What writers can learn from programmers

Apr 17, 2018 | Better Writing

Gary was a programmer before it was cool. I met him when I took his class in basic programming.

I wanted to teach my Commodore PET to do tricks. The PET was a prehistoric personal computer. After you turned it on, you used a tape drive to upload the operating system. After that, if you wanted it to do anything, you had to write the code to make it so. Gary’s class helped me do that.

That was more than 30 years ago. We became friends and we still stay in touch with an occasional email and Skype call.

Recently, we’ve been talking about the similarities between programmers and writers. The first time that Gary told me he thought our work was similar, I was skeptical, but he’s right. Semi-pro business writers and programmers both do creative work in the service of a commercial purpose. Writers and programmers both turn an idea in their head to a reality.

In some ways, programmers have it easier. As Gary said once, the reason that he likes programming is that after you do your work, you know if you got it right or not. The program either does what it’s supposed to, or it doesn’t. If it does, you celebrate. If it doesn’t, you go back to work.

That’s not true for writers, we can kid ourselves about how good our work is. That’s okay, though. We can use writer’s groups and coaches and beta readers to test our work.

We writers can read books, like the marvelous Daily Rituals to get ideas about how to work more effectively. But no one really studies writer productivity. That’s not true for programmers. Researchers want to learn the secrets of how to make programmers more productive. Because they have labored long in that quest, we writers can learn a few things about productivity from what works for programmers.

Distractions Are the Enemy

Gary says the most significant difference between highly productive programmers and the rest are that the productive ones shut off distractions or work at places where their company does it for them. If you want to be a productive writer, you should do the same thing.

Shut off all the distractions that you can control. Turn off your phone and put it out of sight. Shut down automatic alerts from things like email. If you’re tempted to pop on the web to check a fact, don’t do it. You can check the fact later. In the meantime, unplug your computer from the net.

Consolidate Your Work Time

Most programmers, and most people in general, do their best creative work in blocks of 50-60 minutes, followed by a break. So, block out your work in distraction-free 50-60-minute periods. Separate them with breaks. Do something else!

There seems to be a natural limit to how much productive work we can do in a single day. In Deep Work, Cal Newport says that you can do a maximum of about four hours a day of productive deep work. That matches my experience, from tracking my own productivity.

So, don’t try to allocate more than about four hours in a day to creative work. What will you do with the rest of the time? That’s the time for routine administrative tasks, research, and making sure that when it’s time to write, you’re ready to start writing. It’s great time to go on the internet and check that fact you were worried about.

Bottom Line

Writers and programmers both have the same basic challenge. We turn an idea into a reality. When it comes to productivity, we both share the same humanity, and so, we both need to shut out distractions and pay attention to the way we chunk our work time.

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