Should coders learn to write prose?

Does spinning a good yarn translate into good code writing?

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Would this guy have been a great code writer?

flickr/tonynetone

If Charles Dickens wrote code, would it have looked something like this?

if theBestOfTimes {
    theWorstOfTimes++;
}

This question popped into my head after seeing this question over on Stack Exchange about whether programmers should take writing lessons in order to write better (more “expressive”) code. I agree with the general sentiment of those that answered that, no, taking writing courses won’t help you to write better code. Writing code, while certainly a creative activity, is very different than creative writing. Being able to spin a good yarn doesn’t translate into being able to write well functioning (and easily understandable) scripts, functions or procedures, though it may make you more popular in the lunchroom.

However, all programmers should know how to write in whatever language their business is conducted. Like it or not, as a developer you have to be able to communicate concepts and ideas, through writing and speaking, to both technical and non-technical folks, alike (dim though the latter may be). Writing technical specs, architecture documents, white papers, technical opinions, end user documentation, etc. are all part of the job, which, it turns out, is surprising to some coding newbies.

This reminded me of the time 25 years ago (this week, as a matter of fact) that I turned up at MIT as a wide-eyed, pimply-skinned freshman. One of the first things we all had to do (aside from unpack our underwear and regardless of what your major was going to be) was to take a writing exam. At that time, MIT had a two-phase writing requirement, one phase of which could be passed by taking this exam. I was a fairly decent writer, so I passed it, but I saw a lot of very, very bright folks fail the test; these people then had to take a writing class. If you didn’t eventually pass the writing requirement, you wouldn’t graduate.*

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