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In the End, It’s All About the Code

I use Facebook and other social media sites to post to the web. Why should I learn to code?

While social media allows you to create and post a lot of content to the web without knowing how to code using hypertext markup language (HTML) or cascading style sheets (CSS), you may eventually want to have more control over the presentation of your content. Social media sites, such as blogs and wikis, are a great way to get your written content out to the world quickly; however, these platforms all use templates that limit the control you have over the appearance of your pages. The amount of tweaking that you can do to a template will vary from service to service (and sometimes you will have to upgrade to a paid “pro” account). But in almost all cases, if you want more control over how your pages look on the web, you have to learn about HTML and CSS.

If You Want to Work on the Web, You Will Need to Know Some Code

If you are a Writing, English, Marketing, or Communications major and you enjoy writing on the web, you might wonder what career opportunities are out there. One of the most promising career paths you might pursue is as a content strategist. (For more information on content strategy, see Kristina Halvorson’s article “The Discipline of Content Strategy” in A List Apart  as well as her company’s web site Brain Traffic.)

Content is at the heart of every good website, and content strategists specialize in managing that content for an organization:  writing, editing, organizing, managing media, and sustaining the website over time. Although they work on teams with graphic artists, HTML coders, interface designers, and programmers, they still need to understand how the HTML code that runs the web works to be effective. You do not necessarily need to be a whiz at coding web pages, but you should understand what the HTML mark up codes are and what they do.

OK, You Convinced Me. What Is This About Marking Up A Document?  

Understanding HTML and CSS can help you understand how many documents work including documents not on the web. HTML is a descendant of something called Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) that was developed in the mid-1960s at IBM as a way of processing large sets of documents on mainframe computers. HTML, a very simplified version of SGML, was developed in the late-1980s and is at the heart of all web pages. Extensible Markup Language (XML), another variation of SGML, was developed in the late nineties specifically to exchange information between different kinds of servers.

Since then XML has become a popular way of exchanging all sorts of information. Did you know that modern word processors use XML and style sheets to format your text and style it? The “x” in .docx for Microsoft Word 2007 and 2010 denotes that your word processing file is XML-based. Meanwhile HTML (now in version 5) continues to be the tagging language that drives the web.

Separating Content from Presentation

One of the hardest and most important concepts to learn for new HTML coders and new content strategists alike is that content should always be separated from presentation. While this principle can be very hard to grasp, it is critical to contemporary web design. When you are writing with a word processor, you can highlight text and click bold. You do not have to think about the relationship of the appearance of the text to the structure of the text. You just click and keep writing.

When you are creating content on the web, however, you use one set of rules (HTML) to define the structure of your content (e.g., a heading, a list, a link) and a second set of rules (CSS) to define how that content will appear (e.g, bold text, double line spacing, blue background). You will find this process of separating structure from appearance difficult when you begin, but the more your work with HTML and CSS, the easier it will become.

You will also find that as your websites get bigger, separating structure from appearance makes your websites much easier to manage. For example, if you decide that your body typeface is too large, you do not have to go through each and every page of your website, selecting text and changing the font size setting by hand over and over and over again; instead, you edit a single style rule and all of the text magically changes because the appearance of that text is all defined by that rule.

The principle of separating appearance from content is also used in the workplace by many writers when managing formatting in very large word processing documents, and it is used by designers and book publishers when producing print documents with desktop publishing software. In addition, EPUB, the open ebook standard used by many ereaders, works the same way, using HTML to markup the content and CSS to add the formatting. Learn a little bit of HTML and CSS, and you could create your own ebook.