3 Things that Copywriters & UX Writers Do Besides Writing

A new acquaintance asked me recently if I’m one of those writers who is a perpetual insomniac, scribbles poems at the back of receipts, and lives on copious amounts of alcohol so I can write drunk, edit sober. Plus, do I deliberately seek heartbreaks and drama in real life so I can have the best material ever for the next Dear John?

I’ve probably done one of those things in the past. But for now, I told her that I use words not as an excuse to guzzle on alcohol, but for nobler (hopefully) and practical (there are bills to pay of course!) reasons.

As a copywriter, I persuade people to take action. This could mean signing up for an email list or clicking the Order Now button.

On the other hand, I help people complete a specific task with ease (minus the “wtf is this app about?!” moments) within an app or website as a UX writer.

What do they have in common?

Endless curiosity about human behavior.

Apart from figuring out the right words to say (or write), here are three things copywriters & UX writers like me do on a regular basis as a student of human behavior:

1. I research (or stalk people) until I get to the bottom of things.

There are days when I don’t write a single word but I’m still doing my job. Instead of writing, I wear my Sherlock Holmes’ hat (with or without Dr. Watson!) and get as many insights as I can about the people I’m writing for. This will also help me put myself in the place of the people I’m writing for and anticipate their concerns.

Let’s say that I’m writing for an audience of small business owners. For research, I will probably visit the Reddit sub for small businesses and try to understand the pain points and common concerns of redditors in the sub.

Besides knowing what my copy or content should be talking about, it’s also a great way to understand the “language” as well as context and nuances of the problems that they’re trying to solve. By doing so, I can create copy that will be more relatable and resonating with them.

2. I find ways (might include “sleeping on it”) to keep my words simple, concise, and useful.

When I started writing essays in elementary, I’ve always thought that the more “big words” I have in my composition, the more I will impress my teachers and classmates.

Decades later, I eventually learned that these big words have no room in copywriting and UX writing.

While there might be exceptions to the rule, using plain and concise language is 10 times better than using empty, big words and phrases that will only confuse the heck out of your readers or users.

Instead of writing “in the event that”, how about writing “if” or “when”?

Instead of using “nominate your password online”, how about writing “create your password online”? Who am I nominating?

 

 

The more concise your copy or instructions, the more you can get your reader’s attention or help them complete their task as soon as possible.

As a copywriter and UX writer, this means going over my draft several times. One of my favorite things to do when reviewing my drafts is to “sleep on it” and read it again the next day. Sometimes, you have to test your copy with the product/ marketing team, and reiterate as indicated in your test findings.

3. I create scenarios in my head and transform them into compelling stories.

Being clear and concise doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to write dry, boring interface instructions or create lackluster email copy. After all, the best way to get your message across is by using anecdotes and telling stories. It’s no secret that the best way to a human’s brain, heart, and gut is through stories than plain facts and figures.

When writing for marketing and UX teams, I make it a point to find a balance between clear, concise writing and writing with style and tone that is unique to the brand. This is what style guides are for. I love working with brands who have style guides already in place, or clients who are interested in working with me to create their own. Shopify’s product content style guide is one of my favorites.

How do I exercise my storytelling skills?

Reading and exploring various genres tend to work for me. When I’m reading a book that is completely unrelated to a project that I’m working on, I still consider it as part of my writing job.

In hindsight, it exposes me to different forms of storytelling and helps me look at a project or writing task from a different angle. Listening to other people tell their stories is also good practice.

Binging on Alcohol Can Be Helpful Too

For me, the best part about writing for the web or other digital interfaces is how I almost always learn new, interesting insights about humans and the world every day. Not to mention that stories have the power to connect people from various backgrounds. For a brief moment, someone from Asia will recognize the same feeling, sentiment, or idea in a story or essay from someone living in the Antarctic.

There’s also the occasional alcohol binging part so I can “write drunk, edit sober” and fit myself into one of those writer stereotypes. Heh.

Just a Quick List of My Favorite Podcasts in 2017

While listening to Headspace Radio’s newest podcast episode on relationships this morning,  I had a couple of aha moments with my own relationships (not just the romantic kind but with friends and family too). Consequently, I also realized that I had the same aha moments while listening to a number of podcasts the entire year.

Listening to podcasts has made a significant difference in how I work, interact with people, and do certain things. Tuning in to other people’s conversations and thoughts is like having a mentor, friend, and a therapist at once.

Like books, podcasts can also influence the way you think, feel, and react. If you’ve been looking for good podcasts to listen to while stuck in traffic, washing the dishes, or exercising, here’s a quick list of podcasts that I regularly listened to for the past year.

