As the landscape for professional writing roles shifts to accommodate an increasingly digital-first market—especially mid-pandemic—there’s never been a better time to make the jump from writing to content design (also called UX writing, content strategy).

In fact, there’s no better field from which to source content design talent because writers have already developed the right tools.

But it feels like the moment you step into an interview, there’s a discrepancy between what they’re looking for and what you’ve done. It’s maddening.

And there’s no existing road map. So I decided to write the article I wish I’d read when my interest in design was first piqued.

Here are some things I did to ultimately land a job at Dropbox, along with some words of encouragement.

Last thing: Don’t disqualify yourself. Most of us have at some point developed a narrative about why we aren’t qualified for a role. Especially us women.

We’re all out there faking it ‘til we make it. Don’t let anyone—especially yourself—tell you differently. Getting passed over for a job is not indicative of your worth: Great candidates get rejected all the time for reasons (such as internal transfer, closed posting, bad timing) they may never know. You’re worthy of a job you love. Keep going.

Paula Codoner x Dropbox Design - 02

Learn Figma

It doesn’t matter which field you’re in or the role you’re applying for—making your work look good is an automatic up-level.

And, in the case of content design, mocking up your writing demonstrates a basic understanding of visual hierarchies and your fluency in design, and it offers perspective.

Own your perspective

It’s essential.

Designers will ask you whether something should be pinned to an action bar or nested in a waffle menu; researchers will ask you in what order the copy should be tested; engineers will ask you to make decisions around back-end constraints; product managers will ask you to rename a feature for a better market fit.

None of these is traditional writing, but they’re all content design—developing a perspective that advocates on behalf of the user and anticipates their needs.

And if those things sound scary, they’re not. You have these skills. It’s about keeping your finger on the pulse of your audience, creating a cohesive narrative, distilling an idea, and labeling a concept. All of these you have done as a writer.

Paula Codoner x Dropbox Design - 03

Start documenting everything

Hiring managers want to see how you think just as much as what you’ve shipped.

Enter: Copy docs.

I document everything. Even things as seemingly simple as one-word labels need to be explored until you’ve landed on the perfect one. I also use these docs to add notes for Engineering, questions for Product, things I want to see in the design, and more.

These docs:

  • Illustrate my thought process to partners
  • Are an easy way to show why I didn’t go with other options
  • Demonstrate just how much time and consideration goes into every decision

For each sample in your portfolio, include a brief section about the decision-making.

Take a product and rewrite it

One of the best things you can do is to take an existing app and make it easier to use. Content designer Jennie Tan suggests you take a crack at the hiring company’s product, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Get to know their company voice, and look at their information architecture, buttons, error messages, onboarding flows, emails, push notifications, and product names. Then design a better version.

Pick up freelance work

Freelance work is actually how I got my Dropbox job. I wrote for Moneytree, a company that enables landlords to sell rooftop solar power to tenants in a bid to democratize access to cleaner, cheaper energy.

Besides the extra cash, freelance work allows you to be picky about the work you do and helps you focus on filling the gaps in your portfolio.

This is also a friendly reminder to never work for free, even if you’re just starting out. Exposure is not a currency.

Read

Kinneret Yifrah’s Microcopy: The Complete Guide is where I started, but there are many stellar resources out there. John Saito is also great, and here’s a UX writer’s reading list. A simple Google search will bear sweet fruit indeed.

Don’t make them have to think

While copywriting is about splashy headlines and quippy one-liners, content design is about going entirely unnoticed. Your copy is now about bringing the user from intention to resolution without them having to think twice. This means simple, warm, and conversational… not robotic.

There will be moments when your creativity can (and should) surface—such as 404 pages, empty states, placeholders—but mostly your writing should be in plain, everyday language.

Don’t be mistaken: Simple language isn’t easy to craft. The less space you have, the fewer words you can use, and the harder it is to write. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.

Poke around in your favorite products

When you use the Dropbox app, you’ll notice that we call your photos Camera Uploads. What you don’t know is how many hours of discussion and cross-functional vetting led to this name.

And that’s true with all the copy in the app and on dropbox.com: Each and every word you see is well-considered and purposeful.

So challenge yourself:

Think about why we didn’t choose a name like Mobile Photos Album or My Phone Gallery. And look at other products. Apple uses Photos, and Samsung uses Photo Gallery. Google uses Google Photos. Now return to Camera Uploads and try to formulate an argument as to why it was the best name for our feature.

This isn’t a trick: There’s nothing glaringly wrong or obviously ill-fitting with the other names, but try to argue in defense of Camera Uploads. It will get you into the mindset of a content designer who has perspective.

Use technology to your advantage

Have a dream job? Search it on LinkedIn. Find the hiring manager or a person who’s already on the team and reach out to them.

I’ve done it a bunch—it works.

Isn’t it annoying to message people directly? Maybe. But we’ve all stood on the shoulders of the giants before us, and 90% of us want to pay it forward.

Use this outreach to very succinctly—in 3 to 4 sentences—express enthusiasm and ask specific questions about the role.

Reaching out to an existing employee has the potential to set you apart from the pile and, if nothing else, opens the door to finding a mentor.

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Closing

The first step to becoming a content designer is grabbing a seat at the table. Don’t disqualify yourself from an open role because you don’t yet have full-time experience.

Consider my advice, build a killer portfolio, and start applying for jobs. The number of companies hiring content designers grows exponentially by the day, and we’ve all had to start somewhere.

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