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Why writers should learn HTML

Some HTML code on screen

Let’s take a little trip back in time to the early 1990s. A time when the internet started showing up on our computers in the form of the World Wide Web. If you were a writer then and saw the potential of the web, you definitely wanted to stake out your own corner of the web with a home page. There was a catch, though: to create that home page, you need to know some basic HTML (HyperText Markup Language, which formats web pages). And you had to create those pages by hand, but typing code in a text editor.

There are times when I miss those simpler days …

Flash forward to the present day. Countless writers are online with their own websites and blogs. Thanks to the magic of blogging platforms like WordPress and graphical web page builders, you can bet that most of those writers haven’t seen one line of HTML.

Regardless of whether you’re a journalist, a blogger, a content strategist, or a technical writer, I believe that HTML is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. Let me explain why.

Gaining a little more control

To be honest, WYSIWYG HTML editing tools — like the ones found in WordPress or popular technical communication tools like Madcap Flare — do a pretty good job of hiding HTML code from you. They’re like using a simple word processor.

Those tools are, however, limited in many ways. It’s difficult, for example, to create a nested list (where you have a shorter list under an item in a longer bulleted or numbered list). Sometimes the formatting of something you’ve written doesn’t come out quite right.

You can either put up with wonky formatting, or you can get your hands dirty and fix the problems yourself. The latter is often the better option. To do that, a knowledge of HTML is a must.

Knowing HTML can be good for your career

One of the reasons I got my first real technical writing job back in the 1990s was because I knew HTML. That knowledge was a boon in just about every technical writing gig I’ve had.

It’s not just technical writers whose careers can benefit from knowing HTML. If you look at job listings from content strategists, web content writers, and even freelance bloggers you’ll often see a knowledge of HTML as being a nice-to-have skill. Adding HTML to your list of skills can give you an advantage over the competition.

What about journalists? With the focus of journalism shifting more and more to the digital realm, a knowledge of basic HTML is a must.

Why not export HTML from a word processor?

Because it’s ugly. It’s complex. Very ugly and very complex.

Export a document as HTML from your favourite word processor. Then open the HTML file that your word processor spat out in a text editor. If you aren’t recoiling in horror, you’re not human. Or, at least, you have a higher tolerance for that than I do.

If you copy and paste, or just dump, that HTML into your writing or publishing tool, the result will also be ugly. Very ugly. Someone, probably you, will need to clean it up. It’s easier to code by hand than it is to clean up ugly HTML.

Remember that you don’t need to become an HTML expert

When I learned HTML in the 1990s, it took me several days. And I used a 400+ page tome called The HTML Sourcebook with which to do it. My head hurts remember that …

You don’t need to go into the depth that I did all those years ago. You don’t need the knowledge of a web developer or a web designer. You just need to learn the basics of HTML. You can do that in a few hours, or over the course of a day or three. What do you need to know? The basic structure of a web page or document, and how to create headings, paragraphs, and lists. You might also want to learn how to use tables and add images, audio, and video. That’s nothing complex. It just takes a bit of work to pick up.

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