A writer writes. Always.

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For a veteran journalist, learning to write code was a whole different thing.

By Jacob Quinn Sanders

Writing always came easily.

Rhythm, cadence, structure and flow. The deadline never really mattered: I could do it slow or I could do it fast. The pieces always just assembled themselves, first in my head, then on the page. I didn’t much have to think about it. I just knew how to do it.

That was with words. Learning to write code was a whole different thing.

They have a lot in common. But doing one after only having ever done the other — they require different things of a brain. Going from one to the other required relearning, grain by grain, what has long since been a vast beach of unconscious muscle memory.

I was a reporter and editor in newsrooms of all different kinds for 15 years. Longer than I’ve done any other single thing. And I grew up reading. I grew up writing. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, always asked first thing what you had been reading lately. It was expected. It was demanded. It was unequivocal. Not having an answer was not an option.

Which, like a child’s religion or devotion to a favorite family-loved game, quickly gets internalized. There is no stopping to think of the rules or the boundaries or the next move. There is no doubt or delay. You just know how to do it.

And so you do it. Not really with any direction. But you do it.

When I was 10, my fifth-grade class had an assignment: Write a piece in the style of TV news about the coming 1988 presidential election. My teacher, Mrs. Roberts, stopped me before recess the next day.

“This is better than what I saw on the news last night,” she said. “Have you ever thought about doing anything with your writing?”

Nobody had asked me that before. I’d never thought of writing with purpose. So I tried everything. Poetry, stories, journals, plays.

I was a freshman in high school when I took my first journalism class. Our first assignment was to write 1,300 words — researched, non-fiction words — about whatever we wanted. I was 13. I wrote about Guns ‘n’ Roses. Hell yes, I did.

That was my thunderbolt. Whatever I wanted to learn about, wherever my curiosity took me — I could go there and then tell the world about it.

That was all I needed. That was enough. Until it wasn’t.

I met more and more people who wrote code in the service of journalism. I got jobs that brought me closer to workflows and developers and how our own software was getting in our way, preventing us from doing our best journalism.

Code can do a lot of things for a reporter. Does a government agency always dump poorly formatted electronic records on you? If you can write the code to parse and analyze it once, you’ve already done it for the next time those records show up. Does your job involve some repetition? Maybe you can automate it. Do you see a couple data sets you think should learn how to talk to each other in a way no one else is thinking about? You can make it happen. Did you file a records request for data that is technically online but structured badly across hundreds or thousands of pages and annoying to try to download? You can go get it yourself.

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My goal: to progressively suck less.

The more I understood the possibilities, the more I had my own ideas about how to use code to tell stories, to solve problems, to create more of what I wanted to see in the world.

Trouble is, I couldn’t write a line of it. I could no longer execute my best ideas. I couldn’t scrape or analyze data or build a quick little prototype. I couldn’t take a single step in a direction I felt I needed to go without someone’s help — a lot of it.

So I took little day-long code classes at conferences — one of them twice — and tried some online tools. I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t something that came naturally. For the first time in my life, I was terrible at writing.

But I was convinced. Maybe not that I could master it, but at least that I could suck less. I told anyone who asked my long-term and short-term goals were the same — to progressively suck less.

I left my journalism life. A life that got me into college in Nevada and then took me along to Philadelphia, the California desert, back home to Portland, off to Little Rock and then somehow to Pittsburgh. A life that had been mine professionally for 15 years and part of my identity for longer still.

I found a code bootcamp in Provo, Utah. Three months. My wife stayed in Pittsburgh. I rented a room in a house with four dudes all a decade younger than me. I borrowed a bike so I wouldn’t have to spend any money I didn’t have to.

And I started to learn how to write again. How to think about writing. How to accomplish something by writing. How to create. How to fix. How to edit and rewrite.

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I started to learn how to write again.

Confidence came slowly. Impostor syndrome is a vicious and real thing. It has claws and teeth. It has girth. The only way through it was to keep writing. I stayed up late and I got up early and I tried not to throw my laptop out any succession of windows. I asked for and got a key to our lab so I could stay for hours into the night and morning and pound and pound and pound until one of us — sometimes me, sometimes the code, sometimes the machine itself — acquiesced.

