I Suck At Maths But I’m Learning To Code

If you want to stand out as a writer, you should learn too

I have an English Literature degree from Oxford University, and I am an NCTJ-accredited journalist. I am a fundamentally word-oriented individual, and it’s fair to say that maths bamboozles me.

And yet, I am teaching myself to code using the excellent online tutorials provided by Codecademy. I’d be lying if I said I found it easy; I often get frustrated when my code doesn’t work in the way I expected it to, simply because of my inability to perform simple arithmetic. My brain just can’t get its head around numbers and trust me, it’s not for a lack of trying!

Despite not being naturally predisposed for ‘left-brain’ learning, I’m sticking with it because there’s a very important reason why I want to acquire this skill-set. It’s not because I want to be a Web Developer (although that would definitely come in handy in terms of maintaining the website I currently host on WordPress). It’s actually because I want to be a better writer.

It’s an open secret that journalism is a precarious industry these days. Local papers have closed across the globe, making the remaining jobs even more competitive to secure. I figure that to help myself when it comes to standing out for one of these roles, I can learn the languages (HTML, CSS, JavaScript etc.) that would help me transform a boring data set into a story that leaps off the page — one that readers can interact with.

There have been some great examples of this kind of journalism over the last few years, and the team at the Financial Times do a great job; their award-winning ‘Uber Game’ is a fantastic way of getting the audience to empathize with Uber drivers, as the game revolves around whether you would make it in the gig economy or not. The game accompanies an article, ‘Uber: The uncomfortable view from the driving seat’, featuring interviews with real drivers. It’s not an unnecessary use of manpower or resources, either; by creating interactive stories you ensure a user spends more time interacting with your content, boosting your analytics, which directly impacts your paper’s bottom line (especially if you have an ad-based revenue model).

I regularly read creative industry-related business news in my current marketing role, and there have been times when I’ve been bored to tears by reports. I’ve lost count of the number of infographics I’ve seen in the last year, and whilst some of them are very visually striking, there is so much untapped potential in these data-sets that are meticulously collected by trade bodies, companies, governments, and not-for-profits. This potential just needs transforming into something fun, something that will resonate with readers other than those who are naturally inclined to pick up The Financial Times or read government white papers ‘for bantz’.

I want to give myself the ability to do this, to create something which has a function beyond simply informing an audience: I want the news to be fun. I want people to actively seek out information, and spend as much time engaging with it as they do on other attention-monopolising apps like Candy Crush or Tinder! But the way things are at the minute, my work is only reaching a select demographic who already cares about the things I’m writing about. That’s great, and I’m grateful to those readers — but it’s not enough.

I want to learn the coding languages that will give me the scope to add this level of interactivity into my current work, and in doing so, reach a whole new audience. It might be out of my comfort zone, it might take me a little longer to master than shorthand did, but that’s OK. The time I’m spending learning to code is part of my efforts to future-proof myself against whatever changes the newsroom will see in the next fifty years…

What do you think — is coding a necessary skill for good writers to have?

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