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Friday, April 30, 2021

Should You Learn Programming Languages

When I see technical writing jobs requiring us to know programming languages, I ask myself this: Do we really need to know them? Do we need to learn how to code? That depends. Do you want to become a programmer who happens to write? Or, do you want to be a writer who happens to be familiar with the code you document? How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?

As technical writers, I believe our primary focus should be on writing well. This focus takes a lifetime to accomplish. And since it takes a lifetime, our aim should be on honing our craft. The technical stuff, such as programming languages, should be secondary. (The second skill we should actually focus on is knowing our audience.) How can a document be helpful to anyone if the language in it is poor and confusing? If we're more dedicated to technical and programming skills than good writing, we defeat technical writing's purpose. While we're writing about technical and complex topics, the way we explain them is by writing in simple, clear, crisp prose. In other words, KISS. That's the purpose of technical writing.

But if you insist on learning programming languages, more power to you. If you want to add them to your tool belt, go for it. But know a couple of things. 

One, what's your end goal? Once you know this, you'll know far down the rabbit hole you want to go.

Two, it will never be enough. What programming languages are popular now will become obscure either as newer programming languages appear or become in vogue by the whims of industry and organizations. But if you're willing to be a constant student of all things tech, then by all means do so!  

I recognize just about all our tools of the trade come and go on based on outside whims. But despite those whims, we should be firmly committed in writing well for our audience. Does this mean we should stay stagnant in our technical knowledge and abilities? Far from it! It's just a matter of focus.

While I like expanding my knowledge of Markup languages, such as HTML or Markdown, I'm more focus on honing my writing skills. I only have so much time, so I rather spend it on getting better as a writer than chasing techno-phantoms.

So what about those technical writing jobs that require us to know programming languages? Why do we see a heavy emphasis to know them in the job description? In my humble opinion, I believe there's confusion on what it means to be a technical writer. All you need to be a good technical writer is the ability to take complex topics and break them down into simple and understandable language. KISS!

With these jobs, we have to decide whether to ignore them or not. If we ignore these jobs, then maybe organizations will drop these silly requirements and just ask for good writers. But if we heed them, then we must ask ourselves again how far down the rabbit hole do we want to go?

Companies that require you to know programming languages and technical and software skills are built on shifting sands, but the principles of good writing are built on a more firm foundation. I don't see the KISS principle going away anytime soon. So, I'm more focus on things that tend to last.

Should you learn programming languages? Well, how far down the rabbit hole do you want go?

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