Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Writing code helps writing words

Early in my career, the only writing I did was code.  I was an IBM mainframe and early IBM PC coder, mostly in Assembler and COBOL.  I also wrote IBM PC BIOS routines and screen drivers for Louts 123.  And I was good at it.  At the time, I could not write a lick of English.  I learned to write the hard way, as an adult and as a necessity for my job and my career.

I was truly fortunate to have some mentors who appreciated the technical skills I could bring to consulting and helping clients and they took the time to teach me to write and present.  I learned a great deal from following the Barbara Minto style of pyramid writing which is fundamental to consultants who worked at McKinsey and Booz among others.

I lost touch with my technical roots though, as I started managing technology more.  I taught others how to deliver technology, extract value from technology, and I sold technology solutions.  But it has been some 25 years since I did hard-core coding.  I am getting back into that now and (1) loving it, and (2) learning that it helps with my 'word writing.'  Coding is just another language with grammar rules, structure, etc.  But it is far more precise - no slang, no alliteration, and no mistakes allowed!  But as with writing a story or a non-fiction book, you do require an outline and a structure, and you do need to develop the plot and scenes and characters.  They just take the form of procedures and subroutines and definitions of style.  And you need to have a good eye for copy-editing.  It has renewed my push for perfection when writing words, and provided some discipline to my writing process.

I got back into coding about three months ago.  Originally it was so I could tweak some simple HTML statements to modify ePUB files to enhance simple formatting issues in the final text and to provide hyperlinks that were not provided within the Windows platform of Scrivener (even though they are available on the Mac version).  Then I started to play around with Wordpress and blog posts by switching from the Visual Mode for writing blog posts the the Text Mode (where you are presented the blog in HTML format.  Again, it was to start to get a bit more control over the final editing and formatting.

But the big breakthrough for me came when I realized that by taking more control at the HTML level at the end of the formatting and publishing cycle, that I could continue to do revisions without having to pay for 'professionals' to finalize things for me and then pay them again when I made changes later.  I will still use professional graphic designers for the final output, but I will be much closer to completion when I turn things over.  It has also allowed me to create templates and experiment with templates to continue to improve the quality of output and the manner in which I work and then use that at the beginning of the writing cycle without having to worry about what it will technically look like at the end.

However, I was not expecting that it would improve my word writing discipline and process as much as it has.  I started with the technology to improve the writing process and it certainly has accomplished that.  But it has also improved my writing and my approach to writing.  There is not that much difference, no more than there is between writing erotic fiction, historical fiction or non-fiction:  Coding is just another genre of writing!

It may not work for everyone, and in fact, may be a large distraction from actual writing for many.  I benefited from having been an accomplished coder earlier in life.  But I know a few other authors who are getting into their coding and I expect they will be better writers because of it.

Steve Shipley
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