Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.
When people think of web writing, they think primarily of three things: blogging, feature article writing, and copywriting for marketing sites.
Fortunately, the realms of web writing span far more than these narrow options. There are plenty of less-common writing projects out there. If you’re looking for work, and you’re ready for some creative adventures, here are a few places you might start.
1. Writing support content
Wow! When I said “creative adventure”, I meant it! Okay, I know this isn’t what you had in mind, but hear me out.
Support is part of the user experience, and more organisations are beginning to value having a writer on contract to develop training materials, help articles and video, telephone support scripts, knowledgebase content, and more.
If you’re proficient with language, pedantic about clear expression, and have a knack for simplifying what’s complex, this could be a good gig for you – and corporate and company contracts tend to pay better and more predictably than freelance feature or blogging gigs.
To do this well, you’ll also need a passion for user experience both within the product, and beyond it. In most support writing jobs, experience with content management (or a willingness to learn) will be mandatory. Of course, you’ll probably also need to be more than willing to get your hands dirty using and understanding the client’s product or service.
How to get the gig
Look for organisations that publish support content, and see if you can find ways to improve on it. Then, send them a pitch or proposal. Alternatively, you might be able to build this into a contract to copywrite a marketing site – I’ve done this for some startups and it’s worked well.
If you have some experience writing instructional content, be sure to include that in your proposal; if not, you could send them an example of the way you’d redraft one of their pieces of help content to improve it.
2. Writing interfaces
Companies that regard support as part of the user experience tend to see interface text as an important part of that, too.
Interface text isn’t marketing website copy. UX teams also use writers to help designers create usable app interfaces – from naming new features right down to tooltips, wizard instructions, and errors.
Again, this job requires a passion for user experience, but it also requires you to work very closely with design, UX, and development. This probably won’t be a problem if, say, you’re a marketing writer who’s been involved in creating websites in teams before; in that case, your challenge will be to write concise informational content without a hint of spin. And to operate in a world that, shall we say, lacks the glamour of promotional work.
In my experience, interface work has always been part of a larger contract involving support or marketing content.
How to get the gig
For this one, it’s probably best to ask UX designers you know if they need help, or know someone who does. Get into your local UX community and get to know what people are doing.
There’s always commentary around new product and feature releases in the tech industry. If you have a blog, that might be a place to share your ideas about the roles of text in interaction and product UX.
You’ll likely need some kind of reputation for producing excellent, concise, clear instructional content before you’ll be hired to help write interfaces, but there’s a comparative lack of competition in this area right now, so you may not need years of experience to land your first gig.
3. Writing social media updates and ad copy
If you’re a copywriter, and used to short-deadline projects, writing social media updates and promotions could be a nice sideline (or mainline) for you.
I’m not talking about being a social media consultant here. I’ve done a few contracts that involved writing marketing collateral, including Twitter and Facebook posts, and ads, around specific campaigns or promotions for the client.
Their social media teams managed the accounts, and managed the content and the community around it. But they needed someone to write good social comms and take them through the organizations’ internal approval processes.
For me, the clients were corporate and the work was part of a bigger contract. What that meant was the social work was a bit of fun, and well-paid at the same time.
How to get the gig
I landed these contracts through talent or recruitment agencies, which these large organizations used to contract outsourced help. That might be a good place to start for you, but you may find this work in less corporate spheres too, when, for example, a business owner doesn’t have time to work with content sponsors themselves.
After agencies, asking around is probably the best way to seek out this kind of work. If (like me!) you don’t have proven skills in social media, a solid and versatile digital copy folio that includes short-copy ads will get attention.
Recently an ex-journalist friend asked me about freelance writing for the web. Although he might have 10 years’ professional experience on me, his questions came from the perspective of someone who wasn’t au fait with either freelancing or web writing.
This wasn’t the first time. Since there might be some writers out there eager to make their first foray into web writing, either within a company or on a freelance basis, I wanted to cover the most common questions I’m asked. Maybe it will help you find your footing a bit faster.
Let’s start with my friend’s question.
I’m a journalist. How do I find freelance work writing online?
If you have experience creating stories for print and other offline media, you don’t need to worry: the web is much the same. Research publications, find some you want to write for, come up with pitches, and send them in. Online, as offline, the money is in reliability and relationships. Good publications pay for the reliable delivery of quality content.
