Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




How to write like Joel?

Since we all love Joel's articles about software, management, and so on I'm asking myself:

What makes his articles so interesting? Surely, it's not just the interesting content but also the way he writes.

Any tips on how to write interesting articles about otherwise not-so-interesting things?

JoS Fan
Thursday, August 22, 2002

the art of writing is practiced by wrote.

got a pen/pencil and some paper? write. post. get feedback. write some more.

jag
Thursday, August 22, 2002

Here are some tips on how to write good specs...

http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000033.html

but I think these rules & tips can be applied to all writing.

Patrik
Thursday, August 22, 2002

anyform of writing is good to start with. Joel( which Patrik has put a link too) specs make a good start to read and then to start writing.

Prakash S
Thursday, August 22, 2002


A couplea things Joel does:

(1) Take an idea that most people don't know, get, or understand.

(2) State it out loud and explain why.

For example: "Good Software Takes Ten Years, Get Used to it."

Or my article: "NO, It is NOT gonna take you 'Just Two Weeks'"

A lot of good Joel articles are like this - The Joel Test, The Herd of Coconuts, Ten Years, The IceBerg Secret, Fire and Motion, why you should teach C Programming to undergrads before Java, etc.

CS Lewis said that many of the best "teachers" in history didn't teach anything new - they just repeated facts that most people know but need reminding of. (See just about any book on HR "Value your people, make them feel appreciated." DUH! DUH! DUH!  Who _doesn't_ know that?)

It's pretty easy to get the Joel style.  But once you get that, I'd keep going to develop your own.

Then again, i've never actually been published by anything but web-zines, but I did work for a fortune 500 publisher for a couplea years ....

Matt H.
Thursday, August 22, 2002

Pay attention to grammar and spelling. Yes, I know it's unfashionable, especially on the internet. But it is one of the hallmarks of good writing. Even in his most casual-sounding articles, you won't find Joel writing "to" when he means "too".

Other than that? Find your tone and stick to it. Joel has a conversational tone spiced with bits of satire and geek-jokes, and it works very well for him. But if you can't imitate him without sounding condescending or schoolboyish or whatever, then don't imitate him. Find your own voice.

Oh, yeah, and read a lot of books. Not newspapers, magazines, or web pages, but books. If you can read an entire internet discussion without flinching at least once because of the bad writing, it's time to get away from the computer and read some literature. (Either that, or submit the discussion to the record books as The Incredible Thread Where Everyone Used Correct Grammar.)

Martha
Thursday, August 22, 2002

I don't claim to be a good writer, but I've found the following two resources to be very helpful:

1)  _Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English_, by Patricia T. O'Conner:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1573226254/

This book makes grammar fun and interesting.  Well, almost.

2)  news:alt.usage.english.  If this collection of pedants doesn't know the answer to your English question, nobody does.  (Be prepared, though, for a host of different opinions on any given usage issue.)

Alex Chernavsky
Thursday, August 22, 2002

Ask Joel himself.

How on earth  are we supposed to know "how to write like joel?" it's as if I ask you "how to sing like Frank Sinatra?"

Perhaps you could have asked how can I write in  plain English where everyone underestands my point.

realist
Thursday, August 22, 2002

>>Perhaps you could have asked how can I write in plain English where everyone underestands my point. <<

Perhaps I should've asked what people like best about Joel's articles! It amounts to the same thing though. But I did find most responses (except for yours of course) very helpful. ;p

JoS Fan
Thursday, August 22, 2002

reality bites my friend. However, I am glad that you have found what you were looking for

realist
Thursday, August 22, 2002

I'm not going to go back and read all his articles for research, but from what I recall, here are the major tenants on JOS columns:

1. Objective: He takes a step back and looks at the big picture.

2. Realistic: He's often a contrarian to the hype of the day.

3. Experienced: He frequently writes based upon actual experiences, not just opinion or conjecture.

4. Anecdotal: Which sells better - Dr. Dobbs or People? Even geeks like a story with a little human interest.

5. Amusing: A little humor here or there to make the story more enjoyable. He avoids too much sarcasm - a little goes a long way and a lot turns people away.

6. Terse: He gets to the point and isn't overly verbose.  Save the wordy prose for your MENSA application. :)

7. Aesthetic: The photographs add to the overall appeal of the page - especially because they're unrelated to the topic. Also, the pages are clean and professional looking - just white background, black text, and simple graphics.

Nick Hebb
Friday, August 23, 2002

Joel answers questions that I've asked myself but didn't have the answer to.  And because the same pattern of questions has come up, I know he's been through the same problems and is offering useful advice.

rkuo
Friday, August 23, 2002

Mainly I think it's that he says those things that most programmers think, but are shouted at when they try to communicate them.

The entertaining part is when people shout at him.  I've probably done it too, but it's sort of like those Japanese Noh performances where the audience shouts out things at the right time.

Greg Neumann
Friday, August 23, 2002

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home