How to become a digital writer or content designer
13 Oct 2021
A friend messages, asking for some advice on how you become a writer/content designer in tech. This is a good question.
I think writing for digital sits in three overlapping categories. There’s writing that happens inside a product or service, like the words in an interface. This is often called content design, which has become a proper discipline in the last 10 years.
Second, there’s the writing that happens around a product, service or organisation. It is usually called communications or even marketing. Although some people bundle this and content design into a catchall term like customer experience design, or CX.
And third, there’s all the other writing. The writing that explains, explores, persuades, describes, provokes, guides, helps, documents, notifies, updates, communicates, blogs, emails, newsletters, etc.
So, some things you can do to become a digital writer or content designer:
- Training courses: do one of Sarah’s Content Design London courses. Others in the UK do training too:
- Crocstar’s training - Christine led a lot of content design training at GDS.
- Scroll’s training. I don’t know if any of these courses existed when I was starting, but I’ve heard that they’re all very good.
- Doing a journalism course would help you understand stories, what’s interesting, framing and angles. Digital teams often talk about putting user first. Readers first is the same idea, and journalism teaches that.
- Write something that explains something that you’re an expert in to the interested non-expert reader.
- Pick an area of digital/tech that interests you and write some stuff that demonstrates that you have some understanding of that world.
- Pick a thing that is online and show how you’d improve it.
- Tools: for content design, get some time inside Figma or Webflow so 1) you don’t feel scared about making something that looks like a website, and 2) can signal that you’re digital-friendly on a CV. For all kinds of writing (and working with digital teams generally), make sure you’re comfortable in Google Docs, Slack and Miro.
- Put the stuff you write on the internet somewhere and point at it. If you don’t fancy publishing in public, then have something ready to share in a meeting, though I think putting it out there in public is better. (Honestly, I think every bit of paid writing work I’ve done can be traced back to writing in public.)
- Find the people talking about content writing on Twitter and, you know, hang out.
- Start telling people that you’re a writer for digital, or a content designer, or a tech writer. Pick the label you feel comfortable saying. Because someone will reply “Well, I have some stuff that needs writing…”
- Maybe buy a domain name that is your name or close to it, and point it at a read-only Google doc which contains your CV. It shows that you’re “of the internet”. I did this in 5 minutes just now, but I know you’ll do it better.
- These days there are full time jobs doing writing for digital - look for “content designer” or “digital comms”. Eg here: Working in Content (and this advice on starting and progressing your career from the same site looks good).
- In the UK, the content consultancies Crocstar, Scroll and Content Design London (links above) may have work.
- Any chance to embed yourself in a digital service team is great for getting a basic understanding on how everything fits together and should work.
A lot of writing for digital happens in teams. So did this post: thanks to Ella Fitzsimmons, Rachel Machin, Molly Whitehead-Jones and Amy McNichol who provided the good ideas.
Public Digital’s website
Public Digital’s new website, Oct 2020
I wrote the words for the new Public Digital website. Public Digital (PD) works with governments and companies that want to become a lot more digital.
Digital. Teams. Work.
“Digital. Teams. Work.” is the crispest headline I could write that would tell the Public Digital story in a PD kind of way - straightforward, to the point. It also needed to be a “promise” - you need to understand what distinctive thing you’d get if you hired PD to help you with your transformation project. Here it is on the home page and here it’s used as a narrative device in Claire Bedoui’s yearnote for PD:
Rooted in our belief that decision-makers should fund teams, not projects, we also articulated our theory of change:
Digital. Teams. Work.
A lot of people in the digital and digital gov industries already know the people at PD or their history building GDS and GOV.UK, and they’ll just pick up the phone. But there are people who don’t know PD well. They’re often potential customers, and are the website’s key audience.
The website is a way to tell them the story, and clearly explain why PD is different to most consultancies. The difference is not a matter of brand but it’s something that actually matters - teams, delivery, remaking organisations for the internet era.
We wanted one headline that could explain the “promise” of PD as sharply and briefly as possible. Imagine a graph with two axes, descriptive-evocative and activity-outcome. A headline like “Public Digital delivers transformation with digital teams” is pretty does-what-it-says-on-the-tin and would sit in the descriptive/activity quarter, and “Public Digital helps you adapt to a changing future” is closer to the value/evocative quarter.