It’s probably too hyperbolic if I say that they’ve helped me grow as a person this year but think of podcasts as food for thought. You’re not going to notice its visible impact on your health and well-being right away but it helps in the long run. I hope that you’ll find something of value from these podcasts too.

Sunday Dispatches with Paul Jarvis
Each episode is super short and Paul simply talks about his thoughts on creativity, freelancing, and building valuable client relationships.
Favorite episode: Do What You Say You’re Going to Do

The Tim Ferris Show
I admit that I’m not a huge Tim Ferriss fan when his books were just gaining traction but I noticed recently that Tim has improved greatly in how he does interviews.  He knows how (and when) to ask the right questions.
Favorite episode: Managing Procrastination Predicting the Future with illustrator Tim Urban
Runner-up favorite: Intimacy, Emotional Baggage, Relationship Longevity with psychotherapist Esther Perel

Pardon My French with Garance Dore
I’ve been a fan of Garance’s style and illustrations when she was just starting out as a style and fashion blogger (even before her breakup with Mr. The Sartorialist!). When she announced that she was doing a podcast this year, I knew I had to subscribe to it right away!
Favorite episode: Mating in Captivity with Esther Perel (Isn’t it obvious now that I’m turning into an Esther Perel minion?)

Hot Copy Podcast
Binge-listen to this podcast if you want to learn about copywriting for the web. It’s also a bit weird that I like listening to this specific podcast while exercising.
Favorite episode: Why your sign off process is SO important

The Copywriter Club Podcast
This podcast for copywriters is like the American version of Hot Copy Podcast (which is hosted by two Australian copywriters). You don’t have to choose between the two because their podcasting styles are different and both offer a lot of value.
Favorite episode: Interview with conversion copywriter Joanna Wiebe

99 Percent Invisible
Subscribe to this podcast if you’re curious about design and culture. Plus, Roman Mars’ voice is oh-so-sexy!
Favorite episode: The Trend Forecast

The Futur
Chris Do is a visual designer and helps creatives build their own businesses by providing valuable insights, tips, and hacks. I may not be a visual designer but I’ve learned a lot from this podcast, particularly when it comes to building client relationships.
Favorite episode: Feeling Overwhelmed-Information Overload ( I originally watched this interview on YouTube)

Design Matters with Debbie Millman
If I can choose one mentor from today’s thought leaders and influencers, I’d probably choose Debbie Millman. There’s just something about the way she makes people feel at ease during interviews.
Favorite episode: Interview with Brene Brown on belongingness, courage, and vulnerability.

How I Built This with Guy Raz
As written in their NPR link, this podcast is about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.
Favorite Episode: Interview with Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard

This is Product Management by Mike Fishbein
I’m not a product manager but most of the podcast episodes are focused towards topics that I usually gravitate to like user research and technology.
Favorite Episode: Behavioral Psychology is Product Management

True North Podcast
This podcast uncovers stories that intersect between design and innovation.
Favorite Episode: Behind Facebook’s Logo

Personality Hacker Podcast
This is a decent podcast (the only one I can find) about personality types. I like how they tackle personality types based on Jung’s cognitive functions rather than the usual four letters on the MBTI.
Favorite Episode: Your Personality 3-Year-Old Inferior Cognitive Function

Hurry Slowly
I just discovered this podcast on what it means to pace yourself while living in this tech-driven era and I’m hooked!
Favorite Episode: Craig Mod I Want My Attention Back

Freakonomics Radio
This is a good podcast for anyone who wants to know “the hidden side of everything”.
Favorite Episode: The 3-part series on Bad Medicine

You Are Not So Smart
If you like to challenge your own assumptions on almost everything out there, this podcast is for you.
Favorite Episode: Sleep Deprivation and Bias

Other favorites that I’ve been listening to for the longest time (and not just in 2017):

Do you have any recommendations? Share in the comments below or if you want to carry on with your air of mystery, send smoke signals instead. 🙂

Where to Find Work as a Freelancer Besides Upwork: Online Edition

 

It has come to my attention that friends and frenemies are curious about the following:

1. When am I getting married?
2. When am I having kids?
3. Where do I find work besides Upwork as a freelancer?

So here’s a response to the third most frequently asked question by friends, colleagues, and family who are also thinking about transitioning to full-time freelancing.

I totally get it when people repeatedly ask this question. While Upwork is the go-to source for most freelancers,  it’s no secret that majority of the work pays unreasonably low, unless you stumble upon that unicorn client who truly appreciates what you do. High platform service fees are also discouraging.

