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:
- Blogs and websites: Crocstar. Scroll. Content Design London. Co-op Digital. Gov Digital Service. Brain Traffic. Doing Presentations. Monzo. Some of those links are content consultancies, some are just good at internet writing.
- This talk: “Switch to Digital: Content Design Uncovered for people considering moving into content design”.
- Books: Sarah Richards’ Content Design book. Giles Turnbull’s Agile comms handbook. Start with those. Then: Russell Davies’ Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint. Outside the field of writing for digital, I like Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences - it’s about how to keep readers reading, one sentence at a time.
- 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.