Joel on Software - Learn how to write - Fortune

Joel on Software - Learn how to write

Would Linux have succeeded if Linus Torvalds hadn’t evangelized it? As brilliant a hacker as he is, it was Linus’s ability to convey his ideas in written English via email and mailing lists that made Linux attract a worldwide brigade of volunteers.

Have you heard of the latest fad, Extreme Programming? Well, without getting into what I think about XP, the reason you’ve heard of it is because it is being promoted by people who are very gifted writers and speakers.

Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can’t do anything about that.

The difference between a tolerable programmer and a great programmer is not how many programming languages they know, and it’s not whether they prefer Python or Java. It’s whether they can communicate their ideas. By persuading other people, they get leverage. By writing clear comments and technical specs, they let other programmers understand their code, which means other programmers can use and work with their code instead of rewriting it. Absent this, their code is worthless. By writing clear technical documentation for end users, they allow people to figure out what their code is supposed to do, which is the only way those users can see the value in their code. There’s a lot of wonderful, useful code buried on sourceforge somewhere that nobody uses because it was created by programmers who don’t write very well (or don’t write at all), and so nobody knows what they’ve done and their brilliant code languishes.

I won’t hire a programmer unless they can write, and write well, in English. If you can write, wherever you get hired, you’ll soon find that you’re getting asked to write the specifications and that means you’re already leveraging your influence and getting noticed by management.

Most colleges designate certain classes as “writing intensive,” meaning, you have to write an awful lot to pass them. Look for those classes and take them! Seek out classes in any field that have weekly or daily written assignments.

Start a journal or weblog. The more you write, the easier it will be, and the easier it is to write, the more you’ll write, in a virtuous circle.

Author Joel Spolsky
Work Advice for Computer Science College Students