Having written words for so long ultimately gave me a framework to use for writing code. They both have grammar, syntax, structure. You make and support arguments. You have several layers of audiences to please, whether an editor and a copy desk and then readers who simply need to understand or a compiler or interpreter and code-reviewer and then an end user who just needs the damn thing to work.

No two writers would tell the same story the same way, even with the exact same information and the same conclusions. The same is true in code.

Having been senior at something else helped, too. I valued the repetition, I knew to start within the rules and guidelines so I could better understand later which ones I wanted to break or ignore. Being junior again was oddly freeing.

And slowly it started to make sense. Slowly I started to suck less. I got home to Pittsburgh and kept writing, kept building, kept asking for help. Kept learning. Kept practicing.

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And slowly I started to suck less.

First I freelanced a bit and created a project or two for myself. One of those projects helped me get a job. A full-time job. My business card says “software engineer.” That never doesn’t tickle me.

It was still hard. It’s still hard. I got that job a year ago. My impostor syndrome followed me. Even when it hibernates, it’s still right there with me.

The difference is now I know that whatever it is I don’t know, I can learn. I don’t think it. I know it.

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It was hard. It’s still hard.

At some point after few months in the job, it happened. Rhythm, cadence, structure and flow. It just happened. The pieces looked like pieces and how they fit was clear.

It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t happen most days. But it happens. If it doesn’t happen today, maybe it happens tomorrow. Maybe the day after.

Meantime, I do what I’ve always done. I keep writing.

***

JacobSanders

Jacob Quinn Sanders

Jacob Quinn Sanders grew up on the West Coast and yet lives in Pittsburgh, where he writes code and words and sometimes both together. He still has impostor syndrome and always will. He misses the hell out of salt water, so maybe that’s what he can write about next year.

Editor’s note: Jacob is a journalist friend I’ve known for about 15 years since I was a recruiter and he was a college student. Though we never worked together, we’ve kept in touch through the years and his many moves, and he’s been a regular contributor to VOA. During a visit to Pittsburgh last year, we reconnected at Nadine’s, a Southside bar and restaurant that’s been featured on “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins.”

Tomorrow: Patricia Conover, Water music

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12 thoughts on “A writer writes. Always.

  1. Cheers to always sucking less! I say that, too. 🙂
    “That was enough. Until it wasn’t.” Great line. I was encouraged by your piece, as I rearrange chairs on the Titanic.

  2. Code and things like VBA fascinate me. I use Excel a lot in my job. I worked at writing macros and gave up after completely screwing up my computer a couple of times and having to have IS/IT come and rescue me. I sucked. I stick with Excel and formulas. And pivot tables. For the uninitiated I look like a wizard. That works for me. Nice piece. I never thought of code being like writing, but it is, I suppose. It makes sense after a while.

  3. “The more I understood the possibilities, the more I had my own ideas about how to use code to tell stories, to solve problems, to create more of what I wanted to see in the world.”

    I know this feeling myself. Congratulations on the courage to learn. Great post.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I am so inspired by the transition you made from writing to coding. I’ve long felt I “would have made” a great coder myself, but my thoughts stopped there, as I lazily assumed my time for dramatic shifts in learning had long passed by me. In public education, we often talk about being a “lifelong learner”. You prove that I simply need to practice what I preach.

    • It’s really never too late. I was older than everyone in my bootcamp, older than everyone in my house. Sometimes it takes a bit of life experience to be that sure what you’re doing is what you want.

  5. The switch from writing to coding seems like such a right brain/left brain transition. I have an engineer friend who also is such a creative writer, and I’ve always been impressed with his ability to walk both sides, so to speak. Maybe it’s not as rare as I’ve previously thought. Thanks for sharing.

    • I didn’t find that to be the hardest thing, the right-brain, left-brain thing. The hardest single thing for me to learn was what one unit of work looked like for the code. What in my previous experience compared? Did a function in Python reflect the same kind of work as a story? An interview? A FOIA request? Not even a little bit. I was thinking too big and trying to do too much at once. More equivalent: Looking up a phone number. Picking up the phone. Dialing. Grabbing a pen. Opening a notebook. Once I started to figure that out, things started to make a lot more sense.

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