Recently I interviewed Josh Holmes about the importance of public speaking on a developer’s career. Public speaking is one of the most important skills any developer can master for all the reasons we discussed. However, there are other very important skills that developers need to master beyond the ability to solve problems with code.
Writing is one of those skills.
Writing is more than magazine articles and blog posts
I was blessed to have a mother who was an English teacher. From the time I could hold a pencil, punishments in our house involved writing. As I got older, they focused less on repetition and more on informational writing. It was not unusual for my mom to punish me by giving me a writing assignment of 500 words on a topic of her choice. (No, the title, my name, and the date were not included in the word count.)
At the time I felt this was a cruel and inhuman punishment. Today I am thankful to mom. As it is, I can sit down and write 2,000 words on dang near any topic I have some knowledge of.
Thanks to my sainted mother:
- I can write blog posts on a whim
- My resume is longer than most because I’m “wordy”
- I’ve published 7 books and countless magazine articles
If you are looking for those kinds of metrics, you have to master the craft of stringing words together. It is not a difficult skill to master. The advice I give in here still applies. However, here I want to talk about a different kind of writing.
Writing has had a much more significant impact on my career than merely the publicity gained from blogs and articles. Those are things I do occasionally. Writing has had a deep and daily impact on my career because of the invention of one thing: email.
I started programming computers before email was a thing. Back in the “stone age” of computers, we exchanged honest-to-god snail-mail or (gasp) called each other on the phone to discuss an idea. Then, beginning in 1993-94, email became my primary means of communication.
As a result, an important lesson I learned is that text is an imperfect medium. You cannot easily convey emotions or body language. You have to craft your words thoughtfully. This form of writing has had the biggest impact on my career.
Conveying your ideas in a compelling way is a primary use of email, especially in corporate communications. Since it is an imperfect medium, being able to do it well will set you apart from everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you are writing an email summarizing a project’s progress for your board of directors, or trying to get your teammates onboard for the new architecture re-write you have envisioned, being able to convey those ideas and arguments in a clean and cohesive way is mission-critical.
How do you learn to write compelling emails/blog posts/articles?
To learn to write compelling “copy”, you need to know that there are different skills in writing. What we are talking about here is being able to put your ideas into written form in a compelling manner. The point here is to write emails, articles, blog posts, etc. that help your target audience see your point of view and hopefully join it.
There is also “copywriting” or what is commonly referred to as “word-smithing”. Copywriters are marketers. No matter your opinion of marketers - as a marketer myself I don’t hold us in high esteem - the ability to write copy that moves people to take action is a wholly different skill.
We are talking about conveying ideas. To be able to write in a way that conveys your ideas in a compelling way, you need to do two things on a regular basis.
1: Read a lot
Yes, as programmers we should be reading more than we write, but that’s code; we are talking about words here. I think Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago said it best. When asked about his daily writing routine. His answer was, "I write two pages. And then I read and read and read."
Great writers read. They read other great writers, they read in-depth articles, they read fiction. It is this constant barrage of new information that sparks inspiration.
As I am writing this, one of the books I am reading (actually listening to, it’s an audio book) is “The Power of Habit”by Charles Duhigg. It’s a great book and it has already sparked two or three articles that I can write to help convey some of his ideas to developers in a language they will understand.
Every book you read affects you. It gives you new information, it helps you conceptualize information you already have, or it moves you to action. This is why great writers spend time on a regular basis reading. Many authors will tell you they read more than they write. As for myself, I know that the ratio is usually about 100:1 pages read vs pages written.
If you don’t have time to read because of your schedule, listen to books. Personally I don’t absorb as much from audio books as I do from reading the written version, but that doesn’t stop me from listening to them. The good ones I have, I listen to 2,3, even 5 times. Even the ones I only listen to once though, I get something from.
Be a voracious consumer of other’s ideas. Read as much as you can.
2: Write...a lot
In my lifetime I’ve written a lot. As I explained, I started off early. As you can probably surmise, my early writings weren’t that great. Even up through high school my writing was not great, but that didn’t stop me. I wrote. A lot.
After I got out of high school and started my career as a developer, I began to get an inkling of how important writing was. In my first real job - real being defined as not working for my parent's company - I had to present my thoughts on software architecture decisions. While many of my colleagues struggled to get their ideas across, I already had years of practice.
This doesn’t mean that every time I sat down at a keyboard I was able to spin gold. Far from it. The secret I knew that my colleagues were just beginning to learn was that it was ok to write by simply blurting thoughts out onto the page. Then, once you had said everything you need to say, start editing. Many times I would craft multi-thousand-word essays and then in the morning edit them down to the salient points, usually less than a quarter the original size.
The great Papa Hemmingway put it best when he said, “Write drunk, edit sober.”
My take on this timeless advice is to “write with abandon”. Then, once you are done, go back and start shaping the narrative. Remove the parts that don’t help in making your point. You don’t have to be drunk to write like this; you just have to not care if what you are writing makes sense now. You have to trust your process that it will make sense after you edit it.
When you write a lot, you understand that a lot of it is crap, but you’ve got to get that crap out of your head to make room for the good stuff.
Yes, you have to write a lot if you are going to present your ideas in writing. Don’t get discouraged if you come back the next day and start reading it and you don’t like it. There are nuggets of gold in there waiting for you to find them.
I firmly believe that everyone can learn to properly express their ideas in the written word. Writing is a skill, not a talent, and skills can be learned. It takes commitment though. It won’t happen overnight. However, if you are serious about it, then you will see progress every time you write something.
Oh and...thanks mom. :)