Writing For Tech

As my career has progressed, I have discovered writing to be an invaluable skill to develop and polish as an engineer.  The skill of writing well translates to a number of areas outside of tech including things like writing good emails, networking and chat using real time collaboration tools (IRC, Slack, etc.), writing documentation, writing specs, or even just asking for help in online formats like message boards or communicating on social media sites.

For example, when asking for help in a technical public forum, e.g. GitHub issues or Stack Overflow, knowing exactly what the problem you are having and describing it in a way that makes sense to others (who often don’t speak English as a first language) is much more difficult than it looks.  It takes time and practice to learn how to craft questions well and to frame technical problems in easy to understand ways.  In my own experience, people are almost always happy to help but I’ve seen so many bad questions on Stack Overflow.

There are two books that I recently read that have had a tremendous impact on how I think about and approach writing, which has helped me grow as a writer, engineer, and technical collaborator, which I’d like to share with readers today.  These books have been around for a long time so if you’ve already heard of them or it has been some time since reading them, I encourage you to reread or at least skim through them again.

The first book, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is a great book and really forced me think a lot about my writing and what I could be doing better.  Instead of focusing on a lot of the mechanics and building blocks of writing (it does touch on these a little bit), On Writing Well focuses mainly on the style and how to make your writing better by making it more interesting and less wasteful.  The book teaches readers that often times, more is less in writing, and it focuses on teaching lessons of simplicity as well brevity, boiling things down to their simplest forms and avoiding certain traps and pitfalls.

The second book is called The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition.  There are some really good tricks and tidbits in this book that 100% improved my writing fundamentals and mechanics, even without much practice outside of reading the book.  I would highly recommend this book for anybody that is interesting in improving the foundations of their writing, from things like improving vocabulary to improving the structure and overall quality of their writing.  The book is fairly short so doesn’t take long to work through and is a great tool for improvement and you will more than likely find some tips that are immediately useful in your own writing style.

Getting better at writing is a process, just like learning any other skill.  The more time you spend thinking about it and practicing, the better you will get.  Obviously in my own personal experience, having this blog has been a great way for me to learn and grow my writing skills.  Not every blog post is a success in my eyes but I have learned lessons from doing things over and over again and discovered things that work or don’t work.

One lesson from On Writing Well that has really stuck with me is the idea that your writing should be written for yourself.  Instead of thinking about things that other people want, or what you think they want, just write about things that are interesting or that have personal meaning and the writing process will be much more rewarding.  Applying this concept makes the process of writing much more enjoyable and keeps the gears turning.

Another idea from the book that stuck with me is that everybody has their own style of writing and none of them are bad.  So if you feel pressure to write or create a certain way, don’t.  Your writing process works best for you and that is fine, you just need to find it if you don’t know what it is already.  One of the most important lessons in writing that I have discovered over the years is that I’m not really interested in writing my blog posts according to any set of formulas or criteria.

In my own writing process, I usually like to find a problem that is interesting or challenging to me, sit down and just start writing.  This process helps me internalize and understand the problem I am attempting to solve better, as well gives me a platform to help others.  I attribute my own process and writing style to a lot of practice and just using the lessons I have learned to eventually build up my own style, which works for me.

Good luck and happy writing.

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Josh Reichardt

Josh is the creator of this blog, a system administrator and a contributor to other technology communities such as /r/sysadmin and Ops School. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.