When I was seven years old, my mother gave me the typewriter that she had used in college. You know, one of those things on which you hurt your fingers smashing letters onto paper, so you don’t have to be embarrased about your illegible handwriting. Though it was just a toy at first, I soon started typing up whole stories of my own creation. First I’d type a draft on cheap paper. I’d then correct the draft with a pen, and retype it on nice paper.
Four years later, I got my first PC, and a copy of WordPerfect 4.2. During the DOS days, WP was what MS Word is now. My writing output soared, as I now had a keyboard that didn’t hurt my little fingers any more. Well, at least not until a decade and a half later. Not to mention that I could just type the draft, edit it, and print the final version without retyping. What a concept!
By the time I moved on to high school, I also moved on from writing stories to writing software. Software that actually did something was far more exciting than text that just lay there. I didn’t really have an audience for either form of creativity.
My writing skills have come in handy when I actually started publishing my software. Writing good documentation is just as difficult as writing the software in the first place. No wonder that the average piece of software, or even the average piece of anything, comes with lousy documentation.
When I developed PowerGREP, I didn’t just put a table of supported regex tokens in the help file, as most competitors do. I wrote a full-blown regular expression tutorial. You can’t use PowerGREP if you don’t know anything about regular expressions. Documenting how PowerGREP works without explaining the product’s core technology seemed pointless. Later, I published the regex tutorial separately at www.regular-expressions.info, which attracts top search engine rankings.
Content always beats gimmicks. You can do SEO until Google puts you at the top. But it’s pointless without worthwhile content. The Back button always sits at the top. Sure, screen shots and even flash demos are definitely needed when promoting software. But without good supporting text, a screen shot is just a picture that says very little.
One thing I took away for myself from the ESWC 2007 was a resolution to write more. In fact, I resolved to write something every single working day. That “something” could be a blog post, a new page for one of my sites, or new documentation or samples. It doesn’t really have to bring in any money, as long as somebody will read it and find it informative.
The hardest part in writing, at least for people whose main job is something else, is to simply do it. The main goal of my one-piece-a-day routine is to build the habit of writing things. Take this very blog post you’re reading now. Once I was past the first two paragraphs, the words easily flowed. In fact, trimming down my articles is something I need to work on. Voltaire wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t have time to make it shorter.
The hardest part, for me, is just sitting down and starting to write about the topic I have in my mind. There’s always a million things to do, and writing never seems to make it to the top of the list, unless I force it to be by setting aside a set time for it every day. I’m not writing daily yet, but I’m getting there.