Being a fluent, creative, imaginative writer is great, but it won’t automatically make you good at content design.
When I made a point along these lines on LinkedIn a few months ago some people seemed a little irritated.
How could I say something so stupid?
Was I being deliberately provocative?
I was not.
In fact, I was trying to put into words something that I’d only just come to realise myself, and was struggling to understand clearly.
Content designers do often have a background in writing. At SPARCK we have former journalists, copywriters and even a few people who write fiction on the side.
But one of my colleagues, Stephanie Weise, trained as a visual designer and often makes the point that they don’t necessarily think of themselves as being good at writing:
“I consider myself a designer who mainly focuses on the words in a user’s journey. The thing I design is mostly words, but there’s a lot from other design disciplines that feeds into the words I end up with.”
Emma Baker, who leads the content design practice at SPARCK, takes a measured view:
“Of course, you need to have a good level of writing ability to be a content designer, but you don't need to be a walking thesaurus or a stickler for grammar.”
I’d agree with that, but also add that to become a good content designer you might actually need to overcome certainly writerly instincts.
For example, the UK government’s design manual sets the standard for content design guidance. It states explicitly: “Don’t follow strict grammar conventions if it makes things clearer not to.”
In other words, to be effective as a content designer, you’ll need to unlearn rules or habits you picked up at school.
Me, me, me versus user needs
When we talk about great writers and great writing , we’re usually thinking of works of self-expression.
Wonderful writers such as, say, Patricia Highsmith, invite us to see the world through their eyes, and tell stories they need to get out of their systems.
Accordingly, there’s a lot of advice to writers that goes like this:
- “Write for yourself, not for your audience.”
- “Write the book you want to read.”
- “Write about what you know.”
It’s all, to put it bluntly, a bit me, me, me.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that when you’re writing books or articles.
But when you’re crafting content for a service, your focus needs to be entirely on the user.
That’s one reason you’ll often hear people say that good designers, and by extension good content designers, leave their egos at the door.
Another reason is that content design is collaborative. It thrives on feedback, content crits (critique sessions), and opportunities for pair writing or group writing.
What great writers are lacking
Let’s push this a little further: is it possible that being a Great Writer actually puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to content design?
You might, for example, think that having English as a home language would be helpful in content design. And, by extension, that those with English as an additional language might find it more challenging.
But a large part of content design is about creating accessible, inclusive content everyone can understand. Using plain language. Keeping it simple, clear and direct.
Those who have English as an additional language are arguably less likely to use confusing idioms, metaphors and similes.
And they’re likely to be attuned to what ‘plain’ really means, and to make fewer assumptions about what will and won’t be easily understood.
Then there are people with a visual design background, like Steph, who might be less prone to defaulting to words as the solution to every problem.
Content designers are always saying, “Ah, but ‘content’ is about more than writing…”
But how often do we actually explore other options such as graphics, video, or even white space?
It’s so easy for writers to slip into the thinking that the solution to a problem is more words – because that’s what comes easy to them. Those who must work harder to find the right words are less likely to waste them.
I suspect they're also naturally inclined to ask more fundamental questions such as: “Instead of trying to fix this, can we delete it altogether?”
On projects, the digital product designers, service designers and user researchers I’ve worked with have all challenged me to write more clearly.
And sometimes their suggestions for how to word things are sharper than mine.
The most important skill isn't writing, it's listening
Content designers shouldn’t be pulling words from thin air, even if, as writers, they’re capable of doing so.
The vocabulary for any given project should come from listening to and studying service users. It’s about understanding the language they use.
That might include looking at search analytics and keyword data; desk research; or studying outputs from user research in the discovery phase.
Sometimes, the terms users prefer might strike a writer as clumsy or incorrect.
But a good content designer will shrug and say, fine, if that’s the language that makes sense, those are the words we’ll use.
Then, when content goes into a prototype and gets tested by users during the research phase, they’ll also be ready to hear feedback such as:
- “I don’t understand what that means.”
- “I wouldn’t call it that, I’d say…”
- “This is too long, I wouldn’t read all of that.”
As Emma Baker puts it:
“You can't be too precious about your content. You need to be open to rewrites following user research, content crits, changing landscapes and stakeholder sign off sessions.”
Processes, checks and controls
If you’re not a great writer, what you do need to be a good content designer is to know your own weaknesses, and to follow a process.
For example, my first drafts often have the wrong form of there, their or they’re. I know the rule but, sometimes, my fingers don’t.
So I have a mental checklist of mistake I know I often make and double check for those things when I’m redrafting or editing.
When I’m sifting CVs for content design roles at SPARCK, I mark down those with typos, inconsistencies, and particularly clumsy grammar.
That’s because candidates could have:
- Used a checklist, like I do, to pick up mistakes they often make.
- Reviewed their writing using automatic checkers.
- Got someone else to edit or proofread it.
Good tools and processes beat ‘natural talent’ (whatever that is) every time.
You can do content design
I’d love it if this post made a few people think, “Maybe I could do content design?”
If you can listen, analyse data, and focus on the needs of users, you probably can .