When copywriters code

I’m a hopeless romantic, if I have to say the least about myself. Robert M. Pirsig, in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, classifies people into two types: romantics and classics. I’m the romantic. In the bluntest of terms, romantics are creative thinkers and classics are logical thinkers. Of course both types would have interchangeable qualities, but on a macro level, romantics dream up while classics drill down.

Now that I’ve established a basic, arguable nonetheless, definition of the term, let me emphasise. I’m a romantic, and I’m hopeless at that.

Romantics don’t think like machines. We learn to look at nature, to observe what’s around us, and interpret them in the most beautiful way, or in the most natural way. Classics, on the other hand, learn to look at something and analyse why something appears some way. We appreciate how a flower’s stem balances its five petals whereas classics calculate the stem’s ability to bear the petals. It’s a slight difference when you put it that way, but a much more alarming one when you look at it in a real workplace scenario.

I am a copywriter surrounded by software engineers. I’m a romantic in the midst of classics. I write stories, and they write software. We co-exist to help customers do better business. Now that’s a nice picture. But the real problem arises in a conversation where the programmers talk about parse and encryption and my mind’s thinking about prose and enchanted trees.

It didn’t take long for me to realise I was out of place, and I had to learn to code to feel in place. I didn’t have to become a developer—I knew I never could—but I had to develop basic knowledge of how programmers use language. And so I began. I sat with a developer while they wrote a piece of program, and I observed in their eyes the frantic whizzing in their mind. They spoke to the screen in front of them, reasoning out the flow of script. The first line of code would run once before moving on to the second. Swapping the order of the lines would disrupt the entire program. Replacing a semicolon, adding an extra colon or an extra space would topple things in the most inconvenient way. (“Yay!” I yelled. “It’s the same with writing,” though the developers weren’t as excited.)

After a few days under development, I concluded that we romantics don’t learn to think the way computers do. Regardless of all technology innovations, computers don’t and won’t think like humans. As a non-developer I could see how I had to alter my way of thinking and approaching a problem to explain it to a computer. For a logical flow that I take for granted, the computer needs a line of script. When I think I’d fetch water, my mind knows I’d drink it. But if I told a computer to fetch water, it’d fetch it and keep it aside until I tell it—again—that it should drink half of it and save the rest.

We romantics don’t condition our minds to think one step at a time. That’s why it’s hard for us to learn programming at a later age. We think in blocks of actions, in phrases, in groups of words, and instructions. We read poetry that distributes one meaning in five lines. We process a poem as a whole to understand its meaning. We’re clustered thinkers because it’s ingrained in our minds. Classics, however, think in a sequence. That’s what a degree in computer science gives them. They take actions one step at a time. They’re more organised thinkers because that’s what’s ingrained in their minds.

My eureka moment: With enough practice, I could start thinking like a programmer, too. It felt like I had opened the door to a whole new world. I could speak to any computer, and tell it what to and when to do. The thought awed me, and terrified me at the same time.

Perhaps classics would feel the same way if they spent a few days reading Shakespeare.

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