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Michael Tharrington (he/him)
Michael Tharrington (he/him)

Posted on

What's your favorite bit of writing advice?

What is the best writing advice you ever received? Or, if not the best, what's your favorite bit of writing advice?

Top comments (19)

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author

I always loved the phrase "show, don't tell"... it's described really well in this Wikipedia entry:

Show, don't tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through actions, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author's analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that readers can draw their own conclusions.

I think it's interesting in the context of writing posts with code, because in dev posts you're likely often showing code while also telling what it does. Just to say that I think that's absolutely okay and don't think that runs counter to the phrase.

Now, if someone was to write out a highly performant code block and tell us right below it that it's good and highly performant, that would kinda break the show, don't tell rules... instead, I'd suggest to the writer that they show us how they measured the performance (perhaps with some sort of benchmark test) and outline some of the specific benefits it brings folks.

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mellen profile image
Matt Ellen

The best advice I've received is to read it out loud.

If it sounds weird when you say it, you should edit it to sound better.

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danwalsh profile image
Dan Walsh

I live by this! A previous boss passed on this nugget of wisdom to me. What’s interesting is that when reading back something you wrote, if you missed a word like a conjunction, your brain tries to automatically β€œfill the blank” as you read. So if you read carefully and slowly, you’ll more readily find these gaps and fix them.

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author • Edited on

Yes!! I'm so glad you mentioned this one... I had left a comment on @maddy's post "Tips For Your Next Pair Programming Interview" as they had given out the excellent tip to "Think Out Loud" for paired programming. Actually, that's kinda what triggered me to write this post! πŸ˜€

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theaccordance profile image
Joe Mainwaring • Edited on
  • Writing is a talent developed over time, practice makes for perfect. The quality and thoroughness of my content today comes from 18 years of authoring blog posts and technical documents
  • There is little difference between technical documents you may write as a developer/engineer and a blog post. I routinely re-share internal documents I’ve authored, after stripping out all identifiable and proprietary information.
  • Have a purpose for why you author content. Perhaps it’s to contribute back to the community, or it could be as a portfolio piece to showcase your competencies, but know why you’re spending the time publishing content online. For myself, I contribute to public discussion as a tool for career growth.
  • There are two ways to author content: by what you want, or what you think the audience wants. I was never good at the later so I stick to the former.
  • Drafts are both a valuable tool and graveyard, use it freely but set time aside periodically to clean things up.
  • Your audience has a limited attention span, scope your content and narrative in a way that’s time-efficient.
  • Organize your content using headings. H2, H3, H4, etc are your friends.
  • Rich Media is a better medium for getting attention, but written content has better reusability. Being able to copy and paste technical snippets like CLI commands or application code is vital when engineers need to use a process within their own context.
  • A quality piece of authored content will likely contain numerous links that serve as both referral mechanisms (linking to the vendor website) and citations (code samples, docs, white papers) to support the narrative.
  • Learn your computer’s tools for capturing screenshots or recordings. If you don’t have these tools, a Google search should provide you with options.
  • Annotating screenshots is a very effective way to clearly communicate repeatable steps you want the reader to follow
  • Most importantly: IGNORE THE TROLLS. Engage by trying to steer the conversation in a constructive manner, but don’t waste your time trying to change a critic’s mind. Just ignore or block at that point.
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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author

So many good bits of advice here, Joe! Appreciate ya chiming in.

And this bit is my favorite:

Most importantly: IGNORE THE TROLLS. Engage by trying to steer the conversation in a constructive manner, but don’t waste your time trying to change a critic’s mind. Just ignore or block at that point.

Absolutely! πŸ’―

If they are pestering you here on a DEV post, don't hesitate to hide their comments and block them... and please, please, please report'em to us so we're alerted to step in and get your back!

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kaspera profile image
Kasper Andreassen

When working with SEO-content:

Write for humans, optimize for machines

For writing in general, it's just to write something down - don't get stuck overthinking. The actual content can be improved and optimized afterwards. Related to @jmfayard says about "shitty first draft".

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author • Edited on

I really like both of those!

I love your advice around how to best handle working with SEO content. I do think that sometimes we get sucked into strange patterns like overloading an article with specific terminology because we think it's more likely to rank higher in searches. It's good to remind ourselves to keep our human audience front of mind!

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jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel Fayard πŸ‡«πŸ‡·πŸ‡©πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡¬πŸ‡§πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ΈπŸ‡¨πŸ‡΄

Anne Lamott's concept of shitty first draft to overcome perfectionism

canvas.umn.edu/courses/213694/file...

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erinposting profile image
Erin Bensinger

This advice saved me many, many times during my undergraduate English degree:

A first draft doesn't have to be any good, it just has to exist.

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citizen428 profile image
Michael Kohl

Start.

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author

But thats run counter to my core personality trait as a procrastinator, haha!

In all seriousness though, you're absolutely right. You won't get anywhere with your writing if you don't write!

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citizen428 profile image
Michael Kohl • Edited on

Writing was my main source of income for a few years, so I have one more in the same vain:

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. β€” Chuck Close

He was a visual artist but I think the quote applies to writing too.

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author

That's an awesome way to word it and quite inspiring!

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jeremyf profile image
Jeremy Friesen

Take notes of writing that you like. When I'm reading, I have a pencil in hand and underline and write my response to passages that captivate me. Then I go back and add them to my personal wiki for reference.

This builds on the philosophical advice I found in SΓΆnke Ahrens's How to Take Smart Notes.

Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you
will improve your reading, thinking, and other intellectual skills just
by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing.

--- SΓΆnke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes

I've also adopted the idea that my writing is adding to a conversation. One that is had by those who have written before me and those who will write after me; and "those people" include myself but also authors who I'll never meet.

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author • Edited on

Ooooo, I really like the note-taking idea!

I remember reading that Hunter S. Thompson would practice prose by typing out The Great Gatsby.

I also really like the idea of writing contributing to a larger conversation... really so much of art is like that. I see it in how groups of people latch onto styles of music or painting; they're using established ideas and finding their own place in them. I think sometimes people are kinda doing it without necessarily realizing it; they're just absorbing culture and reacting to the present. However, you can often tell when someone is well-versed in a particular conversation and aware of the many different roads and side streets that conversation has taken. To follow that analogy (haha, I know who I'm talking to here πŸ˜‰), it's rare that you're paving a brand new road when talking about an idea; being aware of those who have traveled down the same road, the maps they've drawn and places they arrived at (conclusions they've come to) can really help you to navigate that road.

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alvesjessica profile image
Jessica Alves

I read once a simple but meaningful piece of writing advice on Stephen King's memoir β€œOn Writing”: read more to write better.

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington (he/him) Author

That's such great advice!

On a related note, I find that listening to music helps me to play better music. And of course, there's a difference between listening for pleasure and listening with intention... both help, but I think listening with intention gets me there faster!

I think the same is likely true with reading. We can read for pleasure and it'll help us to write better. But we can also read super intently to try and pick up on what folks are doing with their craft and I think that can really help to boost our learning curve!

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Erin Bensinger

A college poetry professor of mine, Diane Seuss, always said "there's no such thing as writer's block, you're just not reading enough."

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