I recently wrote a tutorial on getting started with web development. It was a frontend only (meaning covering only HTML, CSS and JavaScript), 5 day tutorial that covered very basic web development topics and concepts like HTML elements, CSS selectors and JavaScript language semantics. Along with learning the basics of frontend web development, the course takers built their very first website which was a simple, one page portfolio site listing their interests and some pictures.

I’d not go into the technicalities of the course itself, as that’s off topic. What I’d like to do in the little post is list down some things I learned while I was writing the course, about writing the course and also about writing your thoughts down in general.

  1. If you’d like to test your understanding, try explaining it
  2. Many obviously true beliefs that you hold probably aren’t true
  3. Explaining is an art
  4. The role of an editor
  5. Writing requires a lot more focus than programming
  6. Having a continuous thought train for a multipart article is exponentially more difficult than writing a one off article
  7. Have a plan or outline
  8. Know your audience’s technnical competence

So, without further ado, let’s get started.

If you’d like to test your understanding, try explaining it

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
— Mortimer Adler

The above quote from this interesting blog post about Feynman Technique on Farnam Street captures the gist of this learning. We’re good at convincing ourselves that we understand something when in reality we might not. It is similar to when we speak a language natively and are confident in our knowledge, but then when a language-learner asks us a simple question, we don’t have an explanation but rather know it ‘intuitively’.

As an example, when I was writing the chapter on JavaScript, I was tempted to write that arrow functions have replaced the ‘function()’ functions. I asked myself why I thought that was the case, and I didn’t have an answer. I had just ‘believed’ that to be the case.

Upon researching, I learned the differences in their workings and their use cases, and I came out of that a bit wiser than before. That was just one instance where I wrote something, then asked myself why I thought that was the case, and learned that that was in fact not the case.

The bottom line here is, if you want to learn something well or test your understanding, try explaining it. Interestingly, that’s just me rediscovering the Feynman technique.

Many obviously true beliefs that you hold probably aren’t true

This is an extension of the previous point. But with a different takeaway. Since we’ve now established that many of our beliefs are wrong, it is wise to not be too confident in them and always practice humility when it comes to your knowledge, and consequently, your opinions and worldview. In other words, while it is great to put in time and energy to learn something properly and have opinions about it, it is also important to be ready to accept that you could be wrong and change.

This point is best illustrated by the “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held” philosophy, best outlined by a little paragraphy from this post.

A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Instituite Director Paul Saffo. Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

While you’re at it, I recommend reading this article by Jeff Atwood where I first read it. There’s also this nice TED talk along the same lines.

Explaining is an art

It is not easy to explain why linear-gradient works the way it does. It is hard to explain parameters of a function to someone who has never written any code, and you cannot use words like parameters, arguments or function call before explaining them. In short, writing a beginners programming course is some work (who would’ve thought?!). Now I look back at all those books, articles and tutorials that taught me the basics of everything I’ve learned and realize how great it was to have had all of that top quality learning material for free on the internet.

My personal experience is that we don’t notice when something is very well written or explained, especially with technical writing and documentation. It feels very natural and in-flow. But try to remember the last badly written article that you read. It was exhausting, you had to re-read through paragraphs to make sense of the text and you probably didn’t even finish it. That’s why, the next time you read through something and don’t notice anything wrong, take a moment to appreciate the effort that might’ve gone into making it come across the way it does.

The role of an editor

I learned what an editor does while writing this course. I would typically submit a day’s work as a document, fairly confident that I had done a good job only to find out the next day that the document has 200 new comments and edits. How was that even possible? I’m not a good writer, accepted, but those many edits? I would genuinely fear submitting my work for editing, just like my younger self would fear exams for all the bad grades I could get.

But in this case, the editor is really there to make the text readable, check if the sentences flow naturally and there’s no discontinuation of thoughts (and of course, spelling and grammatical shortcomings in the text). All in all, after the edit the content doesn’t look anything like the initial draft I sent for editing. If you ever get the chance to get your work reviewed by an editor, don’t miss it. You’ll learn a lot.

Writing, for me, requires a lot more focus than programming

I realized how much more focus writing content needed as compared to programming. I could just not do it in the office. Every 15 minutes I’d lose my train of thoughts due to some or the other distraction. I believe this could be just because I’m not used to the idea of writing content in the office, or writing professionally in general. I would end up taking work from home days to make sure I’m making progress. I had not expected this to happen, especially after having been an amaeteur blogger for a while now. But there I was, trying to think of the next sentence while repeatedly reading the paragraphs above.

Having a continuous thought train for a multipart article is a lot more difficult than writing a one off article

So I feel quite comfortable writing something like this very post. It is not as long, and one can write the whole thing in a couple of sittings. Then there are also not a lot of different ways of presenting here. Just text followed by headings followed by more text. That’s quite a lot easier than writing a multi-day course with each day three or four times as long as a typical blog post with many screenshots, git commits, code snippets and, of course, text. It is important to keep track of all your resources, and any mistake you find later on means all the screenshots and git commits from that point on needs to be updated, which is quite a hassle.

Have a plan or outline

To avoid finding technical faults / discontinuities in the text much later in the course writing, having a plan or an outline about the content is very important. Each chapter, and every topic in the chapter should be outlined before even starting with the actual writing. Ideally, even the outline should be reviewed by someone who knows about how learning works (yes, that’s an expertise), and the final outcome should be communicated well in advance. You want to avoid making the course too difficult (and have people drop out after getting stuck) and too easy (and have people drop out after getting bored).

Know your audience’s technnical competence

When you’re writing a beginner course in software development, you have to explain every bit of technicality. From creation of a file with special extension to what a git commit is. Any assumption you make regarding the ability of the user to understand the course’s substance can backfire resulting in many course takers abandoning the course mid way or flooding the communication channels with their questions. To avoid this, it is important to know the technical competence of your target audience. You cannot cater to a wide range of expertise, and no matter what you write, many people are going to be left out. But that’s okay.

In closing

I’m glad I found this opportunity to do some professional writing. I learned some important aspects of writing, and I tried to share my experiences with you through this post. I hope you find something useful out of this. As always, thank you for reading!