I'm Not a Writer (and So Can You!)

For the better part of the last decade, being a software developer has been more than just my chosen career path. It’s been my identity. Honestly, if you had asked me before today what I do for a living (or what my favorite hobby is, or what I want to be when I grow up), the phrase “software development” would have been out of my mouth before you even finished talking. With two years of technical school, five years of engineering school, and six years of professional development experience under my belt, I’ve never wanted to be anything else.

Before Today

This morning, I got a message from the founder of Fixate IO congratulating me on being their most published contributor. The most published. That means that, for the past year, I have been writing… a lot more than I thought. Writing enough that a not insignificant amount of people are actually willing to pay me to do it. Writing enough that becoming a writer is starting to feel like a viable career change. Writing enough that I’m beginning to question my identity as a software developer.

But I’m Not a Writer

I don’t feel like a writer, but if you asked me what I do today, my confident “software development” answer would be peppered with a bit of wishy-washy “and also some writing” mumbles. I’m not a writer because I’m still a software developer. I’m not a writer because, while lucrative, freelance writing only made up 10% of my income last year. I’m not a writer because I have a hell of a lot more to learn.

Because of my affiliation with Fixate IO, I spend a lot of time talking about freelance writing with my peers. The one thing I’ve learned during these conversations is that, while everyone wants to be a writer, the fear of looking stupid is almost crippling. The extra money, the personal brand building, the opportunities… all are outweighed by impostor syndrome.

The thing is, writing isn’t supposed to be hard; we just make it that way. As engineers, we love rules, and order, and process. We get caught up in whether or not we should put a comma here, or a semicolon there. What’s that rule about starting a sentence with “and?” Speaking of sentences, how many are in a paragraph again?

Break the Rules

Writing Isn’t Engineering

The “rules” we were so forcefully taught in grade school are, in practice, guidelines at best. In my (admittedly limited) experience, all that any reader cares about is voice. Knowing what an Oxford Comma is or when to spell out a number is great, but those those things are nice-to-haves in a world overwhelmed with captivating content.

Break the rules!

A paragraph doesn’t have to be 3–5 sentences. It can be two.

Or one.

Give your readers a chance to see who you are. Let them hear your voice. We don’t speak with overly formal affectations, so why on earth should we write with them?

Outline

Or Don’t

George R. R. Martin uses Wordstar 4.0 on an old DOS machine to do his writing.

I personally write and organize everything in Atom (although, I’ve never given the Wordstar method a try).

Your process doesn’t have to be the same as anyone else’s. If writing a first draft with a pen and paper is your thing, then do it. Maybe you have a favorite mind mapping tool on your old Apple ][ that helps you get your thoughts straight? Awesome, map away! Writing is a creative endeavor, which means you are free to find what works for you, normalcy be damned.

Forget English Class

Write a Story

Remember how we were taught to write research papers and essays in English class? Start with an introduction paragraph that outlines what you will be talking about, then write a section for each topic you said you will cover, and then finish up with a conclusion rephrasing everything you just got done writing. You might have also received a little drawing of the MLA format outlining exactly how you should structure a paper.

Don’t write like this.

If your readers wanted to read term papers, they would have become teachers. While I think we can all agree that some structure is good, an overly formulaic layout will suck all of the spontaneity and flow out of an article. Your introduction should hook the reader. Ask a question. Make an assumption. Tell a story. Don’t just make a list of things you’re going to talk about later. Your readers should want to read onto the next sentence because there is something new and exciting for them to read.

Get to the point

Word Limits Suck

More often than not, word limits lead to fluff. With the exception of length, fluff adds nothing to an article; it’s just extra words. Unfortunately, grade school taught us to write a lot of fluff in order to reach sometimes impractical minimum word or page limits. Well… that, and how to increase the margins and font sizes in Microsoft Word.

As Albert Einstein might have said (but probably didn’t), “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it.” Be clear and concise in your writing. Leave the thesaurus at home, focus your thoughts, and get to the damn point.

Writing shouldn’t be hard. It should be a relaxing outlet. Whether the subject is taking a documentation first approach to API development, or a romance novel, it is one of the few activities that requires nothing but an imagination and a medium (and literacy… literacy is probably important too). The resources to get started are out there. If fiction is your thing, head on over to r/writing and participate in the next NaNoWriMo. If you’d rather pad your pockets a little bit, r/freelance and r/freelanceWriters are both great resources for getting started in freelance writing; although, if you work in the DevOps industry and are interested in getting paid to write articles for companies like Red Hat, PagerDuty, and Sumo Logic, visit Fixate IO and become a Fixate contributor.

Like I said, I’m not a writer, but with a little bit of luck and a hell of a lot of practice, maybe one day I will be; and so could you.

*****
Written by Zachary Flower on 04 June 2016