Over the course of two years that I’ve been freelancing, I have never (thankfully!) ran out of work despite my absence on third-party sites like Upwork.  Maybe it’s pure luck. Maybe it’s my slight obsession with getting things done. Maybe I’m just at the right place (virtually) at the right time.

So where do I find clients besides Upwork? Let’s jump right to what has worked for me!

May you find some useful ideas in this list. If it works for you, you owe me a month’s supply of avocados. A kilo a week will do. 

1. Participate in forums associated with your niche.

Don’t just sign up for an account and lurk. Participate in discussion threads. Ask questions. Provide insightful answers. Show up consistently.

Before you know it, a potential client will find out more about your work (stalk your online profiles) and reach out to ask if you’re available to work with them on a project. You just got yourself a lead!

It boils down to finding your target clients’ online watering hole, hanging out there yourself,  and showcasing your skills without being a hard sell.

2. Publish an essay or blog post about your work.

So what are you going to write about?

Talk about your work—  from what you specifically do to work issues that you’ve successfully dealt with in your field of expertise. You can also write about your current fields of interests. Writing about these things is another excellent example of subtly selling yourself to potential recruiters and employers.

This hack is not just for copywriters like me. You can be a developer, designer, or an SEO pro.

Speaking of selling yourself, I noticed that some freelancers are hesitant to market their work. So you hate marketing? As Alexandra Franzen writes, you have to understand that everything is actually marketing.

Sure, people will eventually notice your good work. But how long do you have to wait before someone stumbles upon your portfolio?

Be proactive and get out of the waiting game.  Put something of value out there and market yourself.  

3. Turn to social media.

LinkedIn and Twitter are two platforms that I’ve had success in finding clients as a freelance copywriter.


I posted something of potential value to audiences on both platforms, a few people noticed, and cared enough to ask if I can work with them. Value is the operative word here. Are you noticing a pattern?

Not convinced? Last year, I  tweeted about a book that I’m currently reading, and the author himself reached out via email to ask if I can help him write a short video script. Nifty, right?

It turns out that I caught his attention with my tweet. He checked out my profile and made his way to my website/portfolio. I did not intend to find work when I tweeted about his book though.

4. Fire off cold emails.

Have you been wanting to work for/with a certain brand or organization?

Hop on to their website, learn more about what they do, and fire off a cold email describing how you can help them accomplish their business goals. You can either use their contact form or find the right person to get in touch with on LinkedIn.

There’s a classy way to do cold emails right (and that would probably call for another blog post), but like everything else in marketing, do not talk about features (so you graduated with the highest honors?). Instead, highlight the benefits of working with you. What’s in it for the organization when they hire you?

5. Announce to your network that you’re currently open for business.

This may sound like a no-brainer but some freelancers tend to overlook their personal network when looking for work.

Email or text every single person you know who can potentially refer you to a client. Write a short status on Facebook declaring that you are now freelancing full-time. 

If all of these steps in finding wonderful clients (besides selling your wares in third-party sites) worked for me, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t for you!

Why a Copywriter Like Me is Showing Up in UX Meetups

Besides frequently asked about my decision in trading my 9-5 desk job for self-employment as a copywriter, friends often find it strange that I talk a lot about UX when I’m not a designer, product manager, or even a web developer. I repeatedly get asked the following: 

  • You’re a copywriter, why the sudden interest in UX?
  • UX is all about design, right? What do words have to do with visuals?
  • Why are you showing up in UX meetups? Everyone’s either a developer or designer. You’re probably the only copywriter in the room. Are you even in the right meetup?

I got an anonymous tip that a kitten dies of starvation every time I fail to give out a decent response to these questions. So I came up with this part-FAQ page, part-love letter to friends and family who are curious about my sudden tweetfest about UX. The kittens are definitely worth saving!

Why the Sudden Interest in UX?

Dear friends and family,

It started when one of these marketing agencies I’m freelancing for asked me to ghostwrite a blog post* on what sets great design apart from good design.

While going through design websites to gather references on the subject, I was running out of meaty points and examples to write about. Put simply, I was at a loss about good versus great design.

It was tempting to dial 911 and request for someone who’s in charge with writer’s block. But I got myself together, thought about Stephen Pressfield’s take on writer’s block in his book The War of Art (this is just Resistance disguised as writer’s block!), and decided to put on my professional writer hat.

So I turned to a designer friend via email, and asked (or maybe pestered him a bit) for examples of products or services that perfectly illustrate what it means to have good versus great design.