But there’s a problem with headlines like that. They’d be accurate but not distinctive - you could imagine a different consultancy saying the same thing. We got to “Digital. Teams. Work.” by pushing to make it more distinctive.
And because the headline is a bit evocative, the next couple of sentences unpack the promise in plainer language.
Public Digital’s new website, Oct 2020
Elsewhere the work was often about making sure the words are clear and simple (you might say that clarity is part of PD’s distinctive offer). Some organisations might talk about their “Services”, or find some jargon that makes them sound expert. PD just says “What we do”, because their work speaks for itself.
The content designer/writer’s tools are listening, typing, testing and iterating. Do the words, and see if they’re right. Rewrite the sentences. Sometimes writing the words reveals that you need to refine your shared understanding of who you’re speaking to, or how you want to talk about what you do. The understanding develops, the story is adjusted, the words are rewritten. You hit publish. Even then you might rewrite again: you think of better ways to tell the story. Websites are living things.
Of course the words weren’t solely written by me: a team of designers, developers, subject matter experts and project wranglers inside and outside of PD also did the work, and thank you to Mike Bracken and them all. Good team, good project.
How to find your books
rodcorp: Books by colour, blurred
30 Oct 2020
Matt Webb wrote about using an app called Memos to make his bookshelves searchable: find where that book is by searching your photos. Brilliant, though I guess it needs your bookshelves and the photos to stay fairly in sync.
My own book filing scheme used to be by colour, which worked very well when I had plenty of time to look at books, and remember what colour they were. But for a few years recently I’ve filed books by “random stow”, which I do not recommend because it’s not very useful.
Amazon should make a smart camerathing that looks at your shelves, tells you what is where, but also notes that you haven’t moved these books at all in 24 months and they’re worth X on the second hand market click here to make it happen.
2024: Amazon Prime Home team lead Karyn steps around a Freshco grocery delivery drone twitching on the path. It has been jammed by your home’s router for a breach of delivery licence, and will be released shortly. Your Amazon door authenticates Karyn, and she walks into your home. She sets the Dash scanner going in the living area. While it’s looking at your belongings, she disconnects your TV and pops back out to the truck to get a newer one. She reconnects your PrimeFire box to the new screen but puts the Google Chromecast TV dongle to one side, placing a helpful advice sticker on it. The Dash scanner meeps and identifies with a laser light a dozen items in the room that are on your Unwish list. She places these in a cardboard box, and once they’re sold in Amazon’s Seim Anew market your Prime account will be updated with a credit.
Data is a material for building with
I believe that architects and engineers must think of data as a material. Start with visibility: disclose data collection in a way that makes it clear and understandable. The built environment could show the “seams” of its data. Just as some buildings have information displays that indicate energy performance, a building might show how it collects and uses data.
I helped Sarah Gold at Projects by IF write a piece for Icon Magazine about data being a material for building with (the piece doesn’t seem to be online though :( ). The work of Ben Cerveny and Timo Arnall was really useful in thinking about how data relates to the built environment.
Why Co-op Digital writes a newsletter
I wrote a bit about the Co-op Digital newsletter for the Co-op blog, how it started and how it’s put together etc. The clever Amy McNichol did the difficult “making it make sense” bit.
There are still “Amazon is coming!” stories, and there are frequent “this seems like a problem for big tech companies” stories. Occasionally we add small bits of fiction if we think they might be a good way to explore an idea.
However the jokes are still terrible. “Do you want frAIes with that?” needs not an explanation (machine learning at McDonald’s) but apologies forever, sorry.
You are right, the jokes are not good. But the fiction bits seem to resonate with readers. Current stats: 51% open rate, 15% click rate.
Previously: 100 Co-op Digital newsletters.
Four years ago I started Holdfast Projects at a time of change. A health thing had happened. I left a company I’d given a decade to. We moved up to Scotland to see more of the wider family. I wanted to work in different industries to security (personal finance? digital but less secretive?) and a different kind of work (writing). I knew that I didn’t want to spend half the week down in London, or every day commuting to Edinburgh. So I did some consulting gigs doing product management and design for tech companies, but gradually I tried to nudge the work towards writing what I (semi) jokingly call “expensive words”.
This is both a quadrennial year note for a company and a triennial-ish year note for a new career, and the latter is probably more interesting. Some things I learned, in no particular order:
- It was hard to walk away from a company I’d co-founded, and I didn’t realise how much I’d need to decompress. But afterwards I wondered why I hadn’t left years earlier. (There were multiple cognitive biases hard at work in both those sentences and the situations they’re describing.)
