Learning the Language of the Web

Entering the world of technical writing can be an extremely intimidating task. People whose primary skills include a sharp eye for grammar and intuition for style are often startled at how many seemingly unrelated skills they may have to know to land a job. The emphasis on “may” is important—since there are a diverse number of ways that documents can be authored and published now, the task of deciding what you should learn to make your resume stand out becomes daunting. There is plenty of advice out there on what technical skills you should learn as a beginning tech writer, with suggestions ranging from XML to programming and database languages. While these are great things to know, the shift toward using wikis and other forms of web-based documentation leads me to think that, for a technical writer who is totally uncertain what kind of job they’re going to end up in, knowing the basics of coding websites is a safe bet. Even if you end up having to author on a different platform, you can impress potential employers by demonstrating your willingness to acquire technical skills.

Luckily, there are an abundance of resources available for learning how to build and maintain websites. Below, I’ve listed what I have found to be the most useful to learn and where I have had success learning these skills.

The Fundamental Web Languages

This is not a comprehensive list of the coding skills you might have to acquire as a technical communicator. However, given the increasing focus on web-based documentation, it’s good to at least have a passing familiarity of these essential web languages. Keep in mind that unless you advertise yourself as a tech writer AND web developer, you’re not reasonably going to be expected to be able to build a website from the ground up.

HTML

Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) can be thought of as the skeleton of a website. It provides the basic structure of a site’s content and is capable of determining to a large degree how it will look. If you choose a single language to add to your toolkit, this is the one to go with. Even if you’re not working with web-based documentation, you will probably encounter HTML if you author any sort of browser-based help system. It may also ease the process if you find yourself having to learn another popular markup language: XML.

CSS

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are used to dictate the formatting of pages written in markup languages like HTML. This is the preferred way to apply a consistent style to websites, as one page of CSS can be linked to all HTML documents on a site. Changes to style and formatting can then be applied by changing one document instead of hundreds. If you think you might be working with web-based documentation, learning this language will probably save you from hours of mind-numbing labor.

JavaScript

JavaScript is a scripting language that is often used when a website needs to interact with a user for information or when it needs the browser to perform a specific function. You probably won’t need this too much as a technical communicator, and the few scripts you might need (like one to open all links on a page in a new window, for instance) are easy to find after a quick Google search. However, it’s useful to know the basics to get a good idea whether the code you’ve found online is likely to work for your purpose or not. Also, JavaScript is a good starting point if you decide that you really like coding things and want to learn other programming languages.

Where to Learn Them

All of the sites recommended below have lessons covering all of the above languages (and more!). Each site is going to have its strengths and weaknesses and will cater to a different learning style, so it’s good to check them all out and see which ones have lessons that you might be able to get the most out of.

W3Schools

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The first important thing to note about W3Schools is that it is not actually affiliated with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3Schools has been criticized for misleading people into thinking otherwise, but many still cite W3Schools as a great source for beginners and a good reference to have around if you forget which tags you need to use in your document. Just don’t give them money for their useless certificates.

Codecademy

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For people like me who already have to motivate themselves to do things by thinking of their self-improvement in terms of game mechanics (+5 JavaScript skill, Erin levels up!), the recent trend of gamification has produced a number of invaluable learning resources. Codecademy is a great site for anybody who wants to feel like they are being rewarded at each step of the process of learning to code. Users are awarded badges for completing interactive lessons in HTML/CSS, JavaScript, and a small collection of other languages. While the information is not as comprehensive as it is on other sites, having the opportunity to practice exercises within the browser in a well-designed environment and being rewarded with colorful badges may motivate you to accomplish more than if you were staring at a wall of instructions.

Lynda.com

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Lynda.com is amazing for a tech writer who needs to quickly build their software and web skills. Not only can you access video tutorials on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, you can learn about Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, social media marketing, enhancing usability…there are thousands of courses, so the list goes on. Unfortunately, full access to the site requires a membership fee (although it’s totally worth it if you can manage it). Some of the videos are available for free on the site and on YouTube. Here’s a basic video about why HTML is like a sandwich.

If the prospect of learning all of these things is still somewhat intimidating, remember that for all of the diverse situations you might find yourself in as a technical communicator, you’re still more than likely going to be working at a computer that has access to the internet. You absolutely do not have to memorize every HTML tag that exists. As long as you familiarize yourself with the principles of each language, you should be able to do some research and find some code that will accomplish what you want it to.

I hope this guide helps some beginning technical writers know where to start. Feel free to post in the comments if you have any additional resources that you have found helpful—or if you want to brag about all of the badges you’ve racked up on Codecademy.

—Erin Gowdy

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