8 writing tips for designers, developers, and other non-writers
Even if you’re not a writer by trade, you’ve probably written something at some point today—an email, a text message, a lunchbox note. Everybody writes.
And at some point you’ve probably struggled to put your thoughts into words. It happens to all of us—both writers and non-writers alike. So how do you break through that barrier (let’s be honest, it’s beyond “writer’s block”) and write with confidence?
Put your audience first
First and foremost, when you’re writing anything that’s not for your eyes only, you’re writing for an audience—even if that’s just an audience of one. With that in mind, you must know your audience in order to accurately and adequately reach them with your message.
Whether you’re composing an email to your supervisor or crafting an idea pitch to your team, ask yourself, Who is my audience? Jot down a few things you know about them, then write words that will resonate with them. Trust me, this isn’t a formula—but it is, at the very least, the starting point at which you should begin all of your writing, in a professional setting or otherwise.
Related: 19 blogging tips for designers
Here’s a mini-departure to give you some perspective: When I write marketing copy, my strategy is to always engage the audience by writing as if I’m sitting with the audience. Great marketing copy is written from the audience’s perspective, not from the perspective of the business.
The business is always going to say they’re the baddest and best and you should do business with us. But the consumer doesn’t think like that.
Try this exercise if you want to test what I’m saying: Next time you’re out shopping, observe yourself. What are you looking for in a product, service, or experience? What messages make you take the leap to pay for a product, service, or experience? You might come to discover this odd truth. In order to effect change in a person via writing, you have to take what you know about them and your desired end result and translate across the chasm a message that speaks to them.
Now that’s a formula.
Write like you talk
Ever sit down to write something (anything) and don’t know where to begin? Feel like you just can’t get the words out on paper the way they sound in your head? What you’re feeling is common, and here’s a piece of advice to help you overcome it: Don’t psych yourself out. Writing is just speaking, refined.
Often, I’ll be on a call with a coworker (a non-writer like yourself) who tells me, “I don’t know how to write this but what I’m trying to say is . . . ” As soon as they say those magic words, I start typing, and with a couple of tweaks, the copy I’ve just transcribed is usually good to go.
When my non-writer coworkers are unsure how to write something, I tell them what I’m telling you: Write it how you would say it out loud in conversation. Say the words out loud as you write if it helps. (But don’t edit just yet!)
Don’t edit while you’re writing
Writers and non-writers tend to be critical of their writing. Kick that insecurity to the curb and focus on writing out everything first.
Usually, your first thoughts capture the raw essence of what you’re trying to convey. Although that rawness usually needs refinement, there’s usually really good content in there that shouldn’t be edited out simply because it’s imperfect. So, once you’ve gotten out all of your unabashed thoughts, then go back and edit your work.
Consult the language pros
As someone who’s been writing and editing since she could pick up a pen, I confess I’m still learning how to write. In fact, I’m never finished learning how to write, which is why I still consistently consult the language pros. I have my go-to dictionary on my left and my trusty style on my right and I write. Because even the most seasoned writer makes a typo or forgets the rules.
There are countless writing resources out there—and you’d think they’d be able to agree on the rules of the English language. They don’t. That’s why it’s crucial for you to pick one (a good, popular, trusted one) and stick with it. Unless you’re writing for a publication or organization that requires you to follow a specific dictionary and/or style guide, choose from the most oft-consulted in the professional, English-speaking world. (If you need suggestions, the Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary are always either on my desk in physical form or open in a tab in my browser.)
Write in your free time
If you practice writing, you’ll become better at writing. It’s that simple.
Go to your local office supplies store, buy a journal and a nice pen, then go write.
One exercise I recommend: Go to your favorite coffee shop or café and just listen to the conversations around you. Observe the people in the room. Pick a conversation and jot down bits and pieces of their dialogue. Note their tone, their body language—everything that’s unspoken. In your journal, fill in those blanks like you’re telling their story, like you’re writing fiction.
Personally, I like to pour a glass of red wine, light a candle, sit on the floor at my coffee table, and just journal my thoughts for a while. Making a date of it has grown my love for writing. It feels special because I’m making it special. For a non-writer who’s just trying to improve their writing skills, make an event out of writing in your journal.
Sound awkward? It might be at first, but do it in your own way and see if, after one or two times, it becomes less strange and more of an activity you look forward to.
One of the best ways to improve your writing is by reading. Read books produced by trusted publishing houses. Read books written by both the classic, revered authors and the up-and-coming.
Although reading is a simple task, I challenge you to take it one level deeper. You may remember a little thing called active reading you probably learned in grade school—it’s back. Dig up that old knowledge because it’s time to apply it. When you try active reading, don’t just read the words on the page—analyze everything about them from word usage and grammar to punctuation and syntax.
Here’s a tip: Buy physical, paper-and-ink books and write in them while you actively read. Circle words you don’t know and look them up. Underline sentences that you feel were beautifully crafted, sentences that stood out from the rest as you read them.
I do this in all of my books (fiction and non-fiction) and it makes me feel like an active participant. At the same time, it’s improving my writing skills to exemplify the best in what I’m reading.
Understand that writing is sensory
It’s not said enough: Writing is sensory. A writer’s job is just as much writing as it is reading, observing, sensing, analyzing, applying, conveying, and translating. Writing is the process of dissecting thoughts, feelings, and experiences and translating them into readable messages.
Trust me, this is a skill that needs to be nurtured, practiced, and refined—it takes time.
Learn to love language
All of the tips above will help you improve your writing (the head-knowledge and the skill of it). But growing a love for writing should be a byproduct. I challenge you to not only fall in love with writing, but fall in love with language. Etymology, origins, root words, borrowed words—it’s all a part of the language we speak.
When you get right down to the science and history of writing, you might come to find, as I have, that it’s fascinating and endless. Writing is never going away. The sooner you learn to love it, if not enjoy it, the better writer you’ll be.