- I’ve done 17 projects for 11 customers, though it feels like more. The shortest project was a day, the longest a couple of years. I’ve typed up to 2,000 words a week, and some of them were good. I have read a lot of the internet, and some of it was good. Half of the projects were me working alone, half with a team or with sub-contractors. Fastest-paying customer: under a day after invoice (take a bow, Thayer Prime). Slowest-paying: about 80-90 days.
- Most of the work has come from people who already knew me or had already seen my work somewhere. When your sales prospects don’t know you or your work, the sales cycle is often tentative and very slow, more like long-term relationship building. So it is interesting to look at where you already have long-term relationships.
- This suggests that it helps to put good things out there, to be helpful to people (without expecting anything in particular back in the short term), and to stay in touch with people. Being Helpful and Pleasant can be a marketing strategy!
- Most deals take longer to put together than you expect, so you have to plan for that, which typically means gradually shoving many things forward in parallel. It is hard juggling a sales pipeline to get the right balance between too much and too little. I had to have plenty of conversations because half of the sales leads came to nothing: the conversation fizzled out, or I was too expensive for them, or the timing wasn’t right, or some other reason.
- You get the work that you do, so if you’re a database engineer who wants to become a plumber, you can’t wait until someone offers plumbing work to you. You have to find a way to do some plumbing, or at least to get closer to that world (foot in the door by doing databasing for plumbers?) My transition from product management to writing was: put some writing out into the world (an example, asserting that “I’m a
plumber writer now”, then writing a few reports and web pages etc for people (and continuing to assert it), and then gradually getting writing work that was more interesting and more frequent.
- A distinctive story. You need to be able to tell the story - the “promise” - as something very brief and distinctive. You want to say to people “I do X” in a way that they get and remember (and then go on to repeat to other people). You want them to understand why you. Funnily enough, since this is part of the writing-for-digital discipline, I’ve found this quite hard. It can help to think about what’s the twitter-length version of what you do and why someone should care. “Newsletters that explain what’s happening on the internet to big companies” hopefully tells the story and hints at the value you’ll create. “Words that work for digital organisations” is still a bit woolly, I’m working on it. But “I type computer words” would have been unhelpful and dull.
- Writing for organisations is fun. The job to be done is your guide, as is the organisation itself - its values, how it thinks of itself. The Co-op Digital newsletter’s job is to nudge a primarily internal audience to keep thinking about how the internet is arriving on the shores of retail and services businesses. Its tone is slightly sarcastic, slightly poking-the-organisation. ustwo’s newsletter is lighter, more positive and it tells a primarily external audience “look at this cool stuff that is happening!” One newsletter project got taken in house after I and a partner did a zeroth edition, which is fine. Determining success is sometimes hard: we haven’t tracked the readership and open/click rates particularly closely (the Co-op newsletter has a ~50% open rate and 15% click rate and ustwo has ~75% open, 15% click, which seem to be ok). So you might say the writing has had more in common with marketing/comms, evangelism, opinioning, even analysis. The side project - a “how to do money” thing with Anna Goss - has been great but it suffers from lack of time. She has written it up well.
- Working with other people is good, whether they’re customers, partners delivering a thing with me, or people I’ve brought a project to and sub-contracted. Conversely, working alone is also good. They are different types of good, and maybe you need both.
- The product management gigs were short term. I found it hard to have much impact unless the client organisation (often my customer’s client) was very receptive. In one case, I was part of a team that made a pretty good thing but the client never used it, which was a shame :( I suspect that product management’s natural commitment should be 2-5 years, not 2-5 weeks or months.
- As Phil Gyford says in his evergreen guide to freelancing, you have to be your own everything: account manager, sales dept, HR manager, task master etc. Working remote can add complications - continuous partial attention, finding ways to focus on the work, not knowing what’s happening at The Customer - but being fairly present on eg Slack can help (you wonder if working remote favours people who are happy to be ambiently and interruptibly present and can type quickly).
So there’s a bit of momentum now. I can see a couple of decision points on the horizon:
- keep it at its current level vs grow it by working with more people
- focus in on a particular content type vs stay broader
Of course none of it is possible without support from my family, who are the utter best. And thanks to customers, colleagues and co-conspirators - you are many, a delight to work with. You’re all appreciated, I am lucky. Anyway, year 5 let’s go.