How Learning to Code Taught Me to Write

I’m a writer, with the “-er” signifying something like “hoarder” or “biter”. Compulsive doer of the verb. Last time I moved, the friends hauling boxes became visibly astounded at my storage tubs of journals. “Another one?” and then, “This one… and this one, too?”

But beyond that, there have been entire months — if not years — where writing seemed a hard slog, with pressure to either sparkle or fade.

Then, I learned to code. Not mind-blowing Ruby or anything like that, just HTML and CSS, the bread and butter of the front end of our interweb. And when I returned to the page to write narratively, I found my mindset had transformed.

Three important lessons:

1) Sucking is temporary. Just look closer.

Code can be picked apart without inner turmoil. I was no stranger to looking at a screen filled with disjointed attempts. But when it was failing writing, I got emotional. I’d resolve for the nth time to drop writing and take up sewing or open a cupcake shop. Why write?

With coding there was no reason to panic. Sure — my floats weren’t floating, or they floated when I wanted them cleared. My stylesheet refused to link. But here, failure looked different. One of my calm mentors would approach and ask I’d inspected the code. No, I certainly hadn’t, I’d been too busy freaking out.

Oh, right. I could just hit that handy “Inspect Element” feature and take it apart piece by piece. Success was making #909090 turn to #A8A8A8. And when a single typo destroyed my line of CSS, I marveled at the irony. The internet’s casual lexicon has made typos no big deal for pretty much everyone, unless you’re actually involved in making the internet.

2) Validate code, not your own worth as a human.

One of my old writing teachers invariably starts her first days of class with, “Listen. This is not about getting published; it’s about your craft.” and then by the end, without fail, someone asks how to find an agent. Writers are taught to seek outside validation. Otherwise you’re just a blogger. God forbid.

Coders can just code. It’s published when you push it out, and it’s useful if it does its job. How much better would it be for beginning writers if they gave themselves the same room to fail, the same satisfaction in the nascent attempt?

Success was remembering the divine “margin 0 auto”. Success was letting go of the need to fully understand why a pseudo-element works and just, for the love of god, trust that it’s a thing.

3) Edit your inner monologue.

In stark contrast to my inner monologue as a writer, the thought process of the coder was much more conducive to success. “What’s happening? And how can I fix it?” It’s more about sheer persistence, maybe looking things up, maybe asking for help, but ultimately pressing onward instead of pressing “delete”. You’re not a failure, you’re just somewhere on the journey to being better. The broken can be fixed.

Unless, of course, your server crashes with an hour until launch. Then yeah — you’re totally screwed.

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