His reply was:

Great design is humanistic and solves problems. Check out IDEO and their YouTube channel.

So I made my way to the IDEO website and stumbled upon the concept of design thinking for the first time.

As I went through their content on design thinking, my initial thoughts were:

  • So people actually do this? And it’s a job? I’ve found my calling!
  • This is psychology, product design, and business development rolled into one. Cool stuff!
  • How do I become one of these folks?

By the time I submitted my ghostwritten post, I already had a bird’s eye view of the design thinking process. My curiosity further led me to the UX design rabbit hole.

Design Thinking is Figuring Out the Right Problems to Solve

My designer friend was right. Good design is product-centric and aims to impress. Great design, on the other hand, is user-centered and helps solve problems.

Design thinking is the process of spotting the right problems to solve. The problem itself doesn’t have to be associated with design in a visual sense.

For instance, you can apply the design thinking methodology to solve problems that’s been bugging you or mankind— from rekindling a lackluster relationship to coming up with better healthcare information system in an hospital.

If you like the idea of coming up with a Friday date night prototype that meets your needs (and your partner’s of course), you are going to like design thinking. 

In fact, design thinking is the same process that shoe designer Tinker Hatfield employed to create the famous Air Jordan shoes. In a Mental Floss feature  about Air Jordan’s conception, Foster Kamer narrates:

Hatfield stood up and started asking Jordan questions. He asked him to recall what he’d said earlier about the shoe’s height, its weight, about his Italian shoes and leather patterns. Hatfield started showing the sketches to Jordan, who was beginning to warm up: For the first time, someone had actually paid attention to what he wanted and needed. Jordan asked to see the sample.

In hindsight, design thinking begins by paying attention to problems.

What Does UX Have to Do With Design Thinking?

Let’s backtrack a bit and understand what UX means.

Smashing Magazine defines it as:

User experience (abbreviated as UX) is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).

Those who work on UX (called UX designers) study and evaluate how users feel about a system, looking at such things as ease of use, perception of the value of the system, utility, efficiency in performing tasks and so forth.

So how do you study and evaluate users like shoe designer Hatfield did?

You go out, talk to your users via research, empathize, define the problem, ideate a solution, prototype, test, and implement. Rinse and repeat.

This is what design thinking is about.

Am I starting to make sense now? Are the kittens going to be safe?

So What Do Words Have to Do With UX Design?

If UX design is about delivering better products and experiences via design thinking, what do words have to do with it?

Why am I showing up in UX meetups when I’m neither a UI designer or software/web developer? I’m supposed to rub elbows with digital marketers and not with the product development folks, right?

The more I learn about the design thinking process and the importance of user research, the more I got hooked on figuring out how I can incorporate the methodology, user research to be specific, into my copywriting toolkit.

I intuitively knew that words matter too in solving problems and designing better user experiences.  And as a copywriter,  I have this knack of creating multiple what-if scenarios in my head. It turns out that this constant what-ifing (and sometimes destructive overthinking) can be put into good use in UX design. Hurray!

As UX Designer Susan Stuart explains in Why UX Design is a Lot Like Writing:

To sum up, when looking for someone to lead the design of your complex application, look for enough visual sensibility to lay the foundation in a “blueprint,” but consider giving weight to experience with writing (and psychology), where the designer has a strong imagination for characters, actions, scenarios and general “what if-ing.”

From what I’ve been learning, it looks like content strategy and information architecture are the subsets in UX that closely resemble what I do as a copywriter and content marketer. Figuring out the right words to say is the common denominator of both fields. They both deal with language, information, and content.

Can You Call It UX Writing?

These days, what is often referred to as UX writing is writing interface copy, mainly in the realm of product development, with user research thrown in the mix.  This is what John Saito of Dropbox described in 2016 when he wrote about what he does for a living:

As UX writers at Dropbox, our goal is to make sure every word we write makes sense. One wrong word can break a user’s experience. A vague button label or unfamiliar term can easily frustrate users.

 In 2014,  Jessica Collier also wrote about this new-ish field that’s shaping up to be a mix of writing and design—Narrative UX.

Jessica writes:

Design, in other words, is narrative. Yet the actual writing that a person sees when using an app is rarely the result of careful consideration. For all the lip service paid to storytelling in the tech industry, we pay little or no attention to the language that goes into product design. So what happens when we finally realize that reinventing ourselves as storytellers necessitates bringing writers into the design process?

And last month, UX Booth wrote about UX writing and referred to it as the “new job in town”. 

