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Writing for Non-Writers


Over a year ago we decided to focus on writing higher-quality articles for the DoneDone blog. Previously, the blog was used mainly to announce new DoneDone features and updates. The new goal was to write more editorial-style posts related to software development, bug tracking, and managing a SaaS business.

My initial reaction to this decision was typical for a programmer: “I’m not a writer. This is outside my comfort zone. I will be very bad at this. People will notice.” I didn’t expect to have much to say, so I assumed my attempts at writing would not be successful.

Luckily, I’ve really enjoyed the writing process, and wanted to share some words of encouragement for anyone who also identifies as a non-writer.

You don’t have to be an expert

My early hesitation toward writing about programming was driven by inexperience: I felt that you had to be an expert in your field to write anything of value. Although I’ve been a developer now for nearly ten years, I definitely don’t consider myself an expert in very many areas.

The truth is, an absolute beginner can have more to say about a subject than an expert. Experts have it all figured out – they write with authority and experience, which is valuable but not always exciting. Beginners are in the middle of discovering all the intricacies of how their subject works, which is ripe for writing topics.

It’s also important to consider that in the field of software development, most of us are not experts. According to the 2015 Stack Overflow Developer Survey, only 25% of developers worldwide have more than 10 years of coding experience. Don’t feel like you have to be in that 25% to have a valuable point of view – simply write about what you’re learning from your perspective, and know that there will be someone out there who will find it valuable.

You can make anything interesting

You may think that your profession is boring, but most probably are. Ask any stranger at a party what they do for a living, and the answer will likely be less-than-exciting.

But even if your job is boring, you can still make parts of it exciting. You just need to have passion. Take a few minutes to watch this video about the design of aluminum cans:

The presenter, Bill Hammack, is clearly passionate about engineering and design. He’s taken what seems like an incredibly boring subject – beverage cans – and makes it interesting by explaining the problem-solving that went into every bend, stretch, and fold of the final product design.

You can do the same with whatever subject you choose to write about. Find a component of your work that you think is cool, then tell your readers what makes it so cool.

You don’t have to write a novel

Since you’re not a professional writer, you’re definitely not getting paid by the word. Don’t feel like you need to write lengthy articles to make your writing worthwhile. In fact, when reading online, I always prefer shorter articles that get straight to the point.

If you do end up writing a lengthy piece, try to break it up into smaller sections. Separate these with headings, or even break them into individual articles if each section can stand by itself.

Pictures help a lot

Always try to include at least one illustration, photo, or graphic in your articles. Artwork gives the reader a visual component to associate with your writing, so make sure your graphics reinforce your words.

This is one aspect of the DoneDone blog that I’ve had a lot of fun with. Neither Ka Wai or I are artists, so we simply purchased a few icon libraries that give us hundreds of simple illustrations to work with. When we write a new post, I simply compose a colorful pictogram that relates to the subject, which we use as the header image.

Some of the DoneDone blog artwork from the past year
Some of the DoneDone blog artwork from the past year

By spending just a few minutes on simple artwork, we’ve given all our posts a consistent brand image.

There will always be jerks

The goal for any writer is for people to read their work. The Internet is fantastic in that it allows you to reach just about anyone in the world, but exposure to a large number of readers also exposes you to a large number of critics.

It can be tough to work on an article for several days, only to have an anonymous reader declare that you are incompetent simply because they disagree with one of your points. Try to filter out the hyperbole, and look for legitimate feedback from people who are actually interested in discussing your subject matter.

Write more and read more

Once you’ve been writing consistently for a while, you’ll find that you’re getting better. You’ll start brainstorming new article ideas while washing the dishes or folding laundry. Your first drafts will seem better than your final revisions from six months ago. You’ll instinctively know when an article just isn’t working, and you’ll know to just delete it and move on to something else.

But to get even better at writing, make reading a priority in your daily schedule. Read articles written by experts and beginners – both in your professional field and any other subjects that interest you. Look for the pieces that instantly hook you, or that you continue to think about for days. How did those authors structure their stories? How long did it take to read their work? What tone of voice did they use? The more you read, the more you’ll appreciate and learn from other writers.

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