Writing for software engineers: here’s the best book I’ve found

Where some software engineers can only see the immediate path ahead, more experienced software engineers keep the destination in mind and navigate accordingly.

Sometimes the narrow road is the path to righteousness, and sometimes the broad road is the path to wickedness, or at least to broken deadlines and unimplemented requirements. How do you learn to see further, beyond the immediate next steps, beyond the stated requirements?

One method you can use is writing.

Two kinds of writing

Writing as thinking can help you find better solutions for easy problems, and solve problems that seem impossible. You write a “design document”, where “design” is a verb not a noun, an action not a summary. You write down your assumptions, your requirements, your ideas, the presumed tradeoffs and try to nail down the best solution. Unlike vague ideas in your head, written text can be re-read and sharpened. By putting words to paper you force yourself to clarify your ideas, focus your definitions, make your assumptions more explicit. You can also share written documents with others for feedback and evaluation; since software development is a group effort that often means a group of people will be doing the thinking.

Once you’ve found a better way forward you need to convince others that your chosen path makes sense. That means an additional kind of writing, writing for persuasion and action: explaining your design, convincing the stakeholders.

Writing for action

How do you learn how to write? If you’re just starting your journey as a writer you need to find the right guide; there are many kinds of writing with different goals and different styles. Some books obsess over grammar, others focus on academic writing or popular non-fiction.

Writing as a programmer is writing in the context of an organization, writing that needs to propel you forward, not merely educate or entertain. This is where Flower and Ackerman’s “Writers at Work” will provide a wise and knowledgeable guide. (There are a dozen other books with the same name; make sure you get the right one!)

Linda Flower is one the originators of the cognitive process theory of writing, and so is well suited to writing a book that covers not just surface style, but the process of adapting writing to one’s situation. This book won’t teach you how to write luminous prose, or craft a brilliant academic argument, but then you probably don’t need to.

The first example scenario the book covers is of someone who has joined the Request For Proposal (RFP) group at a software company. The ten page scenario talks about the RFP process in general, how RFPs are usually constructed within the organization, the team in charge of creating RFPs and their various skills and motivations, the fact RFP’s may end up in competitors’ hands… What this book will teach you is how do the writing you do in your job: complex, action oriented, utilitarian.

Some specific lessons from the book

“Writers at Work” focuses on process, context, and writing as a form of organizational action, and helps you understand how to approach your task. It will help you answer these questions and more:

  • What context are you writing in? The book guides you through the process of discovering the audience, rhetorical situation, discourse community, goals, problems and agendas. Software development always has a stated reason, but often there are deeper reasons why you’re working on a particular project, specific ways to communicate with different people (engineers, management, customers), differing agendas and multiple audiences. The book will help you define the situation you are writing in, which will help you figure out what you’re trying to build and then convince others when you’ve found the solution.
  • How do you define the problem you are trying to solve? The book points out the helpful technique of operationalization, defining the problem in a way that implies an action to solve it.
  • Structuring your writing: if you have a design, how do you communicate it in a convincing way? How do you explain it to different audiences with different levels of knowledge?
  • How do you test your writing? Writing can require testing just as much as software does.

For reasons I don’t really understand this practical, immensely useful textbook is out of print, and (for now) you can get copies for cheap. Buy a copy, read it, and start writing!

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