two.

It’s hard to escape writing. And why should we? Let’s embrace it instead. Start writing and edit often.

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Mount Pilatus

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