Clever Humans


Clever Humans do the darnedest things!


5 October 2006

Why Writing Is More Dangerous Than Programming

by Patrick

Paul Graham today wrote about why Writing is Harder than Hacking. Graham talks about how programming is easier than writing because if you get something wrong in a computer program, you just go back and fix it. If you aren’t getting it right, you just keep trying again and again until it works. But with writing, this is not the case. Sure, you can go back and edit something you write, but as soon as someone reads it, it is done. You can’t fix it anymore. In general, people aren’t going to go back and re-read something you wrote to see if you got it right this time. Even worse than that, they are going to pass judgment. Mess up enough times and they will stop reading you. With programming, people expect bugs.

In other words, writing is more risky than programming. There is more riding on a single essay than there is on an algorithm or object model.

I don’t know how Graham feels on the subject, he never goes into detail, but from his blog post it seems to me that writing stresses him out more than programming. To me, it is the opposite. It makes me want to write more. I want to go back and edit my work over and over again. Stress out over it. Try to find the most clever possible way to phrase a subject. A sentence. To really surprise my audience. I love that. I went to college for writing but became a programmer. I’ve always found a lot of overlap, but in my head, I’ve really always wanted to be a writer.

This week at work I had to write a White Paper. A couple people from another department had started to write it, but it was abysmal. It was mostly a copy and paste from other documents. Some words from this, some words from that. A table here. A chart there. All done. It was a terrible hack job with no thought or care at all to what a white paper is supposed to be.

After some arm twisting, I said I would rewrite it. In truth, I wanted to do it. I haven’t written anything in years. A white paper is a persuasive essay. It is a marketing document that tries to convince your audience that your solution to a problem, your technology or approach or company is a better answer than any other out there. I used to love writing essays. In my past, I’ve won awards for my essays. Funny, clever, edgy. This white paper was none of those things. It was simply a professional marketing document that talks about why our solutions are more scalable than any other’s. But it was still a lot of fun.

First essay I’ve written in years. I published it internally to the people who were to review it. I was expecting feedback and comments. Things I may have left out. Places where the wording was weak. Where a paragraph didn’t flow. How I write sentence fragments all over the place (just kidding, I didn’t do that in the white paper. Just in my blog posts. I like them. I think they read well). Or even how the entire thing was trite or childish. I can take the criticism. That’s probably one of the biggest things you learn during writing classes at university – how to take criticism.

So when they do start giving feedback, I am disappointed. It is just… bad. Much like the original document. And I don’t know how to tell them their feedback is wrong without sounding defensive. I try to phrase things in my responses so there is completely no sign of ego (“The paper discusses…” instead of “I discuss…”.) But still I know they are reading my criticisms of their responses as me being defensive. I know I am making them mad with what I write despite trying not to.

Like Graham said, programming is easier than writing. I’ve never been worried about hurting someone else’s feelings with a program I wrote. Or of programming something wrong and someone taking it the wrong way. With writing, though, communicating your precise intention takes a lot of care.

I like to program. It is clean and done and logical. And I like to write. It is funny and shocking and dangerous. I like writing a lot more than programming. But I want to do both. I love doing both. Both tasks are creative and fun. But writing is just more dangerous.