As UX Booth’s Kristina Bjoran writes:

It may seem like a bit of a fad but writing-focused user experience designers will be a critical part of the way we design for experiences from here on out.

Whether it’s a fad or not, I’m thrilled to learn that folks who do words (and not just code and pixels) are gaining more recognition in their role in designing better UX.

Whatever label or name it gets — narrative UX, UX writing, content design etc — they all have the same goal:  find the right words (and speak the same language) to help users solve a problem, while taking product and business goals into account at the same time. User research helps accomplish this purpose.

As I once tweeted, I would like to think that UX writing is the lovechild of user research and copywriting.

Saving kittens by answering one question at a time,
Kai

*It turned out that the ghostwritten post I did on Great vs Good Design got the highest number of organic traffic for the specific quarter that it got published. 🙂

 

It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense

I got into telesales as my first official gig right after I secured my local nursing license.  Admittedly, I wasn’t particularly fond of that job.

At the time, I felt that most of my days were depressingly mundane. I woke up at midnight for my 2 am shift, called it a day by noon, and nothing resembling a productive day materialized. Sure, I still read (and learned) a lot — mainly fiction that time, but something still felt off.

It felt like I wasn’t really living but merely existing.

Excuse the dramatics, but I can vividly recall writing the same sentence years ago when I was anonymously blogging about that job.

I wasn’t interested about working shifts at the hospital either. I wanted to, but the head and the gut just wasn’t in it. The meager pay wasn’t also encouraging.

While my college friends were saving lives at the hospital, reviewing for the NCLEX, or going back to school to pursue higher education, I was convincing strangers who were oceans away to sign up for a $24.99 Internet phone plan. The pay was good (I can finally buy all the books I want to read!) and it helped took care of the bills at home. 

If there was one thing that I miss about that era in my life, it was my habit of writing every day.

Of course, I’m still writing consistently these days for work,  but it was a different kind of writing — it was cathartic as my fingers moved across the keyboard, and sentences started making sense in front of me.

In between my opening spiels at work —Hello, Mr. John Smith? This is Kai from.. — I binge-blogged and hit Publish without thinking about shares, likes, and SEO.

My voracious blogging habits helped me gain confidence to take on paid writing projects — both online and offline.

My first paid offline writing project was an academic paper on guerrilla marketing. Although I didn’t have solid background on the subject, I said yes. And I’m glad I did!

While doing research for that paper,  I was instantly hooked to Jay Conrad Levinson’s concepts. Plus, reading about Levinson’s unconventional tactics somehow stirred the rebellious gene in me.

After building a decent portfolio from several academic papers I’ve ghostwritten and how-to articles (remember when the Internet was filled to the brim with how-to content?) for a friend who needed help with her piling oDesk work, I landed my first full-time copywriting role at a publishing company.

Although I didn’t study marketing, advertising, or even journalism in college, I realized that what I thought of as a soul-sucking job in sales really helped fine-tune my copywriting and web content writing skills.

When I was just starting out in sales,  we were trained to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and always ask WIIFM —what’s in it for me?

This WIIFM philosophy taught me to put the spotlight on benefits whenever I write copy or content instead of diving headfirst into features,  a common rookie mistake that I’ve done myself.

If I asked myself with WIIFM while I was in sales, I would’ve answered back that I don’t really know and felt mortified at the thought of uncertainty itself.

In recent years, I  realized a couple of things. First, what (and who) we are today is indeed the sum of our experiences. Second, it’s okay if nothing makes sense for now as long as you’re taking steps towards learning outside of your usual toolkit of skills.

I know, there’s nothing really new about these mini-epiphanies, but with the way things look oh-so-perfect everywhere we look online (and admit it, majority of us live in an online bubble), we need these gentle reminders more often than we thought.

Now that I’m learning user experience research and information architecture, there are days when I ask myself with WIIFM? While I’m excited to learn about these subjects,  I can’t help but sometimes question myself with what’s the point, really? Why would I pay for an online course if its specific impact on my career is still unclear?

But with the way things turned wonderfully in the end for me as a copywriter, I am kinder to myself now. Perhaps, this is just because I’m getting older and losing my sense of idealism.

Not that I’m worry-free these days. I still worry about other things like the weekend traffic, why the cat is suddenly not giving a damn about food, or why I haven’t heard from some friends for months.

The truth is you will never know where those temp jobs, seemingly useless bits of learning,  or beer money work will eventually take you.

As long as you’re making a serious effort to learn (and unlearn) and stick to it for the long haul, chances are you’re going to do okay.