If you’re a writer in today’s rapidly evolving media landscape, knowing the basic principles of coding isn’t just something to add to your resume. It can mean a huge jump in your career.

Knowing how to code affords you more freedom as a writer. Personally, as a freelancer, I’m able to deliver whole packages and get more gigs because of it. It’s opened avenues for me I hadn’t imagined. By integrating my writing with mediums like videos and memes, I’m able to bring art, multimedia and humor into my work that I never thought possible.

Why would a writer learn to code?

My first experience with coding came as an intern at a news publication. It began with just being able to resize and embed photos and videos, before I advanced to making little animated graphs. Eventually, I developed a substantial vocabulary of technical terms so I could communicate with my contact in the tech department without ruining his day.

I’m not saying you need to become a full-out programmer. But it’s helpful to know what you can and can’t ask of someone who does program. Having sound technical knowledge will help you plan and ideate multimedia packages and walk the fine line between the possible—great digital storytelling—and the impossible.

It also requires you to think more clearly and apply skills you already have, such as self-editing, organizing your thoughts, writing precisely and concisely, and following a style guide. As a manipulator of words, there is no reason to be afraid of code, which follows a similar logic to written language.

As media quickly changes, being able to write and design something interactive from scratch will definitely put you ahead of the curve.

How to get started

Obviously, coding is a huge area but there’s no need to get overwhelmed. Start by learning some of the lingo, and take it from there. The biggest hindrance I faced was not knowing any web terminology when I first entered a digital newsroom. While dealing with a friend gracious enough to help me with my portfolio website, I called everything a tab. This drove him insane.

If you aren’t sure why, here’s a handy guide to what tabs are. And everything tabs are not:

Point being: learn just enough to know what your options are.

why writers should learn to code

Weighing the pros and cons: To code or not to code?

Learning to code is hard work and definitely not for everyone. Here is the criteria you should take into consideration before signing up for a coding academy:


  • It’s an added skill to your CV which means it opens the door to new job opportunities.
  • You’ll get along much better with your company’s tech department.
  • You’ll understand the actual process of digital creation. When working on a multimedia story, you can better estimate how long it will take to build.
  • You’ll be able to build at least an outline or a mockup. This is basically the pitch version of a digital story you’d like to work on. Maybe you can’t code the whole story but you can show them exactly what you envision.
  • At first it will all seem very daunting, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Your brain may even enjoy the challenge. So instead of the Sunday crossword, you’ll end up dabbling in code and your understanding of storytelling will change drastically.
  • Coding languages are becoming a required subject at schools. This means it’s becoming general knowledge in certain fields and companies. Learn it now, before you miss out on a job opportunity because of it.


  • You’re learning a new language to communicate with computers from scratch. Not only is this difficult, but it requires a lot of time and resources you could put toward something else.
  • Remember: It’s not your main job. Chances are, as a writer first, the organization you work for may not let you put many of those new-found skills to use in your current role. So, you have to decide if it’s worth the trouble.

Which coding language should you learn?

Not all code is made equal. A coding language is essentially a set of grammatical rules and vocabulary for instructing a compute—or another computer program, such as a web browser—to perform specific tasks. With all the languages that exist today, it can be hard to know where to start. Here I’ll explain the basics.

1. Ground zero: HTML and CSS

For any writer, before getting into actual programming, it’s useful to have a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS. This is the code that is used to create web pages. HTML is the language used mainly to create the structure of the page, and CSS is used for the design elements. Neither of these are considered programming languages because they only impact design, and don’t allow for any interactivity.

If you’ve done any work writing for the web, chances are you’ve already worked with HTML and CSS and maybe not even realized it. For example, when you’re using WordPress, if you toggle from the “visual” to the “text” version of your blog post, you’ll see all the HTML markup, which is what creates visual elements like bullet points and bold or italics. 

A quick youtube tutorial is a great place to start to learn more about what you can do with HTML and CSS. If you’d like to go deeper, Head First into HTML and CSS is a fantastic overview for people without a technology background. Also check out the rest of O’Reilly’s Head First series for similar style books for many other coding languages.

2. In-betweeners: Javascript

If you’ve dabbled with content management systems like WordPress and aren’t instantly put off by source code, congratulations! Now’s a good time to start looking into Javascript.

If you only know the design languages HTML and CSS, you won’t be able to create any cool interactive functionality on your web pages. However, Javascript will allow you to add some programming commands right into the “front end” of a web page. You can stick a piece of Javascript into your HTML, and create interactive features without becoming a full-out programmer. It’s by no means the best or most efficient tech tool, but it is extremely versatile and can be used to create masterpieces like these

A great place to get your feet wet is with Udemy’s basic Coding For Writers program: it’s easy, it’s quick and it’ll teach you how to make a therapist bot (albeit not a very good one). Other online schools worth considering include Khan Academy, Codecademy and StackOverflow’s resources which will never fail you.

3. The Final Frontier: Advanced back-end web programming and beyond

Once you’ve got a basic understanding of interactive web design; you can learn at least the basics of a “back-end” programming language. These languages allow you to tie your website to a database on your server in order to carry out any of the complex interactive functionality you see on the web, in a cleaner more efficient way than with Javascript. 

There are many programming languages to choose from. My recommendation is Python, one of the most sane and easy-to-learn programming languages. A good place to start is the free Python for Everybody course by University of Michigan professor Charles Severance, which explains basic coding concepts in the context of Python. 

Popular alternatives to Python for web programming are PhP and Ruby; and you can find a lot of debate online on which is the best to start with. Keep in mind, you really can’t go wrong. The basic principles you’ll learn when it comes to coding are the same. Beyond web programming, these languages can also be used as the basis to create anything from mobile apps to advanced AI interfaces. The sky’s the limit! 

Once you’ve learned one programming language, it’s much easier to learn another. As a writer, what’s important is understanding the basic coding logic, more than the language itself.

Time to get coding!

Ultimately, making the choice to learn to code will depend on your goals and future plans as a writer. Yet it’s undeniably an important skill that can help you in your career, from moving up in your current job to getting more freelance projects.