The things to focus on are finding what you consider good publications that reflect the areas and issues you want to cover, and pitching well to them. Use the same approach you would offline: introduce yourself, present a clear, concise outline of your idea, and link to a few other things you’ve done that relate or support your pitch. If you haven’t pitched in a while, and need a refresher, try this article outlining the 7 Principles of Pitching, and have a look at this piece on how not to pitch.
Part of my approach has been to ask friends for recommendations of sites they like, and since many of my friends are readers, this turns up some gold. But I also look through social media and other links for places I want to pitch to, and to spark ideas I can offer existing contacts.
I’m writing for a content mill! Cool huh?
Another variation on this question is, “Have you hard of [content spinning software]? That’s what I use!”
Everyone has their talents, but I’d have to say that this kind of writing isn’t for me and as a consequence I can’t really see how a writer who wants to produce quality content can make any money (or get any satisfaction) out of content milling. Maybe you can do both, for now. But as search engines continue to penalise sites that use this kind of content, those “opportunities” are likely to fade. If you want a career in writing online, you’ll need to think beyond content milling and build broader skills.
For some businesses, release notes are the only way product enhancements are communicated to customers. For others, they’re a sideline, developed entirely separately from user communications.
But if you want to do more with less — if you want to improve customer retention communications without having to do a stack more work — your release notes could be an unexpected, but valuable answer. Especially if they’re well done.
Release notes document new features, enhancements to functionality, and bug fixes. They’re usually concise and fairly direct, and naturally assume a level of familiarity with your product. The process I’ve set out below should make it easy to produce good quality release notes for your product that meet that need for your business and your customers.
But, if you want, this process will also provide you with solid fodder for other release communications — like emails or blog posts or feature tours — that can help remind customers how committed you are to improving what you offer to them. And let’s face it, we all want to know we’re loved even after we’ve made a choice and signed up with a service.
Let’s see how this can work for you.
1. Be clear on your target audience, and the purpose of the notes
Who reads release notes? For some products, the majority of users will check out each release note; for others, it’s a very select, specific subset of the main userbase.
Once you know who you’re creating the release notes for, you can understand why they’re reading the notes. And that drives the next step.
The release notes for the product I work on aren’t read by anyone but a very small percentage of users within key client accounts. And they have very specific reasons for reading the release notes – some have internal documentation they need to keep updated, for example.
But for some products, the release notes are read by a large portion of users who want to avoid the marketing spin – who want to get to the heart of the product and hear direct from its makers. Knowledge like that won’t just inform what you include and exclude – it can impact the tone in which you write the notes, and how you present them.
2. Work out what they need to know
Release notes are generally expected to document what changes have been made in the current release of your product. So obviously, you’ll have an idea of what you need your readers to know about.
When do you develop FAQs or self-help content for your product?
For most startups I’ve worked with, the answer is “just before launch.” By that time, you’ve nailed down what the product is, what it does, and who it’s for. So it seems like the perfect time to throw together a few likely FAQs, perhaps around questions that have arisen out of user testing.
Or is it?
I’ve found that the best way to create help information is during the development of the user experience.
After all, your support is part of that experience, right?
If you make self-help part of the UX design, you can:
- avoid wasting time writing help no one ever has a need to read
- avoid “documenting features” for the sake of it
- link help to the points at which users actually need it
- develop context-specific help that users actually use — and appreciate.
I’m guessing you’ll agree, in principle, that a user-centric approach to help is a good idea. Yet many product managers, owners and developers want to document processes or features end-to-end.
The thing is, users don’t often struggle with a whole process, end-to-end. If they do, you have bigger UX issues to address.
More commonly, there’ll be specific sticking points in the process where the user is confused, usually around ideas or tasks the users are unfamiliar with, or aren’t expecting. User-centric help lets you address those elements directly and specifically, in situ.
It allows you to get users who actually need assistance to your self-help right from within your app or product, because you’ll have created targeted help that’s worth linking to from key points in the interface, like error messages or feature tours.
And it also helps cut down your help-creation workload.
The alternative to user-centric self-help is to guess: to provide more general content (since you don’t know when in the user experience users will access it) and hope they wade through it to find the stuff they need. This is less than ideal, and less than useful. Help like this sees helpdesk costs increase.
So let’s see how hard — or easy — it is to develop user-centric help.
