Improving your writing skills can improve your job prospects (and your future) as a software developer. Here are some great ways to ratchet up your skill set in this all-important area.
Even the best coders in C#, Java, or Ruby on Rails must know how to bang out a readable sentence, if only to document their work. Beyond in-line and module-level commentary, developers can translate writing skills into improved business opportunities and higher pay as they produce specifications, test plans, design documents, and other materials. In this article, you’ll learn how to develop and hone those skills.
As software developers advance in their careers, there’s an inevitable shift from rolling up one’s sleeves and coding everything yourself, to working in increasingly responsible positions on projects, coding teams, or even across entire development organizations. The more you work with other people, the more you need to communicate with others. Sometimes you connect with other people verbally, but very often that means the written form, especially in this era of tele-commuting, virtual teams, and global outsourcing. That’s why competent coders can benefit from working on their writing — in the ordinary sense of crafting words for others to read — to communicate requirements, report on progress and accomplishments, document code, create specifications, craft test plans, and so on.
Software developers tend to be analytical and symbolic thinkers, so learning to communicate in straightforward, well-organized sentences, paragraphs, and page after page of prose can be a challenge. For the most technical of developers, this kind of effort may appear just too “touchy-feely” to warrant much effort or attention. But failing to develop writing skills, often regarded as the crown jewel among the so-called “soft skills” that all employees must develop, may be a career-limiting move. Developers who aspire to team lead, architect, or even development management must recognize that communication skills are the key to advancement, and that writing is an essential and obligatory task when it comes to occupying such job roles.
How Do Pros Do Prose?
Fortunately, there are lots of ways that motivated developers can hone their writing skills, and lots of tools and techniques to help them improve those skills. Here’s a short list of such things that you might ponder and pursue, if you wanted to boost your writing ability:
- Take a course: Even engineering programs now routinely include technical writing or technical communication classes amidst their curricula. If you don’t have ready access to a brick-and-mortar engineering school nearby, investigate online options. If you don’t want to pay the $300-plus per credit hour that such a course will set you back (with most such courses running 3 to 4 hours each), look to a nearby community college. Community colleges usually offer similar training for a more modest $40-60 per credit hour if you live in the institution’s service area. Can’t get to a classroom? Not to worry: there are plenty of online offerings available, too. You have your choice, in fact, between degree program courses and adult and continuing education courses, and you can choose what fits best into your overall career planning. The best things about taking courses are a regular schedule of assignments (good) and plenty of professional feedback from a seasoned writer, the instructor (better) along the way. This approach is good for everybody, but especially good for those whose immediate reaction to the thought of writing anything other than code is “Ack! Not me!”
- Read a book (or gasp! several books): Even if you don’t take a course, digging into course descriptions points you at the current textbooks that instructors use to teach technical writing. A little time spent online helps you load up your bookshelves, if that’s your aim. On the other hand, a search at Amazon.com for “technical writing textbook,” “technical writing for engineers,” or “technical writing for software developers” also turns up plenty of good leads. If you decide to take this route — and it’s a perfectly good one — make sure you implement all of my following recommendations; otherwise you’ll be flying completely solo, and that’s no way to improve your writing skills. That can come only from feedback, especially from seasoned and accomplished technical writers.
- Take on some writing tasks: If you don’t make yourself write something, you can’t possibly work on your writing skills, let alone improve and develop them. If you’re not ready to do this on the job, look around for a user forum, an online community, or a wiki where they regularly put volunteers to work helping others, and where the communications involved are invariably written. If you have a particular tool or technology that you love, look for a related outlet for your affection, and create some (written) output to start working on your skills.
- Practice makes perfect: The more you write, particularly on the job, the easier it becomes. If you arrange to keep getting feedback (see next bullet), you’ll presumably keep getting better at it. As you develop your skills, and fine-tune the areas where you need work, you’ll eventually reach journeyman status, and perhaps do even better than that! And as your skills improve, more work, and more opportunities to use those skills, will keep coming your way.
- Go out of your way to get feedback: A seasoned writer is somebody who’s done a lot of writing. That’s not necessarily the same thing as an accomplished writer, who’s probably a seasoned writer who’s also earned recognition or perhaps even accolades for his or her writing work. If you want to become a better writer, find somebody who’s already a good writer, tell them about your goals and aspirations, and ask for their help and feedback. If she can’t help you herself, ask her to refer you to other such people. Eventually, you’ll find one or more mentors. When you do, grab as much of their time and attention as you can. Send them what you write, and ask for their feedback. Let them edit your work, but go back and look at what’s been changed. If you don’t understand why they changed it, ask for more information or an explanation. This is a fabulous way to learn, and the most direct way to tune up your writing skills. Do it till you drop from exhaustion, and you’ll wind up not just a seasoned writer, but an accomplished one yourself!
Once your work your way through this sequence of activities, and repeat it a few dozen times, you’ll be able not just to present yourself as a writer, but have some work you can show others to demonstrate your ability. After that, you only need to keep reminding managers or prospective employers about your skills and interests. The work will start piling up, and opportunity will come knocking on your door.
Just don’t get too complacent. The very best writers are those most keenly aware of their failings and weaknesses, and who keep working to improve and expand upon their writing skills. As the old saying goes: “It takes a lifetime of effort to produce the work of a lifetime.” So please, keep on working!
[Editor’s note: Thinking of trying your hand at writing? You could always contribute an article to Software Quality Connection.—Esther]