On Writing Again

I was seeking the source of the phrase “Writing is thinking”. A great many people have said “Writing is thinking.” Steven Sinofsky recently produced a notable Twitter thread, later collected and annotated on his blog, with this as his title. However, William Zinsser said it back in 1976. He’s someone who’s a noted writer on, among other things, writing

Writing is thinking on paper[…]
—William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976

Writing is something I want to do more of. My most recent project was to build a detailed, illustrated software manual, and tutorials, including all the writing, and designing the web-based system it lives in. Perhaps many would consider that a boring assignment (a user manual!?).

Writing that manual reminded me that I really enjoy the craft. How can you make that kind of reading engaging? You have to be brief and somewhat entertaining to retain the audience’s attention, long enough to explain things, and precise enough to avoid misunderstanding. If you succeed, you’ve given the reader a new superpower, the ability to use software to accomplish their tasks, and achieve their goals.

If writing is thinking, it’s also designing.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.

From the designer and developer’s stand point, if you cannot explain how to accomplish a task using the tool you’ve built, have you succeed in your goals? Why isn’t instructional writing starting in, or just after, the ideation phase of design? This is an idea I’m looking forward to exploring more in upcoming projects.

While writing how to use a tool, if you have trouble explaining it, then you may not have designed a good tool. As I wrote the learning materials, I found myself with multiple pages of feedback and suggestions for the developers—and it was a good tool, popular with its users, to begin with. I also stumbled upon bugs and inconsistencies. It’s like a second level of QA.

Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.

I’ve been trying to draw parallels between design and writing. My conundrum seems to be that I cannot separate the two. What is writing (in the systematic, intentional sense) but designing a message with words? I would argue that’s design with limited tool availability.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

If you had only a plain text editor, you could still design and build a web site—from writing through development. Without any media to lean upon, any successful design would have to be a stellar reading experience. I would argue perhaps every design should start out this way. I’m not the first to that thought. From many vantage points it’s the best start.

How can you craft a vessel for a message without knowing the content first? Once you have the message, and the voice and tone, then you can design a complimentary vessel. The tenants of Progressive Enhancement start here. Put the message into the lowest, most dependable layer of technology that can hold it (in this case, the HTML, but also… consider the URL!). Decide what media needs to be a part of the package, and deliver what you can via HTML. Then enhance its presentation with thoughtful, appropriate typography and layout via CSS. Then add behavioral enhancements with JavaScript. How many projects today start with that stack in reverse?

Good writing is lean and confident.

The current obsession with JavaScript-first development toolchains is distracting from what we’re here for. Many offer development ease at the cost of precision, and craft. As a result, page payloads are bloating to several—sometimes double-digits of—megabytes per page load, while many of our users are on spotty or saturated 3G networks. The focus needs to be on the users’ problems first, not the developers’ problems. Start with the user’s problem, with the message, then find the most appropriate medium with which to deliver it. As technologists and problem solvers, we need to get back to that mindset.

The writers’ job is like solving a puzzle, and finally arriving at a solution is a tremendous satisfaction.

This year, I’m starting to write for writing’s sakes again, and hopefully that means I’ll be thinking more, too.