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How can I learn basic HTML?

Answered March 3, 2013

More than once lately, I've been asked about great tools for teaching yourself how to create a website by learning HTML.

It's a great question, but unfortunately, there's no great answer. HTML -- or hyper-text markup language -- is the backbone of virtually everything you see on the Internet. It is, as the name says, a language all to itself. Now, on one hand, there are "teach yourself" books and adult-ed classes that might be enough to get you from zero to webmaster. But on the other, you'll need to know that most of the process of learning the language to build a website is about trial and error.

For an extremely basic start, I posted a page several years ago under my "How to" section at that's called "How to write basic HTML". It's nothing terribly deep or exhaustive; just something basic to get you started.

But your real "best friend" when it comes to learning HTML is a simple trick: Hitting Control-U. On most browsers, this will bring up a whole new screen showing the code that created the site you're currently viewing. Sometimes, what you'll see is a whole bunch of completely inscruitable material -- that's often what's produced by sites produced heavily around Javascript and other advanced tools. But many other times, on sites that are light on flashy features like videos and dynamic scripts, you'll be able to read through what you see after hitting Control-U, and it'll serve as a road map to what you see on the page.

In a lot of ways, it's like learning to write a story or an essay: It's best to learn by experimenting, mimicking the best of what you see elsewhere, and playing with what you have until it breaks.

That, of course, is really the essence of many things in the computer universe -- playing with them until they break, figuring out why, and then fixing and trying again. But knowing how to see what others have already written is the best trick of all.

Of course, you don't have to learn HTML in order to build your own website. Lots of different services will help you build a site without learning the code, and programs like Dreamweaver are there to make building websites almost completely programming-free. But there's something pretty rewarding about learning how to build a site from scratch, and when something goes wrong with one of the other methods (as it often will) understanding the code behind it all makes troubleshooting a vastly easier proposition.