It’d be nice to think that your product UX is so exceptional that users won’t ever need any help with it. But until every user thinks exactly like you do, your target audience and users will have questions.
How will you answer them?
This six-point plan should help. Not only that, it will help you create help information that actually helps you identify problems with your product UX – problems you can ameliorate, if not solve, with better design.
Let’s see how.
1. Determine the purpose of your help pages
Working out what you want your help pages to do is a pretty obvious first step. Depending on your product, audience, and support strategy, your online help pages’ purpose may vary:
- Is it a place where users can help each other?
- Will it let users contact your support staff direct? In real time?
- Is it a place where users can access self-help?
You’ll likely already have an idea of what purpose, or purposes, you want the pages to serve, but it’s good to put it into words up-front, before you begin to consider help formats or technologies.
2. Choose which user actions will be served by your help pages
This is an important point, one that directly reflects your overall support strategy.
Yet it’s easy to get this bit wrong: to decide you’ll create an FAQ page and expect it to do everything users need, or to simply list an email address, and pay support staff to answer common questions that could more effectively be answered with some FAQs.
So think this through. What kinds of questions, if any, will be addressed on your help pages? Which user actions will you provide self-help for? And what will be the next step or steps for users who can’t resolve their issues on your help pages?
One point here: it’s easy to start thinking that all users will just contact support if you list a phone number or email address, so why bother with help pages?
But in my experience (and probably yours), a majority of users do want to self-help. This can be great for your support strategy, if you take the time to work out where the breaking points are, and how far you actually want your self-help content to go.
3. Identify the points in each use case where a user will seek help
Now it’s time to go a bit deeper and look at actual use cases you’ve used to develop your product.
Look through the key use cases, page flows and actions users will pursue within your app, and make a list of the questions they’ll have, or problems they’ll face along the way. Perhaps you’ve already done this as part of the UX design and dev process. Great. The important thing is to identify where in your product help is needed, and what will be helpful at those points.
The bigger a site or service gets, the more support requests it usually has. And the longer its list of online help articles becomes.
Whether they’re simple FAQs or more instructional how-tos, once the list is long enough, you’ll usually want to break those items up into groups for easier navigation.
So far, so good. But what happens when those groups start getting longer, and you need to group the items each contains? In practice, you won’t always want to split groups into subgroups with headings. Here’s a case in point:
Read an email Create an email Use spell-check Include emoticons Use formatting, fonts and colours Change the text direction Add files as attachments Add images Add images inline Add an email signature Save a draft email Send an email Reply to an email Forward an email Get a read receipt
We’ve been told for years that menus aren’t meant to have more than seven items, but web users are expected to use long lists all the time — in search results, in forms, and on ordinary content site web pages.
Faced with this problem recently — along with the challenge of ordering a lot of help articles, I decided to do some research into whether there might be better or worse ways to order long lists of help articles.
What’s the problem?
The list above may seem logical to you. Indeed, that was the whole idea. That’s the procedural list order I used in the test. The list starts with composing an email, then steps through all the things you might do as you compose that email, and finishes with the things you’d probably do after that, like sending and forwarding.
The order is pretty rough — you could argue that the Reply to an email article should come before the one on composing email — but you get the idea. In terms of “precision” ordering, this is about as good as it gets for most content managers.
Does your content “resonate” with users? Does it empathise? If your help articles, system emails, or website copy are lacking the spark of true engagement, your language choice could well be to blame. So, here’s a 3 second way to test your copy. Getting personal In my experience, the best way to address users through […]
Ever since we started creating graphical user interfaces, we’ve been trying to make them friendlier and more usable. Sometimes those two goals coincide; sometimes they don’t. When space is at a premium, and you need to minimise ambiguity, the most direct approach is often best — which is why the button in this interface says […]
If you’re wondering how web standards for writers play out in practice, you’d better read this post. Recently I took a look at the website of my country’s leading telco, to see how they handled the standards I pointed out recently for web writers. The company’s name is Telstra, and it maintains the basic landline […]
Around this time last year, Mark Boulton proposed a new way of communicating information about linked content online He called his idea sparkicons, building on Edward Tufte’s description of sparklines, and pointed to some examples on large content-rich, link-heavy sites: Wikipedia and the BBC. He also created some examples of his own. Mark Boulton: I’m defining […]