Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.



Writing and coding

November 2015

This blog post is somewhat late and somewhat short. Life does occasionally get in the way.

For as long as I can remember, or at least since the age of ten, I've been a programmer as well as a writer. I wrote stories and letters to friends whilst trying to coax the best out of the basic (and BASIC) home computers of the day. That's never stopped. I still write letters and stories, still write code, though no longer in BASIC.

These two strands of my career have continued in parallel, occasionally with some crossover. I find it hard to keep away from them, feel I'm missing out when I do. So when working as a programmer I've also written for pleasure, and when writing for a living I've continued to code for pleasure. These are my chosen forms of creation and expression.

I enjoy both types of work, though only in their purest forms: once you add office politics and other unnecessary bullshit into the mix, both writing and coding can quickly become chores rather than pleasures. For that reason it's safer and more satisfying to be self-employed.

What's become apparent over the past 35 years is the reason I like both types of work. It's because they're so similar. Obviously programming involves linguistics, since each programming language has its own syntax, vocabulary and grammar. But there's more to it than that.

Problem-solving is a big part of coding, since humans are poor at creating strictly logical structures. But problem-solving is also part of writing. Just as it may take hours to find the optimal method of turning user input into well-presented information, so it can take hours to find the phrase or sentence that perfectly encapsulates an idea.

Where programming has bug-fixing, writing has editing. Where a novel has a plot, a program has a flowchart. Where coders have subversion and git, writers have rough drafts, outlines and a pocket full of scribbled notes.

A good piece of code is elegant, efficient and impossible to improve. A good piece of writing is the same. Both are extremely rare, which makes the achievement all the more satisfying.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and thinks before he writes and codes.

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